Riot in Little India: spark and fuel

There rarely is any definitive explanation of any riot. There won’t be one of the brief incident — it lasted barely an hour — at Little India last night, Sunday 8 December 2013. The reason why definitive explanations are elusive is because there is always an element of chance and irrational behaviour. Moreover, riots are complex events involving many actors with many contributory factors.

What I am concerned with is any attempt by the authorities to make us believe that there is a definitive explanation, and (based on my reading of the public relations tendencies of the Singapore government) it is one of wanton hooliganism, with the authorities acting in a totally exemplary manner. They will much rather reduce the issue to one of law and order, with themselves as defenders of all that is good and peaceful, rather than open a debate about other contributory causes.

Any such attempt to paint such a simple picture should be met with extreme skepticism by an intelligent public.

All riots have a spark and an escalation. A spark without an escalation is not a riot; it remains an affray or a brawl. And logically, there can be no escalation if there never was a spark.

At this point, facts about the spark are very thin on the ground. What we know can be summed up (unsatisfactorily) in one short paragraph: A private-hire bus hit construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33, an Indian national working here. An ambulance and police arrived (though there are reports that it took some 30 minutes to do so), but found that the accident victim was already dead, pinned under the bus. “Projectiles were thrown at the [Singapore Civil Defence Force] rescuers while they were extricating the body of the dead worker,” reported the Straits Times (9 Dec 2013, Riot breaks out in Little India).

Video originally uploaded onto Facebook by Berlinda Samuel Tan

Looking at the video — by then the first responders seem to have fled — I wondered whether another interpretation might be possible. Maybe the angry ones were not aiming their projectiles at first responders, but at the bus. Of course, it is is still irresponsible of them, since they ought to know that first responders were on scene and projectiles would hit them too. But putting an official spin in the Straits Times (probably sourced from the government) line that the projectiles were aimed at first responders casts quite a different light on the starting minutes.

On the other hand, maybe some throwers did aim at the first responders. This would suggest conscious direction of their anger at the police and ambulance crew. Why, we don’t quite know, though I will explore some possible reasons below. It may be significant that there are no reports of commercial properties in the area being damaged. Really wanton violence tend to be indiscriminate in its targets; this incident wasn’t quite so.

Then the escalation: Apparently, more people, primarily migrant workers of Indian origin, joined in, attacking and burning vehicles. According to Today newspaper (9 Dec 2013, Riot breaks out in Little India): “Several police cars were overturned and five vehicles – three police vehicles, an SCDF ambulance and a motorbike – were burnt. In total, five police vehicles and nine SCDF vehicles were damaged.”

See video at

There’s an estimate of 400 people involved, not counting the 300 police personnel rushed to the scene, but eye-witness videos suggest that 400 is an exaggeration. The Independent too pointed out that “videos and photos from the ground show many of them [the claimed 400] did nothing more than watch the scene up close . . .” (Link).

As you can see, we have even fewer known facts about the escalation than about the spark.

* * * * *

Another way to understand a riot is to look separately for the spark and the fuel. Sparks, unfortunately, can be random, perhaps not more than a heated misunderstanding. But the amount of fuel ready and waiting can help explain the rapidity and intensity of the escalation, albeit mob behaviour (including some participants wanting the adrenalin rush of anonymous hooliganism) can also be a factor.

One thing about the spark bugged me all day; it begged for an explanation. It was this: Why were the first few participants lobbing objects at first responders? The officers came to help their compatriot Kumaravelu. Why throw things at them? And it so happens that coming up with a plausible explanation led to a better understanding of the fuel too.

The thing we must be very careful about is not to assume that foreigners see first responders the same way that Singaporeans do. A professor from the National University of Singapore told me this evening that “when I travelled in India twenty years ago, all the guidebooks warned travellers about lynch mobs gathering after traffic accidents to obtain vigilante justice.” Since you couldn’t trust the police to punish the person who was at fault, “onlookers would often take matters into their own hands on the spot.” Singaporeans have a fair degree of trust in our police force, but people from other countries bring with them their own experiences and perspectives.

Some reports have indicated that the bus driver (some say it was a ‘he’, others say it was a ‘she’) remained inside the vehicle, perhaps frightened of the emotional crowd ringing the vehicle. The professor suggested that the police might have been trying to get him/her out, but it could have been misconstrued by the crowd as the police trying to whisk him/her away without holding him/her to account. It happens a lot in other countries, where accused persons can bribe their way to freedom. Was this how some in the crowd interpreted what they saw?

However, other reports, such as the ‘reconstruction’ by the Independent (Link), made no mention of the driver being in the vehicle. So, the above may be totally mistaken and irrelevant.

Another possibility: Our police force tends to set up a wide cordon over any crime scene. However, a crowd would have gathered around the bus even before the police and ambulance arrived, partly to try to help the victim, partly to express anger at the driver. Crowds are thick in Little India on Sunday nights. It is very difficult to push people back. In their attempt to do so, the police may have been seen as “too pushy”, and with fraying tempers and language differences (nuances could easily be lost), misunderstandings were almost sure to occur.

Indeed, the report in The Independent includes this: “Lifestyle blogger and DJ Dowager alleges that  the police arrived before the SCDF and act aggressively towards the crowd, raising tensions . . .” I wonder whether the police could have been under immense pressure to open a passage to let the ambulance in, but they failed to communicate their intentions to the crowd to win their co-operation.

It is necessary to get a dispassionate account of what really happened in the first few minutes, and especially to understand cultural differences. We need to learn what went wrong during those critical minutes so that we are better prepared should a similar traffic accident occur again amidst foreign worker crowds.

* * * * *

Video uploaded by chewkkf showing police cars being overturned

My experience volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too gives me a surer grasp of the ‘fuel’ question. I have the feeling that migrant workers do not see authority in the same way as Singaporeans do, and react in unexpected ways. One nationality also differs from another; they are not homogeneous.

By now, it is well known that low-wage foreign workers don’t have an easy time in Singapore. There’s an undercurrent of grievances stemming from an experience of exploitative behaviour by high-handed bosses and supervisors. Many have reason to feel that they have been chronically cheated of part of their wages. Others have seen their co-workers injured and denied medical treatment, or co-workers who have been terminated prematurely and sent home by thuggish repatriation agents without a chance to lodge salary-non-payment, medical treatment or injury compensation complaints at the Ministry of Manpower. Some workers who have in the past experienced the slow, unsympathetic dispute-resolution processes at the Ministry of Manpower may have their grievances extend beyond their immediate employer to government bodies as well.

