THEIR impeccable city is supposed to be so law-abiding that policemen are rarely seen on patrol. Imagine the shock, then, when Singaporeans woke up on December 9th to learn of running street battles in the city centre the night before. Singapore had not seen a riot since 1969.
The trouble started when an apparently drunk construction worker from south India, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, was turfed off a crowded bus after making a scene. Next, the bus driver turned a corner and heard a loud thud. Mr Kumaravelu was under the wheel of his bus. He died instantly.
It happened in Little India, a city quarter where thousands of South Asian migrant workers gather every Sunday, often their only day off, before being bused back to dormitories on the fringes of the island. Very soon after the accident as many as 400 workers had massed and proceeded through the streets as a rampaging mob for about two hours. In clashes with police, 27 officers were injured, along with firefighters and paramedics. Police cars were overturned, and an ambulance was set ablaze.
Riot police and a contingent of Gurkha soldiers put an end to things. Some 27 migrant workers have so far been arrested and charged over the riot, with thousands more interviewed. Those convicted could face as long as seven years in jail, as well as a caning.
Booze seems to have fuelled the affray, and as a stopgap a ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol in Little India will apply this weekend. But alcohol alone would not have turned hundreds of usually peaceful workers into a belligerent mob.
The prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, promises a committee to look into the reasons for the riot. It will need to look at the sometimes dire state of migrant workers’ rights and working conditions as a contributing factor. Singapore relies heavily on cheap migrant labour, with about 350,000 workers in the booming construction industry alone. The rules are strict (no marrying Singaporeans, for instance). The work is sometimes dangerous, and workers can be poorly paid or fleeced by unscrupulous agents.
Singapore’s huge influx of migrant workers is a hot political issue. Singaporeans complain that they are taking local jobs. In response, the government has ordered companies to hire fewer foreigners. This riot will doubtless feed into that debate. Mr Lee has already appealed for people not to let the event “tarnish our views of the foreign-worker community here.”
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