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 https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=439469846158209
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.