It’s too facetious to say that these grievances have any direct bearing on the riot. However, we shouldn’t dismiss the likelihood that foreign workers often see authority as oppressive. It could be a carry-over of their experiences in their home countries, but reinforced by a their work experiences in Singapore. So, when the police arrived at the accident scene and tried to do their job the efficient, but slightly brusque Singapore way, they might have come up against a crowd with very different perceptions of them.

Secondly, there is a particular local factor, i.e. local to Little India. Few Singaporeans are aware of this, but now is as good a time as any for me to explain.

In the last few years, with rising numbers of foreign workers and increasing sensitivity of People’s Action Party members of parliament to constituency complaints, there has been a steady intensification of auxiliary police patrols in the streets and void decks of Little India. Workers are constantly being shooed away from one corner to the next. Summonses and fines are liberally meted out for tiny infringements such as eating, littering or sleeping, in a misguided attempt to keep the area “safe” for citizens (not that I condone littering, but it is something best solved through education and generous provisioning of bins, not fines). I have long suspected that such policing action breeds resentment.

Foreground: TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce leads NUS students on a walkabout around Little India to learn about migrant workers. Background: a posse of auxiliary police question a migrant worker.

Foreground: TWC2 executive committee member Debbie Fordyce leads NUS students on a walkabout around Little India to learn about migrant workers. Background: a posse of auxiliary police question a migrant worker.

At the same time, more and more empty parcels of land have been tendered out for development. Workers (and there are more of them now) find they have less and less open space to congregate on Sundays. At their low wages, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time in commercial establishments like cafes and restaurants; they can’t afford to pay much and owners don’t want them sitting too long without buying. All they have are the few remaining fields and the five-foot ways.

The worker's identification papers are demanded. He was then issued a summons for smoking -- not because he was caught smoking (TWC2 had seen him earlier and he was not smoking) but because there was a cigarette butt seen on the floor near where he had been sitting.

The worker’s identification papers are demanded. He was then issued a summons for smoking — not because he was caught smoking (TWC2 had seen him earlier and he was not smoking) but because there was a cigarette butt seen on the floor near where he had been sitting.

On rainy days, even the fields are useless. It rained Sunday afternoon and the open ground on the west side of Race Course Road was too wet to sit on, so the men were unusually crowded into even tighter spaces. With congestion, tempers fray easily.

These three factors likely came together Sunday night: Brooding frustration from perceived injustices at work creating hostility to authority, resentment at auxiliary police patrols in Little India, and congestion on a damp night with nowhere to sit.

My belief is that the fuel was there, charged up and waiting to explode.

* * * * *

In this connection, I am troubled by a comment by Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee at a press conference in the early hours of Monday, 9 December. Today newspaper quoted him as saying that in the days ahead, the authorities will pay “extra attention”  to Little India as well as foreign worker dormitories and areas where they congregate. (Today, 9 December 2013, Riot breaks out in Little India).

I hope he doesn’t mean more “active” policing like what has happened in the void decks and alleyways of Little India, freely issuing summonses and intrusively asking for identification. Workers see this as harassment. It is the exact opposite of what it takes to build trust between the police and communities. As I explained above, the lack of trust, the perception of authority as bullies, is the fuel we should beware of adding to.

* * * * *

While I am not claiming the above as a definitive explanation of Sunday night’s incident, nonetheless the incident has offered us an opportunity to explore these possible factors. If we are to learn some good lessons from this riot, and from thinking through might have led to it, it is that we need to address various factors together, whether or not they directly contributed to last Sunday’s event. Even if they didn’t contribute to the incident — and we can never be sure anyway — their potency to contribute to the next one remains, and we would be remiss to simply let things be so. If these factors go unaddressed, the threshold for escalation remains low. The smallest incident gets to a tipping point quite easily. On the other hand, if we address the root causes of hostility and resentment, thereby lowering tensions, we raise the threshold, so that the next time a random spark occurs, it doesn’t escalate, or at least not so rapidly or intensively.

Work grievances need to be addressed fairly. On this, I don’t need to say more as I have written about it in the past.

Community spaces must be provided. We must be mad to think that we can bring in so many foreign workers and not need to provide leisure and recreational facilities for them. They don’t ask for much, but we could do with spacious community halls, or even just open-sided pavilions, located at all the main places where foreign workers like to congregate  on their days off. At these pavilions, have some shops and kiosks that sell the food and snacks they like or the things they need, such as phone cards or cheap clothing. Of course there has to be seats and toilets too.

There could be function rooms rented out pro-bono to charity organisations such as TWC2 to hold events, such as film shows, talent contests, talks or concerts. Anything that helps lift people’s spirits is a good antidote to the daily grind they face.

The more we provide for them, the less they will impinge on void decks or other spaces Singaporeans wish their families to enjoy. We reduce friction with a relatively small investment compared to the billions in foreign worker levies collected each year (in 2011, it was $2.5 billion).

It has long bothered me that we seem to operate on a model of wanting the foreign workforce for their labour and economic value, yet wishing they would disappear at all other times. We shunt them off to distant dormitories and do everything possible to signal that they are unwelcome in our city and suburban centres. We also want them for their labour, but begrudge them a living wage, decent healthcare and fair treatment. This is not only very short-sighted, it is remarkably naive to think it will never boomerang on us.

92 Responses to “Riot in Little India: spark and fuel”

  1. 1 Hun Boon 10 December 2013 at 02:24

    How about the role of alcohol? It’s surprising you omitted it because the police is cracking down on that in Little India. There were also reports that some rioters had been drinking.

  2. 4 Justin Ma 10 December 2013 at 03:42

    The possible reasons you cite for the riot are valid. I hope the COI will look into all the factors and produce some solid proposals instead of blaming alcohol and hooliganism.

    The ruling party also have to acknowledge that foreigners are not docile like the average Sporean. Given the background and culture of foreign workers Its a surprise that there were no riots in the past which were similar to the one that took place.

