Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Riot in Little India - What could happen next: Considerations and Consequences

I was a little surprised to hear that a riot happened last night in Little India. But not very.

The benefits and necessities of massive immigration have been repeated ad nauseum by the government. In contrast, for years, I have warned of the unintended consequences of immigration, which include erosion of social cohesion and the increased risk of civil unrest.

I do not intend to recap the details of the Little India riot in this post. If you are reading this, you should be well-apprised of the details reported in local media. What I will discuss are perspectives that I think not many people will realize, and what I think will happen next.

That a riot happened is not a surprise. That Singaporeans are genuinely shocked is.

Seriously, with fully 30% of the population here foreign-born, and a large chunk of migrant labor coming from lower educated and poorer countries with more violent histories of protest than Singapore, why should it be a surprise that a riot can occur? Forbes has an article with a similar sentiment as mine.

The police commissioner said that "the incident last night was not the Singapore way".

Indeed. However, one third of the population here is not Singaporean. On balance, looking at the sheer numbers of immigrants, arguing that everyone who lives here should conform to the "Singapore way" is foolhardy at best, and at worst, rings of either naivete or hubris.

As to why foreign workers could be so unhappy as to riot in the streets, I do not know. It could simply be a case of emotions running high after seeing a kinsman fatally knocked down and then escalating into a riot.

What I do know is that based on well-documented incidents by TWC2 of how foreign workers are abused in Singapore, there are plenty of reasons for a foreign worker in Singapore to be less than happy. If later investigations reveal an underlying current of simmering resentment that drove the workers to riot, I would not be surprised to find out.

The government has no good choices of how to respond to this incident. Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again.

A riot by foreign workers happened last night. Nothing can change that fact.

This raises so many obvious questions among Singapore citizens and residents.

Is it safe in Singapore? Is it safe to go to Little India?
Why did the riot happen?
Will riots happen again?
How should the rioters be dealt with?
What will this do to labor relations with our migrant workers?
What does this mean for our country's immigration policy?

The most damaging consequence of this incident is that it illustrates that Singapore is not immune to civil unrest. The illusion that massive uncontrolled immigration is an unalloyed good has been shattered.

That the riot was caused by foreign workers calls into question the wisdom of our immigration policy AND underscores the importance of how we as citizens and Singaporeans navigate our relationships with the foreigners in our midst.

The government has no good choices as to how to respond to this incident. If they are seen as not prosecuting the arrested to the fullest extent of the law and meting out justice, some Singaporeans, the more xenophobic ones, will perceive this as softness. Already, we can read comments online excoriating the rioters and blaming them for threatening Singapore's stability.

If the government does not exercise restraint in its response however, the consequences could be dire too. A harsh response could be reasoned to have a deterrent effect; yet it could equally have a inflammatory effect and lead to a higher likelihood of more riots and civil disturbances, such as strikes.

Remember, there are thousands of foreign workers here. And even though we think of rioting as irrational behavior, when you are a foreign worker in a foreign land incensed at what you perceive as unfair treatment of your peers, the calculus of what is 'rational' is very different.

Even irrational behavior looks reasonable when you can find enough people to agree with you, and again I remind the reader, we have thousands of foreign workers here.

If I were an employer in the construction industry hiring hundreds of foreign workers, I would be worried.

"With so much chaos, someone will do something stupid."

I'm aware that I'm probably hyperventilating a little here, but let's hope that no one actually does something stupid, either foreigner or Singaporean. Something stupid meaning another incident that could fan the flames of discord and lead to another major civil disturbance.

The quote is from the movie V for Vendetta. It is taken out of context here, but the parallel should be clear. It is right for the government to appeal for calm.

Despite the riot, imposing a curfew, rules on assembly or stricter policing in Little India is asking for trouble.

Why are there so many foreign workers in Little India anyway?

It should not be hard to empathize and understand why. Because Little India feels like home to many foreign workers. And for a few hours at least, a foreign worker can pretend that he is not far away from family and a life he understands and instead in a cold metropolis of glass and steel.

So, why do I think that imposing heavier rules and policing in Little India is a bad idea?

Here's a passage from The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, possibly the most celebrated gay love story ever. The passage is from the protagonist's recollection of the Stonewall riots and I reproduce it here to illustrate what might happen when law enforcement encroaches into a space occupied by a marginalized minority:

"The street was full of cops and flashing red lights.But what was more amazing, the street was full of hundreds of gays, and they were fighting the cops. For years they...submitted to harassments and arrest...But the night of Stonewall, they made the instant visceral decision that they had had enough. They were throwing rocks and bottles...They were fighting New York's Finest with their bare hands.

I watched with growing anger and sorrow. I didn't drink, but those bars were about the only public places where gays could be themselves. No straight could understand how precious they were to us. I had always believed in law and order, supported the police. But those cops were busting me...They were riding over me with their big horses and shoving me into vans handcuffed...

Then an amazing thing happened. I had a rock in my hand, and I threw it."

A enlarged police presence in Little India will likely have the effect of fueling resentment and ironically, may lead to a higher risk for future riots. Yet, some may feel that the government needs to make a show of force to demonstrate it takes public order seriously. I am neither for one or the other. Again, I reiterate. There are no good choices here. Humpty Dumpty lies broken and in pieces.

With what has happened last night, we can only hope that such an incident is a one-off and Singaporeans can put it behind us.

Yet, the disquietude persists.