Little India Riots ; I Shall Attempt A Commentary

Photo credits here

Disclaimer: I originally wrote this post in Dec’13.

Now that the investigations and expatriations are done, I believed that the dust has settled and we can look at this issue much more clearly now.

So much false information went around during the course of the riots. But I suppose it can’t be helped since a riot would definitely get messy, only that now it has sprawled over to the virtual world and into social media.

It is good that the air cleared up quickly afterwards. Though we must deal with the aftermath of the riots quickly to prevent tensions from further rising, we must not act in such a haste to assume wrong facts and let our emotions rule our heads.

IS THIS A RACE ISSUE?

Oh no you don’t.

In the blame game, foreign workers from India and Bangladeshi gathering at the Little India area on Sunday nights regularly who consumed high level of alcohol were at the receiving end. It was a combination of citizenship status, time, place, traffic conditions, congregation of a community and consumption habits. The riot could not have taken place out of a bunch of people from one specific country or of a specific race just out of nothing.

Riots just happen all over the world. Among other factors like strict anti-riot laws, cultural habits and a concoction of situational catalysts, race seems to be the weakest link.

The majority seems to be discerning enough to know that race is such a dubious culprit in this case, and the hype over racist remarks made on social media in the night of riots quickly died down. The jokes were cliché much. Nah, not funny! It’s nice to know that those jokes stayed as jokes and nothing more.

IS THIS A XENOPHOBIA ISSUE?

More specifically, the foreigners were blamed. The open-door policies for foreign talents were bashed yet again. This begs the question – Are we importing too much foreign workers at too fast a speed resulting in a clash of cultures? Statistically speaking, India and Bangladesh have had more riots in the past few decades compared to Singapore which has always been shy of physical riots. Is it that the foreign workers still live in the laws and culture of their home country and are unable to adapt to Singapore culturally?

Such excessive violence is never ever justified. Lawfully, physical violence is only justified on the premise of self-defence. The rioters committed such violent acts against innocent individuals (police, first aiders) and the supposed culprit, the bus driver. Logically speaking, they cannot change the result of the accident even though point taken that they are emotionally agitated by the tragedy.

It is easy to identify who versus who in this case as the community of foreign workers gathering in Little India came together to commit the riot as a group against our defence personnels and damaged much public property.

Yet we all know in our hearts that beyond just simple differences in biological traits and drawn national borders, we are all feeling humans. Many have stood up for these foreign workers, citing incidents displaying acts of kindness on their parts and we all know about the man in plaid shirt who helped to protect the bus driver and stopped the angry drunkards from further damaging the bus. On hindsight, are we that different from those foreign workers? Or is it starkly striking that we are all of the same species after all – we all feel for sad for and defensive of those violently attacked and isolated, we all sometimes feel irrational anger at injustice, we all know to differentiate between individuals not only through racial differences?

If this is a xenophobia issue, then I hope we really let the lessons learnt to be anti-xenophobic. That we can learn not to devalue the worth of a group of people or individuals based on biological traits and we can learn to bridge the differences rather than widen them.

I am digressing here, but it is very easy for them to come here. The costs are not sky high and not much procedures are needed for them to settle in. Whether they come to study or work, as long as they scrimp and save, they can get by and have some money to send back home. How can we solve the gap between infrastructural limitation and the high demand for their work in the short term, where infrastructural expansion cannot be achieved in a haste?

IS THIS AN ALCOHOL ISSUE?

Yes alcohol causes inebriation and makes us a tad less sensible. But if you put two separate individuals of different character with the same level of drunkenness, can you say that they both are equally likely to commit the same wrongdoings?

Sale of alcohol has been banned for a while in some parts of Little India. If alcohol is really such a prominent social ill, then why only Little India? We all know that places such as Clarke Quay have even more people indulging in high levels of alcohol. Do these places not pose any danger?

I presume that the ban of sale of alcohol would last till bad sentiments have all died down, and even after that, what would change then? You know and I know that businesses still have to go on, stallholders want to maintain sales to the best of their abilities.

Alcohol usage has actually been restricted to an extent in Singapore. There are no laws limiting how much you can drink but alcohol is relatively heavily taxed compared to other countries. How far can we go then?

ERR…. THEN MAYBE IT IS A TRAFFIC ISSUE?

Race course road is cramped. The traffic is heavy. People don’t obey traffic rules.

I feel that traffic accidents are tragedies but they are part of the price we have to pay for modern mobility. We have strict traffic rules, but are they enough?

People always claim that statistically, an aeroplane is the safest mode of transport because airplanes have the lowest accident rate among other forms of transport. How is it that such a ‘dangerous’ mode of transport defying the rule of gravity can become the safest mode of transport? It is because that we understand the immense dangers involved so we make the extra effort to make it technologically safe and have the highest standards for the qualification of a pilot.

Perhaps we should have stricter standards for our drivers to supplement the strict financial qualifications to own a physical car. Lesser licenses doesn’t guarantee a proportional drop in number of cars on the road but it would lower it to a smaller extent. It also reduces the social costs involved for such accidents. Rather than just restricting driving to the rich, how about restricting driving to the safe drivers too?

AND THEN IT BECAME AN EXPLOITATION-OF-CHEAP-LABOUR ISSUE

 

As more people got in touch with the foreign workers, many started to realise that the workers themselves face harsh working conditions (long work hours, very little recreational time, cramped living conditions, low wages). They work so hard and receive little recognition and appreciation, so can we pinpoint them to be the sole culprits of this incident which originated from pent-up frustrations, tense relations and communication failures?

When they have grievances, where can they voice them to? The trade union in Singapore barely exists, don’t even speak of a supportive channel for their these foreign workers.

The direction in this issue lies in how Singaporeans want to treat foreign workers. If there is a benefit, there is a cost involved too. Are we prepared to have trade-offs such as higher labour costs?

IS THIS THE MUSIC THAT WE WANT THEM TO FACE?

 

The perpetrators were quickly caught, questioned and sent back to their home countries. Inevitably, amidst the hype and moral panic over this rare incident (a few generations have never seen it before in Singapore over the course of their life), the blame has to fall on specific individuals which took part in the act itself. They are singled out from the public, further identified, marginalised and demonised.

Does their actions warrant them this level of lawful consequences and public castigation? How do we differentiate the damage done to private/public property and human lives? How do we put a value to these damages to pass a fair sentence that the perpetrators deserve?

This incident is more than a crime. It is a public affair. Having our law enforcers suffering injuries and police cars and ambulances set ablaze was a slap in our faces. The sentences passed on to them probably included the cost of the slap imposed unto us.

On the other hand, it is really commendable that the police did not fire a single shot at the riots that day. I’m glad that violence need not really be countered by violence. I hope we remember that.

IT DIES DOWN AS QUICKLY AS IT BUILDS UP

 

When this gets past the stage of novelty, will people still maintain a sense of crisis and adjusted sensitivity towards the various issues mentioned above? I hope that we won’t assume that such incidents would always be quickly settled just because there was fast reaction by the law enforcers this time. I hope that we know that people like me who were not physically involved, are not just bystanders in this incident. This is about us too.

I find it amusing that the debates and outcries about this incident keeps shifting from issues from issues. Is it that this incident is really complex and multi-layered? Or is it that we failed to accurately pinpoint the real issue, and the more we dig, the more unsure we get?

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