    • 5 MaxChew 10 December 2013 at 10:20

      I agree. The 3 valid factors were waiting for a spark to lit the night and it came in the form of a fellow compatriot being knocked down and killed by a vehicle. It was the perfect storm!

  3. 6 harriet 10 December 2013 at 04:47

    dormitories were visited by the police on dec 9 morning, and south Asians were rounded up for questioning.

    • 7 Alien 10 December 2013 at 11:25

      It was reported that the dormitory was visited as early as 5am in the morning and workers interrogated. These poor workers have to toil in the sun everyday and they need their rest. Where is the compassion and considerations by the authorities. It is as if they will be given time off after being roused from their rest by their bosses????

  4. 8 yuen 10 December 2013 at 06:10

    > guidebooks warned travellers about lynch mobs gathering after traffic accidents to obtain vigilante justice

    one report says the driver was dragged out and beaten resulting in hospitalization, and the “ticket seller” (not sure why a private bus would have a ticket seller) hid under the bus after being beaten and was treated in hospital then discharged; another says a newspaper photographer had to hide for a couple of hours in a nearby coffeeshop after being chased by some rioters; indications are more than 20-30 people were actively rioting

  5. 9 Alan 10 December 2013 at 07:04

    You have written a fairly good explanation of what possibly could have contributed to the riots. Come to think of it, why would any decent person with the right conscience ever think of sending you to a possible jail term for whatever you have beautifully written in the past?

    Whoever that person(s) is(are) must be truly void of any human feelings towards another fellow human being? Trust you will remain strong and we will support you in whatever gesture of goodwill we possibly can.

    • 10 MaxChew 10 December 2013 at 10:58

      Agree, and with celebs like Russell Heng and Dana Lam on your side definitively, you should be okay eventually. Keep up the good work!

  6. 11 Chiu Ee 10 December 2013 at 07:55

    Thanks Alex for again a well balanced and insightful reflections.

  7. 12 Dening Lo 10 December 2013 at 08:08

    Well written, thoughtful, compassionate yet analytically balanced. Thank you for taking the time to write.

  8. 14 Pratamad 10 December 2013 at 08:15

    Another small detail of the bus accident could add on to the circumstances. This is some hearsay I got from talking to an Indian stranger in a kopitiam at Hillview. So he must have heard it from the grapevine. According to him, the crowd was extremely upset by the ‘clumsy’ driver who, after running over the victim with the front wheel killing him, moved the vehicle again for whatever reason and smashed the head of the victim with the rear wheel by mistake. Emotion ran higher among the crowd upon discovering what happened to the victim’s head after he already died (a further blow to the deceased). The actual sequence and the front-wheel-rear-wheel part may be mixed up, as my conversation with him was short and ambiguous in language, but the nitty-gritty of the accident may be part of the spark.

  9. 15 Anon Lwry 10 December 2013 at 08:23

    The riot had nothing to do with race, alcohol, wages or living condiions of the Indian migrant workers.

    In India, this is how they react and behave in traffic accidents. It is vigilante and lynch mob action, nothing else. It is their culture.

    You can take an Indian out of India but you cannot take India out of the Indian.

    • 16 mirax 10 December 2013 at 10:50

      I would tentatively agree that it is a part of their culture – I am an indian Singaporean btw and have seen this kind of behaviour depicted in many Indian movies.
      But I do have reservations about the glibness of your last sentence. The sheer amount of racism that I have encountered from Singaporeans posting on sites like TRS, SBF, Hardwarezone Forum, ST, Asiaone etc have left a very nasty taste in the mouth.

      • 17 Anon Lwry 11 December 2013 at 10:05

        It’s not racism. It;s a hard truth. Different cultures have different propensities. Indians in India have a long history of riots. Just go to Wikipedia and type in “Riots and Civil Disobedience in India”. There is a long list from Ä to Z. There was a riot by Indians in Sydney not long ago caused by a dispute over a restaurant bill.

        Those people were behaving like they would in India.

    • 18 Russell Jvm Gutierrez 10 December 2013 at 16:14

      “The riot had nothing to do with race” “You can take an Indian out of India but you cannot take India out of the Indian.”

      Did those two statements sound logical together in your head?

    • 19 Ram 12 December 2013 at 10:45

      You’ve been to India?
      Probably, you’re one of the many Singaporeans who prefer to couch yourself at home, rather than voice your rights, of course unless it concerns your true self or your loved ones

  10. 20 Ng Yi-Sheng 10 December 2013 at 08:39

    Thank you – this is the most enlightening perspective on the riot I’ve seen so far!

  11. 21 JW 10 December 2013 at 09:09

    On the point of disappearing at all other times, Alex, there is now news that MND is considering housing foreign workers in the smaller islands off shore again. You may want to comment on that

  12. 22 Sophia M 10 December 2013 at 09:25

    Since the SMRT strike last year, I expect the situation to become worse as the government keep insisting to push through with its plan of population expansion. You pack more people in, you will need to provide them with more space, not less! This is common sense. The less space they have, the more restraints they felt, the more rowdy they will become and the higher chance there is for sparks to ignite.

    Very unfortunately, according to this article from the hearttruth, the PAP government has sold us out:

    It is said in the CECA (India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement) that both India and Singapore should not “require labour market testing” (Chart 1). In other words, labour movement between countries is “free and easy”.

    Here is the relevant quote:

    Neither Party shall require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effects as a condition for temporary entry in respect of natural persons upon whom the benefits of this Chapter are conferred.

    Our only chance to reverse the situation now is to vote out the PAP at the next general election.

    • 23 Ava Azlin D' Rossi 10 December 2013 at 13:44

      i couldn’t agree more. and just in i heard that the govt, will open up the idea of housing foreign workers off on another island. honestly, that is like treating them ‘ALL’ regardless if they are good or bad, like the viral plague. where has our sense of humanity gone to, the riot had to happen for a reason. this has nothing to do with being local or foreign. if you instigate the local community, we could end up with the local riot in the 1950’s.

  13. 25 henry 10 December 2013 at 09:44

    Yes, what you have described is certainly true.

    People with authority assumes and then prescribes solutions based on their own beliefs. They are dismissive of all things that are not directly connected to their balance sheet.

