Authorities in Singapore have arrested two dozen people in connection with a riot staged by about 400 migrant workers from India who were protesting the death of a compatriot in the wealthy city-state’s "Little India" neighborhood over the weekend.
The disturbances, the first riot witnessed in security-conscious Singapore in more than 40 years, erupted after an Indian construction worker was run over and killed by a private bus, leading to the burning of 25 police and other vehicles by rioters, BBC reported. About 40 people, mostly police officers, were hurt during the eruption of violence, which lasted about an hour on Sunday night.
Agence France Presse identified the dead man as construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33. Four other men who were detained by police in connection with the riot have since been released. The 24 remaining defendants face up to seven years in prison (plus the archaic punishment of caning) should they be convicted of rioting charges. They are between the ages of 22 and 40 and primarily speak Tamil, a language of southern India and Sri Lanka.
The foreign ministry of Singapore said it is cooperating with the Indian High Commissioner (ambassador) “to facilitate consular access and support for their nationals, including legal representation.” The driver of the bus which killed the Indian worker, a 55-year-old Singaporean, also faces charges of causing death by negligence, according to the AFP.
To address the underlying causes of the riots, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has ordered the Singaporean interior ministry to form a special committee to investigate and seek ways to better manage the areas where migrants live.
Reports suggested that some of the rioters were intoxicated with alcohol, leading the state to temporarily ban the sale and consumption of liquor in the Little India area. One passerby who witnessed the riot, a Tamil-speaking Indian man, confirmed that alcohol played a role in the disturbance. "They had beer and liquor bottles in their hands and some were throwing them," he said. "It was very unruly, I walked passed a crowd along the restaurants. There were some who were cheering others as they attacked the bus."
Singaporean officials have also urged the public from refraining from ethnic bigotry against the rioters. Prime Minister Lee himself called the riot an “isolated incident” that should not impugn the image of foreign workers. "We must not allow this bad incident to tarnish our views of the foreign worker community here," Lee said in a statement. But it may be too late for that -- AFP reported that social media websites in the tiny state have already unleashed racialist bile against the Indian rioters (Singaporeans are mostly of ethnic Chinese descent). On the Facebook page of Yahoo! Singapore, a reader named Tan Beng Ming wrote: “Jail them, cane them and send them packing! For good measure, send their compatriots back too!” Another reader named Koh Koh declared: “Only foreigners will start a riot, it is their norm.”
Russel Heng, president of a group called Transient Workers Count Too, condemned the xenophobia of some Singaporeans. “I find the online xenophobic comments targeting foreign workers offensive,” he wrote in Straits Times, a Singaporean newspaper. “If a majority of Singaporeans are reasonable fair-minded people, then I would urge every single one of us to rebuke, rebut or ignore the nasty xenophobes among us.”
In a broader context, the government is likely gravely concerned about growing unrest on its migrant labor workforce who primarily toil in construction. Somewhat similar to the Arab oil emirates, the wealth of Singapore is largely dependent on the backbreaking labor of poor male migrants from South Asia, principally India and Bangladesh. In a state of some 5.4 million people, migrant workers now account for about one-fourth of the total population, are very poorly paid and live in sub-standard dormitory-type housing. (As recently as 1990, migrant laborers represented only about one-tenth of the city-state’s population).
Some activists’ worry that the violence exhibited in Little India many represent the top of an iceberg of festering resentment among migrants. “If these factors go unaddressed, the threshold for escalation remains low. The smallest incident gets to a tipping point quite easily,” a blogger named Alex Au wrote. Other commenters worry that the inequality that lies at the foundation of Singaporean society can no longer be ignored and may trigger more civil unrest. “The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show," a blogger named Roy Ngerng said, according to Associated Press. "Perhaps, it is to be expected that when we pay such [a] pittance ... to people who have helped build our country - our buildings and roads - and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions."
The principal opposition National Solidarity Party (NSP) also urged the Government to get to the root of the migrant workers’ concerns, warning that, otherwise, "the stressors and underlying factors which had caused the incident will only manifest itself in another, perhaps uglier way", said party's secretary-general Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss. "Not only do we need to [re-examine] the extent of our dependency on foreign labor, we also need to urgently examine how well [or not] we are treating our foreign workers who have come to Singapore to earn a living for themselves and their families back home," she added. "We should also refuse audience to those who seek to use this unfortunate incident to stoke racial disharmony and xenophobia."
But given Singapore’s obsession with law and order and propriety, police officials are determined to prevent any repeat of such violence. "Let me say that the incident that happened last night is intolerable," Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee said. "Rioting, destruction of property, it is not the Singapore way." Indeed, Singaporean officials proved last year that they will take a hard line against anyone who disturbs the peace. Last November, after 171 Chinese bus drivers staged a work stoppage to protest low pay and poor working conditions, five of the drivers were jailed for engaging in an “illegal strike” and 29 others were expelled from the state without even a trial.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly condemned Singaporean authorities for human rights violations and for the government’s tight control over the public. “Singaporeans who hand out political leaflets or publicly criticize a senior official can face a gauntlet of punishments, including bankruptcy-inducing fines, travel bans, and prison terms,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “In Singapore, rights are only for those who reliably toe the government line.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.