COMMENT: Little India riot a matter of serious consequences

Riot policemen watch burning vehicles during a riot in Singapore's Little India district, late December 8, 2013. A crowd set fire to vehicles and clashed with police in the Indian district of Singapore late on Sunday, in a rare outbreak of rioting in the city state. Television footage showed a crowd of people smashing the windscreen of a bus, and at least three police cars being flipped over. The Singapore Police Force said the riot started after a fatal traffic accident in the Little India area. REUTERS/Dennis Thong/Lianhe Zaobao (SINGAPORE - Tags: CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. SINGAPORE OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SINGAPORE

Andrew helms as Editor-in-Chief. His writings have been reproduced in other publications, including the Australian Housing Journal in 2010. He was nominated by Yahoo Singapore as one of Singapore's most influential media persons in 2011. The views expressed here are his own.

The “riot” in Little India on Sunday night has far-reaching consequences for Singapore. It goes to the very heart of how we build, literally, this home of ours and its economic progress.

Our dependence on foreigners has become legendary, with some 40 per cent – 2 million - of our population being non-local. The rapid increase in this number had led to extreme strain not only on physical infrastructure but also on public services. But more importantly, the more serious consequence has always been the social tension between Singaporeans and foreigners.

With the influx, the discomfort between the two groups have heightened in recent times, even as the government sought to alleviate this with various measures, including “sharpening” the distinction in state welfare, and in integration efforts.

However, with such a huge foreign population, such measures will take a long time to bear fruit. And as Sunday’s violence shows, things can take a serious turn in a heartbeat.

The news report that the street violence, Singapore’s first since 1969, was sparked by the death of a South Asian national who had been fatally hit by a bus. It is still unclear, however, why this should set off such rioting, especially since all accounts seem to say that medical help arrived quite promptly after the accident happened.

Is there more to it than we currently understand?

But even as the police investigate and ascertain the cause and perpetrators of the violence and bring them to justice, it would be remiss of us if we did not also asked deeper questions about the incident, and what – truly – sparked it.

The plight of foreign workers, especially and particularly those who do lower-end, low-wage jobs in the construction and marine industry, has been highlighted often by various quarters, including non-governmental organisations and bloggers.

The concerns are many and have been well-articulated. The government, undoubtedly, is aware of these. Of course one is not certain that Sunday’s incident happened because of such underlying unhappiness among our foreign workers. Nonetheless, it is a possibility which we should finally address in concrete and substantial ways.

It is important to highlight once again the many problems our foreign workers face, problems which add to their unhappiness, which most of the time is left to simmer. For many a time, there is not much else a lowly worker could.

Singapore’s liberal labour laws with regards to the employment of cheap labour has led to exploitative wages and living conditions. Its lack of legal protection for these workers adds to the oppressive climate these foreigners work in. While the government, under public pressure, has pledged and taken some steps to address these, they do not go far enough.

For example, the simple matter of requiring employers to issue pay slips, which is a norm anywhere else, was deemed too “costly” for employers to undertake, according to the Manpower Ministry. This leads to frustrations for the employee when it comes to settling pay disputes with their employers. It is not uncommon for the Manpower Ministry to require the worker to show proof of non-payment in such disputes. It is an issue which the NGOs have raised several times.

But besides addressing these particular or specific issues, the main issue which Singaporeans continue to be concerned about is the government’s overarching immigration and labour policies.

While, as said above, the government has taken steps to address these concerns, the fact remains that Singapore continues to be overcrowded, and that more foreign workers are being allowed in, albeit at a slower pace. At the current rate of influx, we will still reach a substantially larger population in not too distant a future. Some have even approved of a 8 million population for Singapore. The government has, for now, only projected a “planning scenario” of a 6.9 million population by 2030.

Singaporeans, however, remain wary and deeply troubled that 6.9 million may in fact be the lower-end of the scale which their government is looking at. After all, we have surpassed the previous two “planning scenarios” of 4 million and 5 million by 2000 and 2012, respectively.

While the government now says it is more aware of infrastructural shortcomings and has revealed new city planning and land use masterplans, these are but only physical town planning scenarios.

The more uncertain aspect of all these is the social fall-out or social ills we – locals and foreigners – will face, integration effort notwithstanding.

The government must understand, which it claims it does, that a society cannot imbibe such a large foreign contingent in such a short space of time, and expect all to be fine.

The underlying unhappiness has been palpable for several years now – among Singaporeans, and among foreigners as well. It is not uncommon now to hear foreigners disparage Singaporeans openly, especially on social media and online forums.

Singaporeans expressing the same about foreigners is also not uncommon. Last year’s SMRT strike by 170 of the company’s bus drivers, for example, sparked off what were seen as xenophobic reactions.

Sunday’s “riot” involved foreign workers, apparently. What our leaders should keep in mind is also the continuing unhappiness among Singaporeans with its labour, population and immigration policies.

As this writer wrote last year, sentiments have reached a certain point where all it might take is another incident for it to boil over. And yes, it may be too late by then.