    I would not be surprised that the space made available within the Little India area is conclusive, all based on estimations and beliefs. The science of human behaviour and space requirements is ignored. After all, it is state land and is worth millions.

    The thinking is also very bullying. As long as you appear foreign and low paid.. check their identification and work permits. This approach has been adopted for decades even for local people. As you mention, deduce it all into law and criminal acts. The root of the problem is never addressed, or simply brushed under the mat, something which you may be experiencing now!

    I suspect that they have little skill in being persuasive and seek results quickly. Educating people takes to much effort and time. It even means listening, which they too have no use! Old habits die hard, the stick is far more effective. Notice the words used in the recent party convention… we “fight”. It could have been: “we partner the people…”

  14. 26 South Asians Crave Differentiation 10 December 2013 at 09:46

    I think the rioters were not of Indian origin. Not everyone from the Indian Sub-continent is an Indian. Get the facts right.

    • 27 yawningbread 10 December 2013 at 10:24


      I don’t think the nationality of the vast majority of the participants is among the doubtful or unknown facts. First, Tamil can be heard in the video; secondly if you know the social topography of Little India as well as I know (and I am there about twice a week on my TWC2 business) you’d know that that particular street corner is a Tamil-Indian area.

  15. 28 Clear eyes 10 December 2013 at 09:51

    Your piece was clearly crafted before the PM’s announcement of a COI to be set up to find out the “cause” of the riot. The COI will likely report that the driver of the bus negligently drove the bus resulting in the workers’ death. Some workers started to attack the bus and others joined in the subsequent mayhem.( Ministers Iswaran and Lui are already suggesting that alcohol may have contributed to the riot.) Case closed. Whilst you and others are looking for the underlying causes the authorities are looking for the sequence of event or actions that resulted in the act of violence and destruction. With Sunday’s declaration that only the PAP can provide the leadership you can understand that they will not be concerned with the questions you raise.

  16. 30 yawningbread 10 December 2013 at 10:20

    I see from Bertha Harian, this bit that sounds like fact, re the driver being on the bus: The New Paper . . . “had an interview and a picture of the female bus co-ordinator who was attacked. The 38 year old had a wound on the left side of her forehead, her left eye was swollen and her limbs bruised. The poor woman was trapped on the bus with the driver as rioters smashed windscreens and ripped off whatever they could. Six policemen later escorted them to safety.”

  17. 32 Tam Yeng Siang 10 December 2013 at 11:28

    The other side of the issue that has to be thought through is the overdependence on CHEAP foreign labour that is besetting Singapore and Malaysia, in this part of the world. Being ‘cheap’ means they are deprived of the basic amenities and living standards, otherwise the locals would take the job.. Do we continue to use such “cheap labour”. Do we have a choice? If not, are we not in danger of creating pockets of dissatisfied and underpaid foreigners who are not averse to using violence to “let off steam”? Also

  18. 33 Jenise 10 December 2013 at 11:34

    “In India, this is how they react and behave in traffic accidents. It is vigilante and lynch mob action, nothing else. It is their culture.”

    This pretty much says it all. “Them/they” and “We/us”. Stereotypes of The Other. They drink, they’re drunks. They form lynch mobs. This is their culture. I am so embarassed today to be a Singaporean.

    The basic fact of the matter is that most of us Singaporeans are racist and classist. We view our migrant labor as sub-human. Most of us have no ability, it seems, to empathize with another human being unless they are exactly like us. Just look at the arguments against days off for maids: THEY will go out and get pregnant. THEY will run amok. As if they were animals not in control of their own actions.

    How many of US Singaporeans could work 365 days a year, 10 or more hours a day, and not go beserk. How many of us would be willing to even try? But we cannot emphathize with the feelings of a worker who A) has left his family, friends and community B) has gone into debt to do so C) resides in substandard housing/living conditions D) is treated questionably by his or her employer E) is looked down upon and treated as sub-human by most of the people he or she is in contact with on a daily basis. Can you imagine how that feels, what it does to your psyche? No, you probably cannot, because they are not like you and as a Singaprean you (we) are unable to connect with people whom we consider not like us, or with people whom, in this case, we consider LESS than us.

    Now I will predict a response to this comment: “They are better off than they were in some village in Bangladesh/India etc.” Oh really? When you take away social support structures, community, family, friends AND freedom it opens up the mind to malaise, alienation, anger. Why the surprise at this? What do we expect, really?

    The bottom line is that for many years we have been taking advantage of others’ economic hardships to get a lot for nothing. I’m surprised this didn’t happen sooner.

    • 34 Andrew Tan 11 December 2013 at 05:41

      The attitudes you describe of Singaporeans towards lowly-paid foreign workers, discrimination by class and race, typify newly rich societies where the middle class majority are but one generation old (unlike maturer developed societies where the bourgeoisie of at least 5 to 6 generations stemming from the Industrial Revolution).
      To be compared/contrasted with the sycophancy towards Caucasian expatriates, the post-colonial inferiority complex of many insecure, middle class Singaporeans that manifests in swings: either worship or envy-resentment.

    • 35 Anon Lwry 11 December 2013 at 07:24

      Victimhood is never an excuse for criminal behaviour.

    • 36 Anon 04fb 11 December 2013 at 14:07

      being an indian: I partly agree with some of the comments – that people do behave this way in India. Simple explanation – it is the law of the people. We have seen a driver ‘run away’ from an accident scene lest he get a thrashing. Usually this is because there are no legal recourses or courts in much of India, and punishment has to be swift and immediate, otherwise the guilty just escape. This happens in smaller towns and villages, and especially if the driver is from a different section of society or represents authority.

    • 37 Anon gXZ7 17 December 2013 at 12:44

      Exactly right. The way we treat our domestic workers is almost like (dare I say it) slavery – 12 hours a day, no off days, no free time. From fetching drinks to carrying your briefcase. And all this for a petty couple hundred dollars that is supposed to be a “privilege” to them who managed to make it onto the land of golden promise. Not.

  19. 38 wendy 10 December 2013 at 11:38

    Type so much what is it used for ? Go send to the president la. Only know how to analyse and typing away infront of the computer. Is that the real action you have ? Bo liao

  20. 39 sun 10 December 2013 at 11:47

    A very good analysis of the fuel and the spark…well done sir. Im glad there are some intelligent sporeans around.Im an sporean indian,3 generations….Im very disgusted with many comments Ive seen about indians.I hope these idiots have the guts to say it to my face…..Ive got the fuel and the spark. Im surprised sporeans can talk like this and the media and authorities seem to be fuelling this divisive mentality at the expense of the minority race in spore.

