Alcohol is being served up as a factor in the Singapore riot involving nearly 400 people of mostly Indian and Indian sub-continent origin, and a complete ban on alcohol will be implemented this weekend in the area where the riot erupted. Last Sunday’s riot broke out after an Indian man was fatally run0ver by a bus in the neighborhood known as Little India and was the first of its kind in nearly 40 years of general, “lackadaisical” tranquility.
According to Singapore’s local newspaper, The Straits Times, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33, was inebriated when he tried to board the bus that fatally struck him. The bus was already full when he got on, then he “misbehaved” and was asked to get off. After getting down, he became trapped under the rear left wheel of the bus as it made a left turn according to the local media. He was pronounced dead on arrival by a paramedic. While rescuers tried to remove the body, the rioting began as the crowd that witnessed the accident began throwing things. Eventually, fires were lit, police cars were burned and damaged and 27 men of South Asian descent were arrested. They face up to seven years in prison with a side of caning.
Singapore’s top brass has conveniently attributed the riot, in part, to alcohol. The Second Minister for Home Affairs, S Iswaran, publicly stated that it was “plausible that alcohol consumption was a contributory factor” to the riot though it is too early to determine the exact cause. Hence, the alcohol ban is their “step in the first instance” to bring about stability, according to the Minister.
Alcohol may surely have played a part in the Singapore riot of Little India, where migrant workers from South Asia gather in large numbers on Sundays to hang out, eat, and socialize. Arguably, however, it takes a lot to galvanize 400 foreigners to put their jobs and immigration status in jeopardy just to engage in a spontaneous riot.
Another “plausible” explanation apart from Singapore’s “alcohol-may-be-a-contributory-factor” theory might be found in a report by Kirsten Han published just this past November in The Daily Beast. In this piece, Han exposes a side to Singapore quite contrary to its image of maintaining one of the highest living standards in the world today. She contends that even though Singapore is experiencing a “building boom” with its glitzy high rises, the migrant workers constructing them live a life comparable to “indentured servitude.”
She relates the story of a Bangladeshi who spent $8000 on a training center in Bangladesh just for the opportunity to come to Singapore to work as an electrician. Believing Singapore would be his ticket to financial freedom, he spent his first three years simply earning back the money he spent to get there. Six years later, he is trapped in Singapore while he awaits resolution on his workplace injury case. His face was smashed into concrete while he was working on the 21st floor of a high rise under construction. Though his employer paid for some of the multiple surgeries needed to reconstruct his face, it still remains without a socket for a prosthetic eye. Unable to work and unable to go back home until his case is resolved, he continues on in Singapore with support from a migrant rights group called Transient Workers Count Too or TWC2.
Though there is a system to mediate disputes between employers and migrant workers, the result often depends on the willingness of the government agent involved to pursue a case in favor of a migrant worker, according to TWC2. Furthermore, there is no minimum wage in Singapore. Many times, contracts are verbal agreements between employer and worker. In the case of another Bangladeshi worker, his wage was between $400-$500 monthly. Only able to send $250-$300 back home, his family could not cover the debt they took on to send him to Singapore in the first place. The circumstance led him to take on an illegal moonlighting job in which he got injured. He has no hope of compensation as the injury workplace was off limits to him, and he will most likely return to his home country without any earnings.
According to government statistics as of June 2013, there are 306,500 migrant construction workers in Singapore hailing from various countries including Bangladesh, India, China and Myanmar. Of Singapore’s five million population, only three million are actually born in Singapore, and one million are low-wage migrant workers doing jobs less desirable for the average Singaporean. Considering these statistics and Han’s two examples of the migrant worker’s struggle, perhaps there is a lot more to the Singapore riot story than “alcohol consumption.”
Perhaps there lies a much deeper problem that needs to be addressed. In 2010, a Parliament member and chairman of the Migrant Workers Centre Yeo Guat Kwang basically explained that Singapore does not see migrant workers’ issues from the lens of human rights. Rather, Singapore will pursue whatever route necessary in order to benefit its countrymen and country, he added. With no one really looking out for the thousands of transient workers here, apart form TWC2, a riot in Singapore is hardly surprising – with our without alcohol.
Ethnically, Singapore is over 75% Chinese, almost 14% Malay, and nearly 8% Indian, according to a census taken in 2000. The sovereign city-state of Singapore was originally founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading port for the East India Company. Singapore became independent from the United Kingdom by 1963 to become part of Malaysia. Two years after, Singapore became its own sovereign island nation that has now become a global commercial hub with one of the busiest ports in the world. Its rapid economic growth and high living standards have earned it a reputation as being an Asian example to be followed.
While the astute island nation may have turned itself into an economic powerhouse, the Singapore riot puts a spotlight on how it deals with the social ramifications of building greatness. So far, it appears Singapore will just “blame it on the alcohol.”