COMMENT: Not the Singapore Way

Police detain men following a riot in Singapore's Little India district, late December 8, 2013. (REUTERS/Dennis Thong/Lianhe Zaobao)
Police detain men following a riot in Singapore's Little India district, late December 8, 2013. (REUTERS/Dennis Thong/Lianhe Zaobao)


Bertha Henson was a journalist with the Singapore Press Holdings stable of newspapers for 26 years until May 2012. Her last designation was Associate Editor of The Straits Times. She is now Journalist-in-residence at Tembusu College, University Town in the National University of Singapore. She runs a media consultancy, Newsmakers, and helms a blog, Bertha Harian. She is a founder of online news/views site Breakfast Network, where this article was originally published. This post first appeared here.

What did we wake up to this morning? What lies ahead?

Everything has changed now. For the first time in well nigh 40 years, there was a riot in Singapore. It is a shock to the Singapore system, to think that something so “foreign” could happen here. But it did, and we should start to think harder about the “Singapore way”.

So many people are now analysing the causes of the riot which involved 400 South Asians. Everything that has been perceived to be wrong about Singapore has been spouted as a reason. The high stress-level of urban living, bad treatment of foreigners, too many foreigners congregating in one place, allowing in people with different values and culture system, the lack of foresight on the part of the G. Some people have even said that this was something that was “waiting to happen”.

Again, Singapore is in the international spotlight – a squeaky clean, law abiding nation experiencing the worst outbreak of violence in recent times. There are the usual comments on tensions building up between the foreigners and locals, increasing calls for a Singaporean Singapore and moves to protect the Singapore “core”.

Doubtless, some people will say to the G: We told you so, these foreigners don’t belong here.

Before the investigations are done, let’s hold our horses for a bit. It would not be too far-fetched to guess that the foreigners involved in the riot looked likely to be work permit holders, not someone who stole any Singaporean’s lunch. And these foreigners who do jobs that Singaporeans decline to do have been part of the Singapore scene for a long, long time.

The angst that has been expressed by Singaporeans over the past year have not been about them, but about higher level foreigners who live among us, doing similar jobs that we do. On that front, the G is already tightening the tap and have imposed fair employment rules which seem to be actively policed, if not by the G then by citizens themselves.

It is no secret that foreigners congregate at Little India over the weekends, and ST has a helpful story today on the scene on weekends, with inebriated foreigners loading up on beer and whiskey. It has become so that even shopkeepers who hawk alcohol think that no-alchohol zones or a curb on alcohol selling hours might be a good idea.

You could blame last night’s frenzy on alcohol, and to lament that the G hadn’t acted sooner on proposed alcohol curbs. You could also ask where the police were last night; they usually have a conspicuous presence in the area on weekends. You could even say that there were ringleaders among the lot, criminal elements, who incited others. After all, every community has its share of bad eggs. So it is not a question of social alienation or repressed feelings or discrimination or some deep malaise among the foreign community.

So let the police get to the bottom of it.

Nevertheless, the riot has given us reason to discuss – calmly – how the country should move ahead from here with foreign residents and guest workers in our midst. Doubtless, there will be calls for more controls on the movement of foreigners, which will be tantamount to curbing freedoms; or curfews set for dormitory living – be in bed by 10pm –which will be treating them like children. Already, people have asked that proposed quotas on foreigners in the HDB heartland be extended to the private estates.

Ironically, the ruling People’s Action Party held its congress over the weekend, on its way forward. Its resolutions pledged to build “a better Singapore, for Singaporeans and with Singaporeans”. It is a pledge directed at voters who will have opportunities to progress in a compassionate meritocracy. Infrastructure such as transport networks will be ramped up, with more green spaces dotting the island. Perhaps, this will make us feel we have more elbow room to move?

What mention made of foreigners was about “controlling” the inflow.

It will be tough for the G to fulfill its promises on infrastructure development without foreign manpower. And it would not make sense for citizens to advocate such a tightening of the tap that it compromises our own future.

I’ll wager that citizens would want tough action against the rioters to among other things, serve as an example to those who think they can behave in any which way in our country.

There is only one way in Singapore, the Singapore way. We might be unhappy, stressed-out, whiny and even uncaring workaholics, but we do not throw sticks and stones at law enforcement officers. Might I also add that it is not the Singapore way to get hysterical, even on social media with anonymity as cover?

Breakfast Network wishes the injured law enforcement officers a speedy recovery.

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