  21. 40 Vanya 10 December 2013 at 11:54

    What a refreshingly insightful and well-written blog post. This is exactly the kind of discussion that Singapore needs to embrace. And I think you make very useful suggestions.

  22. 41 Jacq Hu 10 December 2013 at 11:55

    Hopefully this riot will teach our govt a lesson that that they must review their immigration policies, we can’t simply let in so many foreign workers without any consideration for our citizen (election result has shown that Singaporeans are not happy with their policies now riot happening , will make thing worse for govt if they don’t listen!)

    The govt should narrow the income gap between blue and white collar workers to attract more lcoal to do those jobs.

    Foreign workers not only taking way our jobs but create social disharmony, is this bad or good for the country?

    • 42 Shawn 11 December 2013 at 00:48

      Agree with you. But no, the PAP would not want that to happen as it will raise business cost for their cronies and MPs who hold multiple directorships. That’s why they have been brainwashing Singaporeans, telling us these are jobs that we shun. The truth is, this is just a convenient lie for them not to pay market rate. Did you see Hong Kongers, the Japanese or the Americans shun construction job? No, only uniquely Singapore.

  23. 43 georgia tong 10 December 2013 at 12:01

    Thank Alex. Yours is one of the most insightful analysis of the riot.

  24. 44 Sid 10 December 2013 at 12:07

    Hi, I was informed by an Indian foreign colleague who was there during the incident..
    It escalated because after the accident, the bus driver knocked down the victim, police came , and what was mention was the victim was drunk and was jaywalking and got hit accidentally., the police was trying to explain to those who was there, but somehow the friend of the victim said that since the policeman was Chinese and the driver was also Chinese , the police was just trying to help his own race.. Then he start to throw a bottle to the bus and then the rest followed..

  25. 45 So Sad 10 December 2013 at 13:04

    I’m assuming most of the culprits are from Bangladesh. How many of them speak English? I’ve taken buses where many of them who drop off at Little India could only gesture (occasionally 1 of the group can speak incomplete English sentences). At least most chinese-S’poreans can speak mandarin, so there’s usually less of a communication problem when issues arise with China workers. There is a good chance this incident arose from a breakdown in communication between first responders (incl. Police) who don’t speak Bangla. As I see it, establish a sufficiently high minimum wage is the first step – it will encourage more locals to take up a portion of those jobs (far from 100%, I know) we are hiring foreign workers to do.

    • 46 yawningbread 11 December 2013 at 00:19

      My take is that most of the participants in the mayhem were Indian Tamils. The first 24 men charged (Tuesday, 10 December) are reported to be Indian nationals, not Bangladeshis. The precise area where the incident occurred is also a predominantly Tamil area. The Bangladeshis occupy a different, more northerly, section of Little India (in fact, I prefer to refer to their area as Little Bangladesh).

      But your point remains valid. Language barriers are major handicaps in emergencies.

      • 47 James 11 December 2013 at 01:48

        Since Tamil is one of the recognised official languages of Singapore, I hope that emergency services are able to communicate in Tamil, especially in Little India.

      • 48 So Sad 11 December 2013 at 08:21

        Thanks for the clarification. I’m watching this from overseas, so my news is a few hours if not more behind.

      • 49 Cynics 12 December 2013 at 15:01

        Since those workers at that corner of Little India speak Tamil, don’t we have Tamil-speaking police officers? As far as I know Tamil is not a foreign language to Singapore compared to Hindi or Bangladesh.
        In fact the Tamil-speaking Indian Singaporeans’ ancestors mostly migrated from Tamil Nadu State in early days of Singapore Colony under British colonial days.

  26. 50 DP 10 December 2013 at 13:17

    Yes, I will definitely agree that the underlying factors were a significant cause for the riots. I myself have personally seen the condescending way the auxiliary police treat these foreign workers and I am there almost 3 to 4 times a week. I also have met groups of workers who have been mistreated by their employers and have become disillusioned with the response from the government. To most of them whether it’s MOM, ICA or Police, it’s all the same; these people do not care for them but are out to get them at every opportunity they get. I am fully aware of the work TWC2 does and appreciate the efforts however I guess after watching last night’s news coverage everyone might get the impression that the MWC is the voice of migrant workers here. It was a shameful use of the unfortunate incident to gain publicity by the MWC. It’s organisation like this which make the poor foreign worker take the assumption that the authorities do not care because they are never questioned. All said, I am not justifying the riot actions, it is certainly not acceptable. But as you said, why it happened is much more important than how it happened.

  27. 51 Rogueeconomist 10 December 2013 at 13:21

    An insightful and interesting analysis, as expected! I agree with your conclusion that many Singaporeans see foreign workers as economic contributors but not really as fellow human beings. Looking online, there is no clearer evidence of this than the repeated calls by many for the police to ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ or to use more brutal measures to contain the riot. Of course, the police should use deadly force to defend themselves or to protect others, but in this case it seems to be clear that deadly force would have been an over-reaction – and indeed, they are to be commended for handling the situation without causing additional injuries. Yet many commenters persist in suggesting the police should have used additional violence. Why? To me there is at least one plausible explanation – some people think foreign workers ‘should be put in their place’ and want the police to do so violently. This is the ugly undertone of our life in Singapore today – part of our economy is supported by people whom we Singaporeans have a vested interest in ‘keeping in their place’ – low-paid and subservient. This does not do our character as a nation any good.

    • 52 Civil Serpant 11 December 2013 at 08:20

      Considering that our active duty policemen would never have had to contain a riot in the past, I’m certainly glad that cooler heads prevailed and no firearms were discharged.

  28. 53 beowulf222 10 December 2013 at 13:32

    Thanks for this level-headed write up. A welcome change from the usual “twist” in state media. Keep up the great work!!!!

  29. 55 FromthePeople 10 December 2013 at 13:49

    As long as Bukit Timah is not affected, nothing will change.. The top 1% leaves such problems to the middle class to deal with.

