Singapore’s 'Little India' riots: "Tensions had long been brewing"
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It had been decades since Singapore had witnessed violent riots. Several hundred foreign workers faced off with the police on Sunday in Little India, a neigbhourhood with a large South Asian community, after a young Indian man was hit and killed by a bus. The country’s transport minister says alcohol may have been a factor in the riots, but our Observer, who studies Singapore’s South Indian community, believes the violence stems from underlying tensions between migrant workers and locals.
Screen capture from second video below. Rioters in the Little India, a neighbourhood of Singapore, set fire to police cars and an ambulance.
It had been decades since Singapore had witnessed violent riots.
Several hundred foreign workers faced off with the police on Sunday in Little India, a neigbhourhood with a large South Asian community, after a young Indian man was hit and killed by a bus. The country’s transport minister says alcohol may have been a factor in the riots, but our Observer, who studies Singapore’s South Indian community, believes the violence stems from underlying tensions between migrant workers and locals.
Twenty-seven people -- 24 Indians and 3 Bangladeshis -- were arrested during the riots. According to the authorities, 22 police officers were injured.
Singapore, which is the third-richest country in the world according to Forbes, is home to 1.3 million migrant workers. The country’s population is 5.3 million.
British national Paul Gill filmed this video from his balcony. He told FRANCE 24: “Rioters were shouting and throwing things at a vehicle. At first there were around 30 rioters but there soon came more. The police arrived quite promptly and cordoned off both ends of the street but only after police cars and an ambulance were also attacked. One police car and an ambulance were set alight. The explosion appeared to be the petrol tank of one of the vehicles that had been set on fire.”
“There have been tensions between migrant workers and bus drivers who ferry them to Little India every Sunday”
Charan Bal is university lecturer who recently completed a PhD on migrant labour politics in Singapore, focusing on Bangladeshi construction workers.
Tensions have been brewing for quite a while, and I believe these were sparked off by this bus accident. There have been tensions between migrant workers and bus drivers who ferry them from the industrial areas in the north and west to Little India every Sunday, where they do their shopping and hang out on their day off. I have taken these buses on a few occasions during my research and discovered the drivers tend to be very rude to the migrant workers.
The drivers – some are Singaporeans while others are Malaysian or Chinese – tend to be overworked and underpaid. They have trouble collecting fares from workers and stopping those who try to board buses that are full. They sometimes push workers off buses and verbally abuse them.
There have also been tensions between migrant workers and auxiliary police in the Little India area for quite some time. In response to complaints from residents living in the area, the local parliament member called for a more stringent policing of the area in order to keep migrant workers from “loitering”. The auxiliary police officers, which are from private firms, are, once again, poorly paid and not properly trained. They often respond to migrant workers in an abusive and aggressive manner.
“Their negative impression of emergency services could have contributed towards the aggression shown on Sunday”
At the same time, migrant workers are also unhappy that while the authorities are quick – and aggressive – in policing their community, they are slow to respond when the workers themselves are in need, for example when they’re injured in a fight or traffic incident. [According to some witnesses, ambulances took a long time to arrive on Sunday.] Their negative impression of emergency services could have contributed towards the aggression shown towards police and emergency vehicles at the scene on Sunday. It’s worth noting that meanwhile, none of the shops or restaurants in the area were looted.
This video shows an ambulance that was set alight and the police's intervention.
South Asian migrant workers face many problems here. They can be deported back home any time by their employers; they’re not legally allowed to change jobs; and they’re usually in debt due to high recruitment fees, which can include kickbacks to their employers. And since there are no independent trade unions here, these workers struggle to address the issues at work that plague them – low or unpaid wages, poorly managed or unreported work injuries, heavy work regimes, etc.
There’s a growing antipathy of Singaporeans toward them, and I am sure that this incident, as well as the state-controlled media’s coverage of it, will breed even more.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).
FRANCE 24 reached several Little India residents, both Singaporean and Indian, by phone. None wanted to be cited in this article, but they all insisted that the neighborhood was usually very peaceful and that everything had returned to normal.
The nation remains scarred by the racial riots that plagued Singapore in the 1950s and 60s between majority ethnic Chinese and minority Malay residents. The last major riot took place in 1969, and lasted seven days.