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.


Melbourne said...

I occasionally enjoy reading this blog, so I'll bite. All criticisms made in good faith.

1) Like most other bloggers you have conveniently conflated skilled and unskilled immigration. Singaporeans have never opposed the latter.

2) I'm glad you've acknowledged that the reasons for the riot are unclear. Much of the "alternative media" have not been as even-handed.

To date there has been no evidence to support the narrative that the workers were oppressed. The fact that some are still pushing this is revealing.

3) Original reports put the number of rioters at 400. Further reports trimmed this to 200 and less than 30 were eventually arrested. The rest were apparently bystanders.

The small size of the group suggests a localized cause rather than some larger grievance.

4) That abuse does occur is not in question. But how representative are TWC2's examples?

5) I don't think the riot will be too damaging to Singapore at all.

The impact on foreign investment will be minimal. Foreigners will be looking to the response, not the riot itself.

No deaths, minimal injuries, riot police within an hour, those responsible charged the very next day. The media published a photo of the bus attendant with a large bruise on her face, but no other visible injuries.

A bloodless riot - uniquely Singaporean.

As for locals, they have never been under any illusions about foreign workers, even before the population boom. We tolerate them because they benefit us.

Hence the general lack of sympathy for the victim, which apparently bewilders certain sections of society.

Re: massive unalloyed immigration, see 1).

6) On the side, it's ironic that liberals decry xenophobia when without it they are irrelevant.

7) I think your scenario a little far fetched. This is not Stonewall, the 60s are long gone, we aren't dealing with a bunch of gays.

As a foreign worker myself, I can assure you that their mentality is simple: get rich and go home.

They will distance themselves from anything which threatens those objectives. (including, ironically enough, people who want to "help" them to further their own political agendas)

When the Straits Times reports that workers are mostly worried about how this will affect their jobs, I see no reason to doubt this.

8) I can see why a narrative of oppression might appeal to some. However I think they will probably be left feeling foolish after the facts.

Harish said...

Hi Melbourne, you have pretty much brushed away the just and reasonable concern that abuses faced by migrant workers in Singapore are excessive.

The abuses are common, and indeed excessive when compared to reasonable international standards, such as with conditions of migrant workers in similar occupations in other highly industrialised nations.

Let's not lower our bar any lower than that, shall we?

Unfortunately, most of these abuses don't make the news, which is pretty unsurprising, as in Singapore's employment climate, even payslips are not mandatory. Let's not even get started about wage levels, working and living conditions, kickbacks and deductions, lack of training, etc..

Well, unscrupulous employers aren't stupid to leave a paper trail, and the current laws pretty much facilitate them in doing so.

How do you know, beyond the seemingly anecdotal, if there are no records?

If there's a feeling that there is not enough public information of the abuses that do indeed occur, the above is a start in seeking for more answers.

Singapore is no Australia (just a metaphor) when it comes to workers rights.

Jason Yip said...

Interesting read. It's been a while since I blogged seriously about anything and both comments and the articles do provide a welcome relief to the deluge of nonsense that have been flooding the online space in the last few weeks. :)