  30. 56 enwm_85 10 December 2013 at 14:08

    It seems to me that the majority of Singaporeans will almost always link something that happened to our country as the government’s (PAP in this case as they are the ruling party) fault. And they think that, just by changing the ruling party, our lives will be better.

    But I feel that, if anything, voting out the PAP will only give us HOPE of a better life. Hope is something which is not confirmed, unless it’s your God who gives you that hope.

    I think that solving Singapore’s problems is not as simple as, having a new government which will change it’s policies to what it’s citizens want. Because, no matter what, no one is perfect, So how can an imperfect person, come up with perfect policies. The truth is, no matter where you look, every country has their own set of problems. Unless the whole world becomes 1 country, and have God as our leader.

    • 57 The 11 December 2013 at 09:49

      Some people do blame the gov for many things, and in most cases they are right. But in this particular case, the links to gov are very clear:

      1) Irresponsible recruitment agents bringing in workers by the boatloads and getting fat on huge fees, not caring whether there are work for those workers, and the gov not doing anything about it.

      2) Employers exploiting foreign workers by underpaying them, not paying them or making uncalled deductions. Not paying for medical treatments or insurance. And the gov not doing anything about it.

      3) Allowing in foreigners by the millions, and not having adequate infrastructure to assimilate these millions – who is to blame?

      Has anyone here said anything about changing gov? Only changing policies. Not growth at all cost. Has anyone here said anything about changing the ruling party will improve things?

      Why bring god into this? Is there a god? Or many gods?

    • 58 henry 11 December 2013 at 09:58

      When you pay for an item that costs lots of money, you would expect nothing short of perfection. Be it a mercedes benz or LV bag or a first class ticket.

      Our Government is expensive. It costs millions of dollars. You & I may contribute a small fraction of this but it all adds up.

      When there is little choice offered, solutions will appear difficult. There is more to government then meets the eye. There is implicit preservation of self and the status quo.

      They choose to ‘fight’ every corner. Who do you think they are fighting?
      People? Ideas? or its just in their genes?

    • 59 Shawn 11 December 2013 at 10:49

      What rubbish. The PAP government is not even half perfect. This is a bogey man argument trying to compare a rubbish party with god. Voting out a rubbish party is sure better than keeping status quo. Stop your scare-mongering. I would rather give others a chance at governing Sg.

  31. 60 CC 10 December 2013 at 14:21

    Congratulations on a well-written and well-founded article and reasoning. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head.

  32. 61 kala 10 December 2013 at 14:44

    //It has long bothered me that we seem to operate on a model of wanting the foreign workforce for their labour and economic value, yet wishing they would disappear at all other times. We shunt them off to distant dormitories and do everything possible to signal that they are unwelcome in our city and suburban centres. We also want them for their labour, but begrudge them a living wage, decent healthcare and fair treatment. This is not only very short-sighted, it is remarkably naive to think it will never boomerang on us.//

    What do we expect? In many local companies and organisations, this is the mode of operation even towards its own citizens. The labor and whatever work value is what they want. Sometimes, even that doesn’t count. It is what you have done that will contribute to your immediate bosses’ KPI that counts.

    • 62 Koolie 11 December 2013 at 08:24

      I agree. The current population/over-crowdedness problem has to be rehashed – we don’t want foreign workers/maids in parts of Orchard Road, in our HDB estates, sometimes S’poreans avoid foodcourts that too many foreign workers patronise etc…. If they are banned from so many places, where else can they go on their day-off?

  33. 63 Lewis Liew 10 December 2013 at 16:05

    Indeed, this article insightful and helps us take into account the view from “the other side”.

    For sure, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would begrudge foreign workers better living and working conditions in Singapore.

    But, we cannot…nay, we MUST not, tolerate such behaviour, nor try to make excuses for the perpetrators.

    Understanding WHY they rioted? Sure. But accepting it? A big no-no.

    Vigilante justice may be the norm in India, or other foreign countries, but just because they can do it in their hometown, does not mean they can do it here. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

    Many of them have lived and worked here for months, or years on end. There is absolutely no reason for them not to be aware of how strict our laws are and how seriously we take crime and criminals.

    Furthermore, the whole act of overturning and burning our police cars, as well as an ambulance, is flagrant disrespect for Singapore and Singaporeans. Not to mention, a direct challenge to the authorities in the country.

    Take away the power of governance in any country, and you’ll be left with lawlessness. That I’m sure, is not what we want in our country.

    Lastly, for the foreign worker who died under the bus…well, by all accounts he was stone drunk and causing trouble in the bus. Added to the point that it is highly doubtful that the bus driver would knowingly and deliberately run someone over, it is highly likely the accident was caused by the intoxicated man (because he’s, you know, drunk). There is absolutely no reason to paint him out as a pitiful martyr, as so many are doing.

  34. 64 heartlander 10 December 2013 at 16:22

    chewkkf’s four riot videos became private overnight ?!?!?
    left one @

  35. 65 CC 10 December 2013 at 17:16

    Alex, thanks for another great analysis.

    Reading the loose facts here and there in the msm/nsm, it has puzzled greatly as to why the rioters would choose to attack and damage up to 25 emergency vehicles, including 5 set on fire! There is clearly an incongruence of the facts released so far, with the reality displayed by the rioters last night.

    Assuming the workers were anxious at saving the victim trapped under the bus, they would have helped to overturn the bus. But instead, they didn’t. Was it because the driver + assistant conductor were still trapped in the bus (out of self-protection)? Is reasonable to conclude that when the victim has been pronounced dead, the expected reactions from the crowd is to capture the perpetrator. If the perpetrator had remained in the bus, then the fact that the workers choose not to over turn it (as they had with the flock of police cars) clearly shows they had no ill intention to harm them.

    And to take your hypothesis further, assuming the police were trying to escort the driver/assistant out into a safe zone as tensions were mounting, I agree with you that this could be the palpable reason for the spark where the rioters had mistook law enforcement officers were trying to shield or help the “perpetrator” get away, which in their eyes constitute as a grave injustice to the death of their kinsman. Thus they decided to take matters into their own hands by overturning the ambulance and police vehicles to prevent them to “get away”.

    Now, if that was the case, maybe it would explain why the police dared not open a fire and approach with restraint because they knew by then the angry crowd has already turned on them, thus it would be foolish to escalate this with further brute force.

