Sunday, March 23, 2014

Little India Riots(Part 1): A wake up call to the problems on hand (14th December 2013)

Our Singapore Happenings

Saturday, 14th December 2013

               Little India Riots(Part 1): A wake up call to the problems on hand

                A quiet and slow-news Sunday night was suddenly shaken with the news of a riot which broke out in Little India, the initial reports that came in was of recounts that were in in bits and pieces. Reporters were sent scrambling to the scene; and piecing together the sequential timeline of events was a nightmare. Till date, the many questions still surround the entire episode of events; many whys still unanswered. The police recently released a minute by minute factual recount of what happened but reasons and causes were still unanswered. There are 101 speculations on the net about possible causes for the riots. No one can say for sure what was the exact cause for the riots, which is a discussion for another day – once the Community of Inquiry (COI) report is out. But I think 3 key questions are on many people’s mind (or at least for me):

1)      How exactly did the accident victim end up being run over by the bus after being chased off the bus?
2)      How did a traffic accident lead to a full blown riot? What was the trigger?
3)      Lastly, why did the other South Asians rioters attack first responders and their vehicles that were there to aid the accident victim?

Let’s see what the COI comes up with to explain the causes in the near future. Hopefully, the committee can look to address the root/underlying cause of the issue and not just treat it as a security issue that requires a law and order approach to it.

                In the immediate aftermath of the riot, there was another riot happening – online. Netizens took to social media to express their views about the riot. While PM Lee said that Singaporeans have reacted calmly to the riots, the amount of xenophobic views and racism views online was astounding. It is natural for people’s first response to such incidents to be xenophobic without making clear on what was going on. But this first response is inherent of what the population feel towards these foreign workers and it is indeed worrying. As long as what they see affirms their beliefs and stereotype of a certain group, they are quick to point out the fact and reaffirm their personal beliefs.

Singapore’s infrastructure accomplishments is one known internationally from the Marina Barrage to the Marina Bay Sands, we are proud of these landmarks but the ones that actually make these happen are the foreign workers in the construction industry. Their contribution to the country is immense; I don’t think anyone can doubt that.  But I feel there is a lack of appreciation and understanding towards these foreign workers.
This xenophobic mind-set could stem from a few possibilities.

Firstly, it may be the cultural differences and communication barrier that make locals perceive them as “different” and thus stay away and not interact with them. They may do things differently from us, but it may well be the norm in their home countries, and thus Singaporeans may be upset with such differences and start forming opinions of their own about this group of foreigners.

Secondly, it could be simply a “Not in My Backyard” mind-set that some Singaporean possess. They want their houses to be built, they don’t want to build it and they expect the foreign workers who build their houses to magically disappear at the end of the work day and not be seen in common spaces. It’s simply not possible. You can’t have the cake and eat it! These Singaporeans need to understand that they play a vital role in our society and it is only right that we accord them with the due respect and ensure they have the rights to enjoyment and freedom that they rightfully deserve.

This was coincidentally my Project Work focus area where my team sought to investigate the risk of hiring foreign workers into Singapore. We spoke to residents living in Serangoon Gardens where there was an uproar when a workers’ dormitory was built in the estate. I can safely say that there are residents who completely hate the actions of these foreign workers and cannot even stand the sight of them. But glad to say this is the minority, not the majority.

The sentiments on the ground towards these foreign workers are evident when people took to social media to blurt out spur-of-the-moment comments. Sad but true.

                Through this episode, it has brought to light some of the key concerns that these foreign workers are currently facing that needs resolution. This may or may not have contributed to the riots but if left unsolved may well provide fuel for unhappiness in the future. There are two key areas:

1)      Recreational Space
There is currently not enough covered recreational space for foreign workers to hang out and gather. They often hang out on empty parcels on land which is getting increasingly lesser. And when it rains, they often have to squeeze along the five foot ways to seek shelter. Thus, sheltered recreation spaces could be built for foreign workers to congregate and mingle with friends. These recreational spaces can also be established as activity centers where activities such as baking, art or First Aid Courses can be held for these foreign workers for them to gain essential life skills. These are good activities to keep foreign workers occupied in a meaningful way. With a good recreational place with sufficient space, it can significant reduce the amount of angst that may build up over an overcrowded and stuffy environment.

2)      Auxiliary patrol and treatment of foreign workers
Due to concerns from residents living in the estate of security threats that these foreign workers pose to them, police often patrol the estate. Foreign workers are at times shooed from one place to the other. This intense policing and the way these foreign workers are treated while being questioned may have breed foreign workers'  resentment  to the police. It is understandable that residents are concerned but the police should also be mindful of how they treat these foreign workers. Their attitude towards these foreign workers might backfire one day. It is thus important to strive to balance between maintaining order and treating them with the due respect.

Regardless of the cause of the riots, these are immediate concerns of these foreign workers to be solved. The COI will provide us with an insight on what happened; expect lots of opinions and alternative views from individuals. Till then, we shall wait and reflect.

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