Just like what happened in the days following the Chinese bus drivers’ strike November last year, the government is bringing out the artillery to pound Singaporeans’ minds with their preferred framing of the riot that occurred in Little India 8 December 2013: It’s wanton mayhem, monstrous criminality, pure and simple. The small riot (blown up big for its usefulness as bogeyman) is entirely a law and order issue. No sociological enquiry should be entertained, the message insistently says, especially any that asks questions whether the prior behaviour of the the ruling class (both government and business owners) contributed to the state of mind of the underclass.
It won’t be long before anyone who asks such questions will be accused of “excusing” and “condoning” rioting, and cast as a fifth-column threat to Singapore’s prosperity and stability. “Prosperity” and “stability” are the preferred terms for “money-mindedness” and “political control”.
Let me say this here: Of course people who can reliably (and I stress: reliably) be proven to have committed acts that endangered others’ (e.g. first responders’) lives and safety by throwing objects at them, or damaged property (e.g. the bus involved in the fatal accident), or arson (the torching of police cars and an ambulance), should face the judicial consequences of their acts.
But just as someone driven by penury and hunger to steal merits enquiry into why he was driven thus, a rioting incident too is a good launch pad for a similar enquiry into conditions faced by foreign workers. We shouldn’t pre-judge if these conditions led directly to riot behaviour. As I mentioned in my previous essay, a riot is a complex series of events, committed by many parties, each with slightly different, personal motivations. It cannot be credibly reduced to any simple explanation, and I honestly do not think that whatever employment conditions faced by foreign workers led directly to the incident. But in the same vein, for the government to insistently dismiss any possibility that employment conditions — or for that matter, the resentment built up by harassment by auxiliary police in Little India — had a part to play in workers’ frame of mind is precisely the kind of simple reduction that intelligent people know is more propaganda than reason.
If not for the fact that a man and breadwinner died at the start of the incident, I would be amused how the government’s attitude mirrors everything I have been saying about the attitudes and methods of some, bad-apple, employers. The government insists on framing the incident as a form of unwarranted insubordination: a challenge to their control of the streets and society, an insult to their status as authority, a refusal of the lower class to know and keep to its place. The response shall be nothing but the big stick. Expecting the government to reflect on its own prior actions is not only out of the question, it is yet another form of insubordination: How dare you even suggest that we should shoulder any fraction of the blame?
Low-wage workers come up against such attitudes in their supervisors and bosses all the time. To speak up is to step out of your place in the hierarchical order of the workplace. To suggest that management can do any wrong is a form of blasphemy. Reprisal shall be summary and swift. Sack the worker. Send him home. Use goon-like repatriation agents to get the “job” done, if need be.
So I ask again: Might it be possible that the state of labour relations in Singapore takes the cue from the state of government-people relations?
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What is particularly sickening is how the propaganda machine is highlighting how the deceased, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, was inebriated when he tried to board the private bus for the journey back to his dormitory slightly after 9 pm, and how he was so far gone from self-control that he lowered his trousers. This exercise in character assassination is being used to subtly communicate how unjustified the riot was, and on the flip side, how justified the authorities will be in making an example of the arrested men.
I see it differently. I see the state machine dehumanising a man to serve its less-than-honourable aims. By the same token, it can be said that when bystanders reacted strongly (and unfortunately violently) to the death of Kumaravelu, however drunk he was, they were reacting with concern for Kumaravelu’s humanity. That said, this must be balanced against the reported attacks on the bus driver and bus co-ordinator (sometimes reported as the “bus assistant” or “ticket-seller”). But even so, it strikes me as a poignant contrast between an uncaring state that callously resorts to character assassination as a tool and a group of people who reacted with emotional concern.
However drunk Kumaravelu was, nobody deserves to die.
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Speaking of alcohol, a ban is being imposed on all alcohol sales in the vicinity this weekend. This comes after Lui Tuck Yew, minister for transport and lead member of parliament for Moulmein-Kallang Group Representation Constituency, which encompasses Little India, speculated that the riot was fuelled by drink.
“In my mind it was quite evident that alcohol could have been a contributory factor,” said Mr Lui, who is also the Member of Parliament for the Moulmein ward in the Moulmein-Kallang GRC.
He also noted also that rioters hurled beer bottles and cans at police cars and ambulances during the incident…
— Today newspaper, 9 December 2013, Little India riots: Booze could have been a factor, says Lui. Link.
Again more irony. The government says there is “no evidence” that employment grievances factored into people’s state of mind, and should not be taken into consideration. But other than seeing beer bottles and cans used, there is no evidence that alcohol factored into their state of mind either. In many parts of Singapore, if you want to reach for an object to throw, e.g. against a menacing wild animal, you’d quite likely find a handy beer can in a nearby trash bin. This is flimsy reasoning.
More to the point is the fact that beer sales and drinking have been going on every night for years and years in the area. Let’s say twenty years multiplied by 365 nights a year: that’s 7,300 nights. In 7,300 nights, how many riots have occurred? One.
Scientifically, if the supposed causative condition occurred 7,300 times, and the supposedly caused event occurred once, how strong is your cause-effect argument? If rain fell 7,300 times and during one storm your guitar string broke, would people laugh if you said it snapped because it was raining that very moment?
Moreover, there are countless corners of Singapore where people gather to drink in public. Every suburb has a coffeeshop (or two) that stays open late into the night keeping patrons tipsily happy. How many riots have occurred in those places?
The argument about employment conditions has arguably better evidential support. Repeatedly, we have had workers massing in front of the Manpower ministry, climbing cranes in protest, downing tools, and running away from their obsessively controlling employers (sometimes with tragic consequences, e.g. when domestic workers try to escape by climbing out of windows and falling to their deaths).
Lui’s quick reach for the alcohol explanation comes uncomfortably close to the stereotypical view, held by many Singaporeans, that Indians love their drink. Beneath that view is a racist, accusatory charge of moral weakness. I find it disturbing that Lui’s speculation, even if unconnected with such a view which he may not share, is finding resonance, because so many Singaporeans do hold such an opinion.
Yet more irony: Government machinery is going all out to stress that there is no racial dimension to this affair — I don’t think so either — but the explanation they are frantically waving is coloured by racism!
The state response, banning all alcohol sales in the area, is not only poorly founded, it is also excessive. There are people who enjoy their beer or whiskey, the vast majority of whom do so responsibly and moderately. For foreign workers especially, it is one of the few pleasures they can enjoy after a hard week’s work before they go back to their cramped dormitories. There aren’t a lot of recreational amenities or even welcoming spaces for them. Sitting with friends by the kerbside, chatting over a drink or two is what they can rightfully look forward to each week.
This ban, with its killing a mosquito with a shotgun approach, is disproportionate. Compared to the thousands, maybe tens of thousands who were having a drink that Sunday night, there were just about 50 to 100 (at the very most, judging from eye-witness videos) who took part in the violence. And now these tens of thousands are going to be penalised for something they did not do?
Politicians the world over need to be seen doing something in response to events. Ours are no different. But wouldn’t it be better if they did something right, e.g. soul-searching, than going around blasting propaganda, shouting at dissenters, assassinating the character of a deceased and punishing the innocent?