    Will we ever find out from the COI? Of course, it would be much simpler to absolve themselves from the alcohol and rowdy behavior of the workers.

  36. 66 Terence 10 December 2013 at 17:39

    Another good insight from you. The government is really fighting yesterday’s battles with yesterday’s battle plans. They should be incorporating inputs and views from people like you to formulate policies. Instead they are trying to close you down. They are still blinkered and coloured by their narrow view of control and interests. If they don’t change, it will be too late not only for them but for the nation.

    Saying this is an isolated incident is like saying the flash floods only occur once in 50 years. The social fabric is being torn apart by all the pressures building up. Is the tinder only dry amongst foreign workers? Why are opposition rallies attracting huge crowds? Might there be a spark and escalation in the native population itself? I hope not, otherwise it will again take a generation to repair the damage.

  37. 67 Chanel 10 December 2013 at 17:50

    An excellent article by Alex Au.

    Unsurprisingly, mainstream media are quick to divert attention away from issues the govt don’t want to admit, i.e. that the govt failed miserably in taking into account the negative social impact of massive immigration.

  38. 68 microhaemorrhage 10 December 2013 at 17:52

    thank you for such a empathetic piece. i found this so enlightening as i was completely confounded as to the reason why the riot broke out in the first place. thank you for taking the time to look at the event from different eyes. 🙂

  39. 69 Ramlu 10 December 2013 at 19:07

    Excellent, unbiased writing!!

    I didnt know that alcohol is the main factor behind riots! I suppose all the riots in the world are all alcohol driven! And why did the police deployed the Ghurkhas? The riot – like any other we see elsewhere – was most definitely scary but the one at little India wasn’t an armed uprising that needed the fielding of the Nepalis. Our own police and task force (home team?) could have easily out fought the hooligans and bring the situation under control. And I believe that’s what they did; they did prove to all of us that there is more to law enforcement than showing off at NDP. Hats off

  40. 70 dom 10 December 2013 at 19:41

    Well articulated Alex. Again your column is an island of rationality in an ocean of knee jerk blabber. I live close to that Hampshire Road / Race Course junction and I must say love the vibrancy of that area, even on Sundays when it gets really crowded. The authorities could have put up permanent friendly, sheltered areas for workers – like army training sheds in that large area west of Race Course Rd. In fact, they had hardened the ground in the past when the temporary Tekka market was there. A nice structure there will reduce the workers’ tendency to find an HDB void deck to snooze. It could even be a place where workers can drink alcohol relatively cheaply and safely – an area where the police can apply a light touch. My fear is that the authorities will do exactly the opposite.

  41. 71 Dennis Hao 10 December 2013 at 19:51

    And there’s the little detail that Bernama reported that 5 of the injured police were Malaysian auxiliary officers. How well are the auxiliary police properly trained and how well their command structure is coordinated with the police, do we know?

  42. 72 AaronT 10 December 2013 at 21:38

    thank you for the measured article, as always.

    fyi, this post was quoted in the reuter’s article:

  43. 73 V 10 December 2013 at 21:43

    Was told that the 33 year old deceased was a role model hardworking worker .
    Good decent family man with a young wife and 2 beautiful little daughters residing in the
    India state of Tamil Nadu .
    Non drinker and only go to little India once a month ( and for only 2 to 3 hours )
    usually on pay day week to send money back to his family in Tamil Nadu .
    The deceased stays at a workers’ dormitory at Jalan Kayu area ( those Farmway Roads ) and
    has 1 or 2 older sbilings also working in Singapore .
    He is a known to work 7 days a week including OT ( they said all for his wife and 2 daughters ) .
    Many ( workers ) were saddened and emotionally hurt when they were told that he ( the deceased ) was
    dragged along the road with one armed caught / locked by the private bus door .
    He ( the deceased ) was seen shouting in Mandarin ( ” Lao Da , Lao Da ” ) to the driver of the pte bus
    to stop . Was told the private bus was overloaded ( exceeded the legal permissible number
    of passengers ) , ( LTA should investigate this bus company ; charging S$2 per workers without due
    consideration to their safety for the trip back to their Dormitory ) .
    Lastly was told that an India Casket undertaker located in Geylang Bahru area will be looking into the final
    arrangements for the deceased .

    Above not written by me. Up to the reader to believe or not. This was out faster than any of the”official” versions.
    Personally the level of detail is astounding

  44. 74 david low 10 December 2013 at 21:46

    Well written. It offers food for thought for all concerned to come up with solutions in accommodating the foreign workers.

  45. 75 Richie Tay 10 December 2013 at 22:04

    Wow….you seem to sound like an expert and you put others down especially the Government law maker and us look very idiotic. Perhaps we have to look to you for an answer????

    • 76 citizen 11 December 2013 at 18:31

      Yes Richie, actually it would do this government good to listen to constructive criticism from the ground – online or not. Trouble is, everything online is dismissed as DRUMS by the authorities. Either that or taking feedback is perceived as a sign of weakness.

  46. 77 Playfair 10 December 2013 at 22:26

    When I was young in Singapore I lived in the East Coast. When there were accidents the driver had to run for his life especially at Joo Chiat, Chai Chee ,Siglap and Bedok.. If he was around he would have been bashed up.I witnessed an accident in Bedok where a car hit a motor cyclist and the guy landed in the drain. The driver ran to the Bedok Police station and his car was smashed up.
    With our tough no nonsense laws all this has stopped.
    So these mob behaviour was present in those days.
    Unfortunately these small group foreign workers need to learn and behave like us.

  47. 78 Choo Chee Seng 10 December 2013 at 22:48

    “The more we provide for them, the less they will impinge on void decks or other spaces Singaporeans wish their families to enjoy…” Yes please, please decentralized these spaces away from Little India, this place is exploding and has in fact just exploded.

  48. 79 ordinarylife 10 December 2013 at 23:43

    A very well written article. As a homemaker, i have on several occasions enlisted the help of foreign workers working in a very large construction company who completed our place for minor repairs. When you do talk deeper with them, you realise that these people have hopes, and wife and children left behind in India. I never saw them anymore as they could not even get past our security guard. They were flabbergasted by the treatment they received.

