Stop and think: Lessons from Little India

Little India riot 2

As soon as Sunday’s riots broke out in Little India, Singaporeans flocked to Facebook, Twitter, online forums and citizen journalism sites to offer their views. It’s a shame that many of them – most notably on Twitter at #littleindiariots – were so quick to condemn, vilify and dehumanize the foreigners involved. It’s a shame because the events could have a number of important lessons for Singaporeans.

For many years foreign workers on temporary visas have played a large role in Singapore’s rapid development. Featuring most prominently as maids, cleaners and construction workers, foreign workers perform the dirty, difficult jobs that well-educated Singaporeans don’t want to do. The ready supply of cheap labour allows Singaporean parents to work full-time, allows the government to keep the streets clean and allows people to live, work and shop in brand new buildings that spring up almost every week.

Yet while these foreign workers are responsible for a large amount of Singapore’s growth – they make up over a third of the labour force – they are rarely seen as members of the wider community. Their visas impose strict limitations on their freedom, their employers are allowed to exercise extraordinary levels of control over their lives, and they are severely underpaid by the standards of the developed world. Singapore is the only country in Asia without any form of minimum wage, despite being one of its richest.

Nor are these temporary workers included in the national consciousness. Most of the men of South Asian backgrounds – who tend to congregate in Little India, and were presumably involved in the riot – speak Hindi, Bengali or Nepali, but the Singaporean government only recognizes Tamil as a national language and official propaganda and education often equates “Indian” with “Tamil” and “Muslim”. The range – or paucity – of views on offer on twitter yesterday shows that foreign workers are seen by the majority of citizens as outsiders, who should be grateful for the chance to visit Singapore, rather than as partners or even co-participants in the great project of Singaporean development.

In fact, many Singaporeans live their lives without ever hearing the voices of those who build the city’s buildings and clean its drains. Local NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) has been fighting for several years to raise the profile of temporary migrant workers, and its website features all-too-frequent stories of foreign workers who have suffered at the hands of employers, migrant agents and even government officials. Such stories are rarely if ever seen in the pages of the Straits’ Times or on mainstream television.

Those of us who do pay attention to these issues were not too surprised when around 200 Bangladeshi workers staged a small protest early last year. I was in Singapore at the time and remember that coverage in the mainstream media focused on the action taken by the Ministry of Manpower to defuse the situation. Little space was given to the workers’ concerns, while many articles reminded readers that unannounced strikes are illegal in Singapore, and that the workers could face deportation as a result of their actions. It was only begrudgingly admitted that the strike may have been somewhat successful: as a part of their defusing the Ministry of Manpower asked the employer to provide up to four months’ wages that had been withheld from their workers.

If the lessons of that strike were missed by many Singaporeans, they were keenly noticed by other groups of migrant workers facing similar predicaments. Late last year hundreds of Chinese bus drivers staged the biggest strike Singapore had seen for decades. While the dynamics of the strike were somewhat different, the reaction was along similar lines: strikers were warned and in several cases punished, but the Ministry of Manpower and the government-controlled National Council of Trade Unions both made concessions in response to the workers’ demands.

From the events of 2012 we could learn a number of lessons: one is that strikes in Singapore are risky, but can lead to improvements in working conditions and greater recognition of workers’ concerns. Another is that there are substantial groups of workers in Singapore that feel their conditions are bad enough to warrant taking action, even in the knowledge of the harsh punishment that may await.

All of which brings us to Sunday, December 8, 2013.

Sunday is a busy day in Little India, as many migrant workers enjoy their weekly day off. Little India is a bustling area full of the smells, sights and sounds of India; most visitors think it’s the closest thing to India outside India (or South Asia) itself. Its shops and markets offer everything a migrant worker could need: remittance facilities, cheap mobiles phones and SIM cards, international calling cards, internet cafes and travel agents, as well as cheap clothes, food and groceries. On Sundays the area is so busy that it is common to see groups of people walking on the street – unthinkable in the rest of Singapore – sometimes linking arms and taking up whole lanes of Serangoon Rd. It is the only place in Singapore where, by sheer weight of numbers alone, the pedestrian is king.

