The 2013 Little India Riots: A Deeper Look

2013 may have been an eventful year with the Punggol East by-elections, PSI hitting a record 400, government websites being hacked, Lions winning the Malaysian Super League, hail storm in Jurong, 6.9 million white paper, City Harvest Trial, dengue epidemic, civil servants sex scandal and the unfortunate Kovan double murders.

But nothing shocked me more than the riot in Little India. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever see that coming. My conscientious effort to abstain from sharing my perspective online, so as to avoid any unnecessary and unintended tensions, has been put to an end due to recent events. I had trusted the authorities to do the right thing. I could not have been more wrong.

Earlier this week, The Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill was introduced in Parliament to enact a new law. A  new law  that will allow Police and other agencies to enforce the alcohol restrictions and regulate the movement of persons.

The Bill proposes to empower police and auxiliary police officers to ask those in the area or who are about to enter it to state their names and addresses and why they are there, to order them to empty their bags and pockets and to strip-search them. They may use force to remove someone from the zone. Officers will also have powers to exclude or ban a person from entering the special zone temporarily.

Our Law Minister has said that these measures would allow the police to pre-empt actions that could create nuisance. According to him, these temporary measures will allow the police to deal with the issues in Little India without invoking the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA). It seems that the Government did not want to invoke such a strong measure which it could have under the POPA. That leaves me to wonder what stronger measures the Government could potentially invoke.

Let us just take a brief look at 8 December 2013.  A fatal accident involving a foreign national escalated into a riot that left 25 emergency vehicles damaged and 39 Home Team officers injured.  Investigations led to 28 individuals being charged for their involvement as “active participants”, another 53 repatriated for being participants and some 200 issued police advisories. A Committee of Inquiry (COI) has been formed to investigate the cause of the riot.

The actions by the authorities seem to suggest that alcohol was the primary cause of the incident.  To be honest, it is the easiest option. A group of drunkards that completely lost control.  Let us not forget that the 400 odd "drunk" foreign workers who were present on December 8 have been doing the same thing every Sunday for some years already.  What was different on that particular day?

Could a death of one of their countrymen instigate them to inflict violence of such nature?  I would venture to say that most of the blue collared foreign workers who are slogging it out here are no strangers to tragedy. Almost every one of them would have a story that has seen pain, suffering and death. Even in Singapore, 50-60 lives are lost yearly at work.  While we cannot run away from the fact that the tragic death of one of their own is a trigger leading up to the riots, let us remind ourselves that the natural consequence of death is pain and sorrow and not anger and violence. What was different on that particular day?

Perhaps, looking at this incident from a reverse angle might shed some new light. 25 vehicles damaged and 39 officers injured. Members of public, innocent bystanders, restaurants and other shops seemed invisible to these 400 drunk and enraged men.  Clearly, the object of their anger seems rather specific. The foreigners in Singapore are by at large a law abiding group. They do have their bad eggs, as with any community. The overwhelming majority is here to work and provide a better life for their kin. Most of them are aware of the consequences of breaking the law. Most of these workers have mortgaged land and property or taken loans to pay off exorbitant agent fees to secure a job here.  A premature return back to India would deal the workers and their family a serious blow.  So, what was different on that particular day that drove these workers to such madness?

The Manpower Minister has gone on record to state that there is no basis for saying that there is widespread abuse of foreign workers in Singapore and that this was a reason for the riot in Little India.  Perhaps he has formed his own COI  and found out the reason. Ask anyone on the street and they will tell you that foreign workers are treated unfairly in Singapore.

The minister may base his statement on the fact that the problems and complaints by foreign workers make up a very small fraction of the 700,000 work permit holders here and he is not wrong to do so. But, it is about time we go beyond our reports and statistics and assess the reality of the situation.  

While we know that the many foreign workers are subjected to unfair treatment, their opinion of this country remains positive. They still respect the nation for providing them with the opportunity and they are aware that it is the errant employers who are the cause of their misery.

I am no minister. I am just a common man and these are my findings and my reasons for them.
An accident resulted in the death of a foreign worker. No riot.  An ambulance arrives within 10 minutes. No riot. The first police car arrived 5 minutes later. No riot. Crowd has gathered. 5 minutes later, more police arrive. Crowd gets bigger. No riot. 15 minutes later. BOOM!!! Riots begin. Object of the rioter's anger: The authorities present at the scene.

Anyone who has frequented the alleys of Boat Quay / Clarke Quay post-midnight may have had the opportunity to witness how our men in blue deal with individuals who are intoxicated. Sometimes, it can be tough to tell them apart if you are colourblind.

Its suffice to say courtesy and politeness are not their strongest traits.  I have personally seen the difference between how authorities speak to Singaporeans and foreign workers.  Based on my above experiences, I am not surprised by the transformation of the pain and the sense of loss over a death to subsequent anger and fury. When you combine that with alcohol and a notoriously contagious mob mentality, the mixture is extremely potent.

There are many lessons from this unfortunate incident. But are we learning the right thing? I think not. This Bill is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
This article is a personal opinion of the writer, who has relied on mainstream media and his personal experiences  for the factual accuracy on the details surrounding the incident and his opinions respectively. We apologise in advance for any inaccuracies. We do not condone any violence and believe that the participants in  the riots should be dealt with by the Law. This article is merely an opinion on the possible cause of the riots.

Thinesh Kurunathan

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