  49. 80 Michael 11 December 2013 at 01:00

    Seems to be a big mismatch between the event as described in media and the response of the bystanders. No way these workers would react like that for a simple, tragic accident …

  50. 81 KAM 11 December 2013 at 01:04

    I would like to compliment your analysis but as you have rightly pointed out, the Indian workers hold a wary view of the police and authorities. Your view, although eloquently written and makes lots of sense, will be taken with a big pinch of salt with the very same authorities who are irked by your past essays and present court case.
    I don’t mean to be mean and putting you down, but I just want to point out that your views may be construed by some people and surely many authorities as “another ranting”. An opportunist at an unpleasant disruptive social event such as this riot.
    Take care and good luck.

  51. 82 Chandra 11 December 2013 at 01:44

    A well written article that has given me a better insight as to how these workers may have interpreted the accident which triggered this incident.

  52. 83 Duh 11 December 2013 at 07:23

    I like your poignant last paragraph.

    This is what happens when we have a govt of elitists who treat everyone else as below them and subhuman. The PAP really have no concern but concern for themselves and their own pockets.

  53. 84 Hawking Eye 11 December 2013 at 12:13

    This is an uncomfortable but an insightful article that examined the underlying causes layer by layer from your personal ground-rooted perspective. Excellent!

    What is the most critical factor that contributed to the angry crowd resorting to extreme violence and causing all the carnage? My guess is that the valiant efforts of some of the workers to pull out the pinned man from under the bus (before authorities came into picture) could have failed and words could have been disseminated to the crowd probably even before the first police patrol car arrived, that he was already dead. This news and the sight of ambulance coming far belatedly to save a man who has already left this world, could have incensed the crowd further to take on to violence . I could be also wrong with this caricature of events.

    Resorting to violence to the extent of hurting men in uniform and turning over official vehicles and torching them is absolutely unacceptable and the culprits involve should be appropriately dealt with according to law. That the police showed restraint is commendable.

    Police patrolling (or policing) of Little India should continue on Sundays on a calibrated manner – not too much and not too little either. The presence of men in blue can serve as psychological deterrence against misbehaviour in public and anti-social acts. It also enables the police to undertake spot checks to apprehend workers who are illegal immigrants, over stayers or simply working here illegally.

  54. 85 Tan Tai Wei 11 December 2013 at 12:17

    Let’s say, your group have been drinking, and on getting up to go, you notice one remaining seated and dead drunk. You leave him to fend for himself? Surely, as we often have seen, the rest of you shoulder him up, bring him to the car, and see that he arrives safely home, and put to bed. Even his wife will wait for the morning before starting the nagging! But, in the case in point, that unfortunate man, drunk, had successfully (must be with great difficulty) staggered up the crowded bus. But instead of helping to secure him, and making room for him (for it was surely imperatively important for him, compared to most of the others on board, to get home), he was “assisted out the bus” (probably with rude force, yells and insults, judging by the rudeness of some bus drivers many of us must have encountered before). Now, drunkenness is a medical condition that needs treatment rather than blame, however blameworthy the previous choice to drink. And you don’t throw a staggering cripple out a bus, would you? Here, we had one such person being thrown out to fall by the bus wheels (surely, predictably!), and the bus driver driving off immediately!
    Then, was the rioting started by some of those on board who saw all that (even though, as has been said, nothing can excuse the rioting)?

    • 86 equity 11 December 2013 at 22:21

      i honestly agree with you. the bus driver and the lady timekeeper should also be thoroughly investigated. imagine if you are the worker – you are booted off the bus and you have to be back to your dorm by a certain time or else you will be penalised in some way. wouldn’t you have reacted the same way – with panic, trying to chase after the bus? i doubt the bus driver and the timekeeper came to this episode with clean hands – yes, there is no excuse for rioting, but we should also look at the way we treat our foreign guest workers – unfortunately we treat them as slaves – and it is the way that the timekeeper prob treated mr saktivel.

  55. 87 Nash 11 December 2013 at 13:16

    Yes the indians thought that the responders were trying to get the driver away without arresting him for knocking their friend down without first attempting to first remove the body of their friend. The thing is in india it is common for the govt to protect the guilty (driver) hence they assumed that was the same case that was happening here.

    Another point to note is we do not actually know how the deceased actually died and what led up to it, the govt reports are mere speculation and its natural to blame factors such as alcohol which is always an easy excuse to pin on.

    Theres another article that has stated that the police force and cisco has not been treating them well when they do their patrols and such. This eventually builds up to alot of discontent with them. Sometimes such emotions can be triggered by an important catalyist.

  56. 88 fonziezhihao 11 December 2013 at 15:43

    Living near the area, I see overcrowding in the buses every Sunday, with workers standing on the steps/in the bus. If the bus was that crowded, then it is probable that the poor guy could have fallen off the bus and staggered right in front of the vehicle…

    And the Cisco officers I see tend to be Malay/Chinese instead of Indian…they should reconsider the allocation of officers to these ethnic enclaves

  57. 89 mariann 12 December 2013 at 08:50

    A most interesting perspective on the recent incident. As an overseas reader, I find it curious that in Singapore foreign workers are seen as a necessity as well as an incovenience. In Hong Kong, where I was on a recent trip, I noted that on Sundays, whole streets are closed off to traffic and covered overhead pedestrian walk ways are handed over to foreign workers to congregate and socialise. Even large covered entrance areas of the big buildings are taken over and without any fuss. This is in tiny HK island managed as an SAR by China. These people work so hard for Singapore and now I read there is talk of moving them to one of the offshore islands. Seriously?

  58. 91 yuen 12 December 2013 at 09:36

    I have a simple suggestion: MITA should book Hong Lim park every sunday afternoon to show a few Bollywood movies; it can partially recover cost by renting space for food and drink carts (but no alcohol vendors); since Hong Lim is next to Clark Quay, 2 stops from Little India, the movie goers can travel to their previous sunday haunt afterwards, but with less time for getting drunk and into trouble

  59. 92 JOHN TAN 12 December 2013 at 14:27

    maybe that night ,most of the policemen were guarding BIG PAP convention, asking people don’t ‘ CRY FATHER CRY MOTHER ‘ during the PAP internal meeting , most of the police resources were used to protect PAP fat cats that night. ha ha

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