The recent controversy about a ‘riot control exercise’ reveals a blind spot among ministers and not a few decision-makers and ‘grassroots’ surrounding them. They seem unable to see a point of view that is emerging in Singapore: what I would call the ‘Post-independence generation’ outlook. This outlook is subtly but importantly different from that of the People’s Action Party and its devout followers in terms of how they see race and nationality in our society. PAP et al see race and nationality as a reality we have to accept and work with, but the new outlook puts a moral (dis)value on such distinctions and want us to actively avoid using them.
Additionally, a closer examination of the photographs and the words articulated by Khaw and others reveals something more: a government (and its courtiers) engaging shamelessly in doublespeak.
Let me deal with the doublespeak part before I come back to explain what I mean by ‘outlook’ differences.
For the record, below is the Facebook post put out by National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan on 11 November 2014. Some words have been put into bold by me; I will comment on them further down.
We have a few foreign workers’ dormitories. What if some quarrels erupt, leading to fights or worse? These are possible scenarios, given the concentration of foreign workers in one locality. Little India riot was an extreme case, but minor scale fights could happen locally. To test our response capability, the Police, the [Singapore Civil Defence Force], the dorms operators and our grassroots organisations organised a simulation exercise recently. It was a useful way to network up the various agencies, and spread preventive messages. Prevention is always better than cure.
When the post began attracting critical comments, Khaw added a day later:
The exercise was conducted two weeks ago in a dormitory located within Sembawang. I was then in Suzhou for the Suzhou Industrial Park celebration. My grassroots leaders who helped organise the exercise reported to me yesterday that the exercise went well and was well received by the various stakeholders: grassroots, SPF, SCDF and foreign workers ambassadors who worked hand in hand on the exercise. They found it to be a meaningful collaboration which bonded the residents and foreign workers. In fact, a buffet lunch was also organised for all who participated to celebrate the successful conclusion of the exercise. This is one of the many engagement and education sessions conducted by our grassroots and government agencies with foreign workers, regardless of nationality or race. Past efforts cover areas such as first aid, dengue prevention and local culture. Our intent is to promote mutual understanding with the local community.
There are so many things wrong with the above, not least the vacuousness of boilerplate expressions, I hardly know where to begin. But let’s deal with the small things first.
Calling the workers involved “foreign worker ambassadors” suggests that they willingly volunteered for the part. However, on 13 November, the Straits Times quoted the workers’ manager as saying he selected (and presumably ordered) them to do as told.
Organisers from Wee Chwee Huat Scaffolding and Construction Company, which owns the dormitory, were shocked by the reaction. The firm’s operations manager, Mr V. Manimaran, told The Straits Times they invited Woodlands grassroots leaders who shared pictures with Mr Khaw.
“We are not racist,” he said. “About 10 workers were involved, both Bangladeshi and Indian nationals. We chose them as they make up almost all of the workers employed by our company.”
— Straits Times, 13 Nov 2014, Anti-riot drill meaningful, says Khaw
That smashes one boilerplate expression. The men were told to present themselves for target practice. “Ambassadors” they were not.
Secondly, Manimaran confirmed what the photos seemed to indicate. There were only ten foreign workers taking part in the exercise, confronted by perhaps ten or twelve officers. This is a very small group, so small that one inevitably asks: What can be learned from it? Moreover, the pictures reveal a very confined space, with observers and journalists standing just two or three metres away. And most astounding of all, it had been scripted!
The event was organised with the Woodlands and Marsiling Industrial Association, which brings together business owners and dormitory operators in the area.
The workers acted according to a script in which they went on strike over living conditions.
Mr Manimaran said: “I am Indian and I wrote the script. I did not find it racist.”
It should be clear by now: it was never meant as a training exercise for the police. As Khaw and his henchmen talked out of both sides of their mouths, they revealed the true intent of the ‘simulation’. It was meant to instruct workers to behave, akin to obedience school for dogs.
Dormitory Association of Singapore president Kelvin Teo said such role plays are done regularly in various dormitories. The actors are usually senior workers who help to spread the message about the consequences of rioting.
“We get workers to act because it is more realistic that way. They volunteer to help us too,” he said.
Ah yes, more of that “volunteer” word.
As for “realistic”, who is kidding who? In any case, Khaw himself had used phrases such as “spread preventive measures” and “education sessions”. So now we know: it was actually third-rate propaganda theatre aimed to intimidate the migrant worker population, though how that would “promote mutual understanding” and “meaningful collaboration” (Khaw’s words) was left unexplained.
Well, maybe the kind of understanding trained dogs acquire: Who is master and who is dog.
* * * * *
I don’t think the true intent of the exercise was immediately apparent during the controversy. As you can see from the above, it takes some reading between the lines to tease it out.
Instead, the tsunami of criticism that crashed onto Khaw came from something a lot more kneejerk. Significant numbers of Singaporeans just feel it to be wrong to single out any group by race or nationality in a way that casts aspersions on them. This is a morally illegitimate approach, they were saying. It indicates a much more acute sensitivity in the post-independence generation to using race and nationality categorisation thoughtlessly. It may also indicate a resistance to drawing a distinction between migrant workers and ourselves, such that targetting migrant workers in this way struck them as unacceptable.
Khaw, the organisers of the ‘exercise’, his ‘grassroots’ and other ‘stakeholders’ — in other words, the satellites that slavishly orbit PAP power centres — clearly had no clue that this is how many Singaporeans now think. They were surprised that empathy and solidarity can cross race and nationality boundaries. In that sense, they are still stuck in an age where Singapore is seen as an uneven collection of racial boxes.
They are also unable to spot (and avoid) situations when prejudicial associations are being made for a target group. In the old days, such associations would be the order of the day. Nobody would think twice. But the post-independence generation may be a lot more alert to it.
Khaw himself argued (in his second post) that having foreign workers involved in a simulation exercise is nothing new. “Past efforts cover areas such as first aid, dengue prevention and local culture,” he wrote. He sounded bewildered that people singled out this riot control exercise for criticism. Others, coming to his defence on Facebook, asked why anyone was upset about this incident when they would not be with, say, fire drill exercises held in schools involving schoolchildren as a selected group.
The difference is that such scenarios — accidents needing first aid, dengue prevention and fire safety — do not bring with them implications of wrong-doing or anti-social tendencies. Megaphoning a riot suppression message to a particular group does. It is worse when that group is defined along race or nationality lines.
Moreover, in publicising with evident pride this exercise, Khaw was probably assuming that people in general agreed with him that riot control amongst foreign workers was an important and necessary objective. It perhaps springs from the high priority that PAP minds place on internal security. One can discern another perception gap here. Singaporeans don’t see the (small) risk of riots in such an apocalyptic way. The don’t share the siege mentality that characterises PAP’s worldview. And especially as they don’t see any need for alarm, the singling out of foreign workers for this exercise appeared completely unwarranted.
This failing on the part of our ministers is part of a broader pattern. They are increasingly out of step with how more and more Singaporeans think and feel. The Singapore that they know and consider normative is different from the Singapore that a new generation aspires to, and yet they’re not even aware of the gap. This lack of an intuitive feel for a new Singapore is going to lead to more such public relations blunders.