We don’t know exactly what happened on Sunday night, but we do know a few details. At around 9pm a 33 year old Indian man was hit and killed by a bus in Little India. A crowd gathered round and became agitated while waiting for emergency services to arrive (anyone who has seen even a minor accident in South Asia will be familiar with this phenomenon). At some point members of the crowd became violent, and began pelting the bus, its driver and would-be rescuers with projectiles. This escalated into a full-blown riot and a crowd of up to 400 people destroyed several vehicles (including SCDF vehicles). Several hundred police officers, gurkhas and special ops soldiers attended the scene and eventually quelled the riot, arresting around 30 people.

We don’t know exactly what was happening in the minds of the rioters that drove them to such a serious reaction, but we can carefully speculate about some of the lessons that may be learnt.

Most obviously, Sunday’s events point to a huge amount of built-up frustration harboured by many of Singapore’s foreign workers. A reaction so spontaneous and severe is unlikely to have been the result of a single incident, no matter how serious. It is likely that the difficult living conditions of most transient workers, the harsh working conditions they are subjected to and a host of other issues contributed to their reactions.

Tied in with the aforementioned events of 2012, it’s tempting to see a trend of foreign workers becoming increasingly willing to resort to extreme measures to make their voices heard. It’s hard to know what, if anything, the rioters were trying to say – some have speculated that they were angry at the slow response time of the emergency services – but like the Bangladeshi construction workers and the Chinese bus drivers some may have felt that drastic action was required to get their messages across.

It is also interesting to note the differences in cultural backgrounds that separate the foreign protesters from Singaporean citizens – though not in the xenophobic, racist manner of many on social media. South Asian workers come from countries where governments are weak and not well respected, and those looking to work overseas tend to come from poorer sections of society which receive little government help. In South Asia protests, strikes and even riots are often seen as legitimate ways of making one’s voice heard and forcing governments to act. Workers from overseas have not been educated in the Singaporean system that impresses upon the students the good deeds of the People’s Action Party and the threat posed by communism and labour movements.

Similarly, people in South Asia are much more likely to take the law into their own hands in situations like Sunday’s. I have witnessed on numerous occasions the impromptu trial and punishment of a suspect who has been apprehended by a vigilante mob; this is not a cultural failing but a logical reaction to an environment where police and the courts cannot be relied upon to dispense justice fairly and speedily.

Sunday’s riot does not necessarily have to lead to drastic changes in the relationship between Singapore and its foreign workers, but some changes will have to be made if the ruling PAP wants to reduce the likelihood of such events.

Firstly, it has to work harder to bridge the gap that exists between Singaporean citizens and foreigners at the lower end of the wage spectrum. It is no secret that this is not a happy relationship, and it is common to hear foreign workers dehumanized in public discourse. Singaporeans need to be more accommodating to these workers, taking care to understand their grievances and appreciate them as human beings, as well as appreciating the importance of their work. This must go beyond the superficial discourse of multiculturalism and multiracialism trotted out at public events, press releases and in textbooks.

A serious effort must be made to understand the mindsets of those who rioted on Sunday, and to understand the factors that created them. This is not to say that offenders should avoid blame or punishment – which they won’t – but repeat incidents cannot be prevented without a thorough understanding of the cause. Some factors that cause stress and frustration for migrant workers are well known, but some may not be.

Real effort must also be made to provide better living and working conditions for Singapore’s migrant workforce. The Singaporean government can keep workers happy by providing conditions somewhere in between those in the poorest parts of the developing world and those in Southeast Asia’s richest country; such a bargain worked for several years and continues to work much of the time. But it cannot expect poor workers to move overseas and be satisfied with the same pay and conditions available to them in Bangladesh or Nepal. Serious problems with the system of employer-sponsored visas and migration agents need to be addressed.

If Singapore’s emergency and justice system are trustworthy, allocate their time and attention fairly and can be relied upon to react quickly to emergencies – which most people believe they are – then this fact needs to be impressed upon foreign workers, and needs to be proven to them. Vigilante actions are less likely if everyone has faith in the mechanisms of justice. Similarly, if the Ministry of Manpower or NTUC are actually willing and able to stand up for the rights of foreign workers, they need to prove themselves to these workers by actions as well as words.

While one can understand the PAP’s reluctance to reward what it sees as illegal protests with better living and working conditions for foreigners, it has little choice. As Singapore continues to grow richer, the gap between its citizens and its lowly paid foreign workforce also grows. With that gap grows frustration, dissent and desperation.

Eddy Blaxell is on leave from his Honours year in Asia-Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. He has lived in Singapore, travelled extensively in South and Southeast Asia, and contributed to a variety of Singaporean publications.