“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 SCDF, 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.”
Minister of National Development Khaw Boon Wan posted this message on his Facebook page on Tuesday, accompanied by photos of the simulation exercise. Police officers stood in a firm line with riot shields as several South Asian men – presumably “foreign worker ambassadors” – waved their arms at them. A small fire burned. In the background and on the sidelines, people stood taking photos with their smartphones as the police successfully subdued the feral mob of about nine guys.
The racist prejudices on display in the exercise are so stark that I’m surprised Khaw has failed to recognise them, let alone be bold enough to share the photo on social media.
In the aftermath of the Little India riot the government was quick to reassure Singaporeans that this was a “one-off” incident (although their actions – and the coverage of the mainstream media – repeatedly suggested that the whole issue was being treated otherwise).
Yet Khaw has now centred the issue of violence and unruly conduct on migrant workers, linking the “possible scenario” of “fights or worse” to the “concentration of foreign workers in one locality”.
As the exercise showed only South Asian-looking men, it doesn’t take a very deep reading to get the message: when there are many foreign workers of a certain race in one area, violent clashes are more likely to happen.
It’s a sentiment built upon prejudice and ignorance. It completely fails to take into consideration context, or acknowledge the double standards that we so openly practise. The South Asian men who work in the construction and marine industries in Singapore endure conditions that no Singaporean will tolerate. Their wages are embarrassingly low for the responsibilities they have and the hours they work. Overtime is a staple of their working lives, because their basic salary is so meagre. Dormitories are sometimes cramped, their whole lives crammed into the size of a bunk bed. I’ve met men who told me about sharing a bathroom with a hundred others, making a simple task like taking a shower require an hour of standing in line to achieve. Sleep is sometimes hard to come by if you’re sleeping in a large room with about 80 others – there’s always someone going in or out, or talking on the phone.
In this environment, is it still so surprising that nerves fray and tempers flare, resulting in occasional clashes? Yet we would rather carry out simulation exercises that allow the state to triumph over these men than to address roots causes of animosity and anger.
The assumption that South Asian migrant workers are more prone to violence is itself problematic. Fights don’t only break out among these workers. The same goes for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. Yet we don’t see law enforcement carrying out simulation exercises with Caucasian expats or white-collar workers – or God forbid, Singaporeans — hanging out in Clarke Quay or any watering hole downtown.
An expat banker who gets into a fight is an aberration, a poor example of foreign talent. We criticise him, we might even troll him, but he is, at the end of the day, just one douchebag. His actions are his alone, and all the other yuppies who hang out along the Singapore River need shoulder no responsibility. There will be no alcohol ban, no increased police presence to make all the bankers line up for buses to shuttle them back to their homes.
A brown migrant worker who gets into a fight is a whole different story. He is immediately held up as a threat to Singapore’s law and order – him, and all the other brown workers like him. The bad behaviour of a minority – even the Little India riot only involved an estimated 400 out of over 300,000 construction workers here or roughly 0.1 percent – is imposed on the entire group, peddled by the mainstream narrative and swallowed hook, line and sinker with little question. The individualism and heterogeneity of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Singapore wiped out in an instant, because they’re brown, poor and come from countries we see as the “Third World”. We cannot identify with them. We do not even think to try.
Upon arriving in Singapore, migrant workers find themselves dehumanised. They are no longer themselves; in the eyes of Singaporean society, they are just “the migrant workers” – men to be trotted out to sweep the streets, put up the skyscrapers and repair the ships, then whisked away to some remote part of the island lest they disturb our enjoyment of the infrastructure they’ve built. We don’t see them, and we don’t want to see them. “They’re here to work, right?” we think, conveniently forgetting that workers are people with needs and desires outside of the construction site.
This means that migrant workers in Singapore are exceptionally easy to demonise – to the point where South Asian men are used as pawns in a simulation exercise and a Cabinet Minister sees nothing wrong with it.
And yes, this ultimately begs the question, “Are we equally as guilty in racially stereotyping our foreign workforce?”
Kirsten Han is a Singaporean blogger, journalist and filmmaker. She is also involved in the We Believe in Second Chances campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty. A social media junkie, she tweets at @kixes. The views expressed are her own.