Happy migrant workers

Many images capture present-day Singapore. One of these is the high degree of peace, stability and security that has characterized the island Republic for the most parts of its history since its independence in August 1965. This is in sharp contrast to the pre-1965 period when Singapore was riddled with intense instability. This included labour strikes and unrest, student demonstrations, political assassinations by the communists as well as three racially and religiously-inspired riots, one in 1950 and two in 1964. This state of affairs remained unchanged until 8 December 2013 when the ‘Little India’ riot broke out, becoming ‘breaking news’ in many regional and international media outlets.

The ‘Little India’ riot

On the morning of 9 December 2013, Singaporeans were shocked to discover that Indian foreign workers were involved in a riot in ‘Little India’ the previous night. Following a fatal bus accident that killed an Indian foreign worker, an angry crowd of 400 people went on a rampage. Police personnel were pelted with stones and beer bottles, injuring ten officers. The mob damaged 16 police cars, totally burnt an ambulance, damaged two other ambulances and other support vehicles as well as the bus that was involved in the accident and some civilian cars that were parked in the vicinity.

The riot was brought under control within two hours or so, with most of the crowd dispersing following the intervention of the anti-riot squad. Many arrests were made and some charged in the next few days for rioting and destruction of public property. The Singapore Government, while robustly committed to maintaining law and order, also announced the formation of a Commission of Inquiry to delve deeper into the landmark incident.

What the ‘Little India’ Riot was not?

  1. The riots were not pre-mediated but broke out spontaneously;
  2. The riots were not racially or religious-inspired but triggered by the fatal death of the Indian foreign worker in a bus accident; and
  3. The riots had nothing to do with the working conditions of the Indian foreign workers or workers of other nationalities in Singapore but sparked by what transpired in ‘Little India’ from the time the accident occurred till it was brought under control.

Factors contributing to the riot

A number of factors contributed to the outbreak of the riot, among others :

  1. The rise of ethnic enclaves of foreign workers in different parts of Singapore over the weekends, where these workers meet each other and are in the comfort zone of their racial and religious affinities with Indians in ‘Little India’ (and Thais in the Golden Mile Complex in Beach Road, Myanmarese in Peninsula Shopping Plaza, Filipinos in Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road and Chinese in China Town). With such a massive concentration of a foreign ethnic group in a congested area, there was always the possibility of an incident getting out of control, as happened on 8 December in ‘Little India’ involving Indians who attacked Singapore security personnel and damaged public property;
  2. The fact that many of the Indian workers were under the influence of alcohol also contributed to the mob behaviour; and
  3. The fact that security personnel were spread thin and that the serious congestion in the incident area militated speedy reinforcements of security personnel might have also contributed to the initial breakout of the riot that spread from attacking the bus involved in the accident to other areas and vehicles of the police force.

Lessons to be learnt from the ‘Little India’ riot

Very clearly, after the Chinese bus drivers’ illegal strike last year, a first after many decades, Singapore has been saddled with another first, this time instigated by Indian foreign workers. Clearly, this was not an economic or communal issue but where anger and rage from the friends of the accident victim broke out into a major law and order problem. Naturally, Singaporeans are unhappy with the behaviour of the Indian rioters as it challenged the mores and norms Singaporeans have lived for so long especially in terms of not only respecting the Republic’s laws but also holding the police and other security agencies in high respect. These Singaporean beliefs and practices were violated and to some extent shattered by the ‘Little India’ riot. Rioting behaviour is highly unacceptable and the perpetrators should be punished to deter future riots.

Still, the incident should be kept in perspective. With so many foreign workers in the Republic (almost a third of the labour force) and for so long, the riot was something new but still a minor blot, compared to the massive contributions foreign workers have brought to Singapore and Singaporeans. By and large, almost all foreign workers are law-abiding. Still, how a bus accident broke out into a riot is something that needs further investigation. Is there something Singaporeans and especially the security agencies can learn from the incident to better prepare themselves for similar challenges in future? While xenophobia is not the answer and the culprits should be punished, at the same time, learning the right lessons to be better prepared for similar challenges would probably be the main blessing of the 2013 ‘Little India’ riots.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, is an Australian National University alumnus, having completed his MA and PhD in International Relations at the Department of International Relations in the then Research School of Pacific Studies. He is currently the President of the Political Science Association of Singapore.