Riot in Singapore's 'Little India': Reading between the lines

Published: 10 December, 2013 07:50 IST | Vidya Heble |

A riot is an anomaly in tightly-controlled Singapore, but on Sunday South Asian workers ran amok, even torching police vehicles, in the Little India area. What caused this rage, and does it signal a deeper unrest?

Little India in Singapore is centrally located, a network of roads, shops and eateries that draws locals and tourists alike. Roughly, it is centred around the arterial Serangoon Road, at the start of which is Tekka Market, housing shops, a vegetable, fruit, fish and meat market, and food stalls famous for local delights.

A police car burns in the otherwise tourist-thronged Little India area of Singapore. Pic/AFP

The Indian enclave culminates at the northern end of this particular stretch of Serangoon Road, with the other shoppers’ icon of the area, Mustafa Centre. It is open 24/7 but one is advised not to go shopping there on Sunday evenings.

Shophouses in the Little India area, as in most tourist-centric spots of Singapore, are maintained well and painted in the traditional way

Sea of workers
In fact, the general advice is not to venture into Little India on Sunday evenings at all. From Monday to Saturday, and during the first half of Sunday, it is like any other place in Singapore. About 4pm or so on Sunday, the first of the workers begin to trickle into the area. They are predominantly male, mostly young, and Sunday is their day out so they are dressed well. More and more start arriving, and by dusk the entire area is throbbing with men.

Little India is a shopping and dining destination

As they meet and greet, send and receive letters, remit money to their hometowns, the hubbub of spoken voices grows, until the total effect is that of a muted roar. One has to turn the television volume up on Sundays. It is not unsafe, just unsettling to see this sea of men everywhere. The most they do is stare. Singapore’s laws are famously strict, and this makes it probably the safest place for women.

I lived in the area for a few years during my sojourn in Singapore, and the most annoying thing was sometimes, waiting at a pedestrian crossing, to find a man standing just next to me, near enough for it to appear as if we were together. On thinking about it I felt sympathy for the guys who tried this how lonely must they feel.

Tough conditions
But the loneliness is the price they pay for earning what they hope will give them and their families a good life. However, the reality is not always what they envisage. Their working hours are long and conditions are hard. Housing is basic, often rigged up in containers. The workers’ passports are held by the contractor who brings them in to Singapore.

Their wages can be docked, or withheld, and legal recourse is hard to come by. These foreign workers do have a voice in the form of Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), a non-profit organization that promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore, helps those in need and advocates better policies. While TWC2 is successful in taking up cases of workers denied their rights, it is an uphill battle and the frustration level is high.

Some of the frustration was visible last year when bus drivers from mainland China went on strike demanding better wages and living conditions. Four of the drivers were jailed, but the fact that there was a strike at all is the astonishing thing in this tightly-controlled city-state.

Giving voice
The astonishment has turned to something like shock at Sunday’s incident. The fact that the workers who generally obey the law dared to demonstrate anything akin to a will of their own was the first surprise. Then, the fact that they damaged and burnt state property nay, police cars! was the other shocker.

On a typical Sunday in Little India, the buzz continues till about 9.30pm, which is when the police begin exhorting the workers to leave. “Go back! Go back!” is the familiar cry to be heart from the blue uniforms, as patrolling police cars bark out the typical “Parp-parp!” horn, underlining their calls.

Perhaps, this Sunday, the death of one of their comrades sparked a resistance to the “Go back!” and the “Parp-parp.” From all accounts, the riot did not seem to be racial. But the violence unleashed against police vehicles may have held a message. Perhaps the workers have had enough of the oppression that they face, Monday to Saturday. The message may have been not on Sunday, too!

The incident
About 400 South Asian workers, mostly Indian, rioted and set vehicles ablaze after the death of 33-year-old Sakthivel Kumaravelu in a bus accident in the Little India area of Singapore. Kumaravelu was a construction worker with scaffolding company Heng Hup Soon for about two years. Eighteen people were injured in the riots, and 27 have been arrested. The last time there were riots in Singapore was in 1964, when Chinese-Malay clashes left more than a hundred dead. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced a committee to inquire into the incident. 

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