The Little India riot of 8 December 2013 highlights the ethnic divide in the island-nation of Singapore. As reported earlier, a mob of angry men of South Asian decent became violent following a fatal bus collision that killed a 33-year-old construction worker. The man has been identified as Sakthivel Kumarvelu, an Indian national. According to eyewitness accounts reported by local media, the man may have been intoxicated and belligerent as he tried to board the bus, which ran him over shortly after. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the police officers who arrived on the scene before the ambulance behaved in an unseemly manner, fueling the rage.
Channel NewsAsia reports that a female Singaporean timekeeper on the bus was assaulted and the driver, a 55-year-old Singaporean man, then closed the bus doors. The driver was later dragged out of the bus and assaulted by a group of men. The driver was arrested and charged with causing death by a negligent act, but was released on bail. If found guilty, he could receive up to two years in prison, or a fine, or both.
27 rioters were arrested that night, all between the ages of 23 and 45, 24 of them are Indian, two are Bangladeshi, and one is a permanent resident of Singapore. It is expected that they will be charged shortly. The figure of injured police officers has jumped to a total of 39, including members of the Singapore Civil Defense Force.
Police have beefed-up its presence in the Little India neighborhood. Local media Today has reported that more than two dozen foreign workers were being hauled away on police buses on Monday, with no additional details as to why.
The bus accident was a random incident that acted as a catalyst that sparked the Little India riot. Men began to smash the windshield of the bus while the victim was still trapped under it. The Singapore Civil Defense Force arrived on the scene to try to rescue the victim, and some in the mob pelted them with objects. Three police cars and one ambulance were set on fire. The number of protesters was estimated by police to be around 400, but videos from above seem to show far more–although it is difficult to distinguish the rioters from the gawkers. A total of 300 anti-riot police were dispatched, including special Gurkha officers.
Some witnesses to the bus fatality indicate that police did not handle the situation very well at the scene of the accident, becoming antagonistic with those present.
According to The Smart Local: “Apparently, it was understood that the police officers could be those that patrol Little India on a regular basis–and they are known to be rather ‘nasty’ and cocky towards the Indian foreign workers there.”
The Real Singapore reports that several eyewitnesses claim that the man was decapitated, but adds that it is unable to verify the authenticity of the information, and other sources deny that this is true. After police arrived on the scene before paramedics did, they began to “push them around,” causing them to become unruly.
Police Commissioner Ng was quick to draw a wedge between foreigners and Singaporeans: “As far as we know now, there was no Singaporean involved in the riot. The unwanted violence, rioting, destruction of property, fighting the police, is not the Singapore way.”
In order to boost economic growth, the ruling People’s Action Party has made possible the importing of vast numbers of laborers. Of the five million residents of Singapore, only about three million of them were born in the country. Low-wage migrant workers make up about 20 percent of the country’s population, coming mostly from India, China, Bangladesh, and neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
Currently, Singapore does not have a set minimum wage, as most countries in the world do. The passports of migrant workers are held by their employers when they arrive in the country. Many of them complain of long work days with no days off. They often have trouble collecting wages. Workers are made to sleep in dorm rooms of up to 30 men, with one shower between them. Singapore does not have effective workers’ unions and workers’ complaints are rarely heard.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong states: “The vast majority of foreign workers in Singapore are law-abiding workers. They contribute to our economy, working hard to earn a living and support their families back home. We must not allow this bad incident to tarnish our views of the foreign worker community here.”
Most commentators on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit call for peace and understanding between the ethnic groups of Singapore. Here are a couple highlights:
@smrtsg tweets: “All jokes and cars aside, let not this incident be a catalyst for
xenophobia or anti-government remarks.”
@skinnylatte tweets: “As a Singaporean, I believe the death of one foreign worker in #littleindiariots is every bit as important as the death of a Singaporean.”
This is the first time Singapore has seen a riot since 1969, when conflict between Chinese and Malays in Kuala Lumpur spilled over, resulting in seven days of rioting which left four dead and 80 wounded. Chinese and Malay groups also clashed in 1964, leading to 36 deaths, 556 injuries, and about 3,000 arrests.
The riot in Little India on Sunday night will inevitably highlight the ethnic divide in Singapore.
By K. Elsner