By Vignesh Naidu
There are three areas that need urgent attention in the aftermath of the Little India riot. And these actions need not wait for the findings of the Committee of Inquiry to be out.
A couple of weeks ago I learnt about the tragic passing of a 25-year-old in a traffic accident. The deceased was close to a dear friend’s girlfriend. This is not the first time I have personally known someone whose life has been tragically cut short by a traffic accident.
Singapore is a dense city. Despite the government’s policies to reduce vehicle ownership rates, traffic jams are still a very common occurrence. Efforts have been made to improve our roads and increase the island’s road network. Despite these efforts many of our roads are still congested.
A change of mindset is needed when we drive. Many of us are under immense stress and sometimes that stress boils over into road rage. We are always in a rush and it is more common to find someone refusing to give way than be courteous. James May of BBC’s Top Gear has for many years argued that if one were to adopt a “Christian-style of motoring” they would arrive at their destination no later than those who drive as though their hair’s on fire.
On the roads, let us do onto others what we would like others to do unto us.
Many commentators have speculated as to why the rioters on Sunday targeted their anger and violence towards the first responders. A couple of days before the riot, the Singapore Police Force announced the automation of a few of their neighbourhood posts in a pilot project. It is good that that police are embracing technology. This can lead to a reduced need for manpower for routine tasks and reduce operating cost in the long run.
When I was talking to my parents and friends from their generation they shared a very different view of policing in Singapore of the old. Almost all of them knew someone who was in the force. Police officers could regularly be found at neighborhood coffee shops and hawker centres talking to and interacting with residents. These officers were seen in plain clothes and also in uniforms. Not many of my friends have similar interactions with police officers.
In Little India the authorities have employed auxiliary officers to patrol the area during Sundays. This is intended to provide a deterrent to potential troublemakers. The officers also conduct spot checks. Maybe it is time for a more soft-handed approach when dealing with these transient workers.
Firstly, the police officer would now not just have to police Singaporeans who have been raised and educated in a similar fashion but with those from different communities. These immigrants may have different perceptions with regards to the police. It would be good if the police force train officers who have a good understanding of their different backgrounds and possibly even speak their languages.
I believe it maybe time for the police to return to more old-school community policing, the kind my parents experienced in their youth. Maybe the police could appoint some officers whose main job is to interact with the different communities. These officers are then not only viewed as enforcers but also as friends one can turn to when needed.
I visit Little India at least once a week for my fix of fish head curry and sugar-laden tea. I have noticed that the number of stalls selling alcohol, particularly cheap beer, has increased exponentially in the last few years. The Serangoon Road area has 374 establishments selling alcohol. It just seems one too many. From as far back as I can remember there have been a few stores in Little India that sell a variety of alcohol. These stores are conveniently labelled as liquor stores and sell alcohol cheaper than almost anywhere else.
The authorities believe that the excessive consumption of alcohol was a contributing factor to Sunday’s riot. They have imposed a ban on the sale of alcohol in Little India this coming weekend. This ban not only affects stores patronized by foreign workers but also higher end restaurants that are frequented by tourists This ban, though temporary, will have an effect on the revenue of many stores and may affect Singapore’s international reputation.
I think that the ban maybe a little too late. It would be like sticking a band aid on a gaping wound. The problem is that there are too many stores in Little India that depend on the sale of cheap alcohol to foreign workers on Sundays as their main source of revenue. It is going to be a challenge to revoke licences that have already been granted. These stores are owned by fellow Singaporeans who are simply trying to make living.
I would propose that the licensing policy be changed. The authorities could mandate that only a certain number of stalls can sell alcohol within a certain area. The government could even auction off these licences which would have the double effect of increasing the government’s revenues and ensuring that alcohol is not priced too low.
The riot was certainly a shock to many of us. I never would have thought that I would have seen a riot like that in Singapore during my lifetime. The police and the committee of inquiry will carry out the necessary investigations and the perpetrators will be brought to justice. Yet as average Singaporeans there is a lot we can learn from the riot. I do hope that the tragic incident will be a learning lesson for us and galvanize us to make our little island a better place for everyone.
By Vignesh Naidu