The words ‘riot’ and ‘Singapore’ aren’t often found in the same sentence. Most people asked to conjure up terms to describe Singapore would probably choose ‘safe’, ‘stable’ and ‘secure’. Those who know the city-state well might also, as I do, think fondly of an efficient and well-organised airport, and the general ease of being a visitor.
So it was more than a little surprising when news broke in December that a riot had erupted following the death of a migrant worker. When a private bus killed an Indian national, it provoked outrage among other migrant workers. A mob overturned vehicles and hurled concrete and stones at police officers. Thirty-nine police and civil defence staff were reportedly injured and 16 cars were burnt or otherwise damaged.
Locals and political commentators were quick to point out that rioting is uncommon in Singapore; the last reported incident was more than 40 years ago, during the so-called race riots of 1969.
The incident itself took place in an area known as Little India, where Indian-origin business and amenities attract Indian migrant workers looking to unwind after work. The bus involved in the fatal accident was supposed to ferry a group of workers from Little India to the dormitories in which they live during their stay in Singapore.
Singapore’s 1.3 million migrant workers play a critical role in the state’s economy, especially in the construction sector but also in a wide variety of services. In the aftermath of the incident, Singaporean police interviewed a large number of foreign workers, in the face of estimates that as many as 400 might have been involved.
Following the disturbance, a number of Indian nationals were arrested. Initially, a figure of 24 was cited, but it later emerged that more than 30 were detained and due to appear before the courts. The Indian High Commission in Singapore was reported to be working closely with the authorities.
Independent since August 1965, when it left the federation of Malaysia, Singapore is comprised of one main island and more than 60 smaller ones with a total land area of 716 square kilometres and a population of some five million. Importantly, the population is composed of Chinese-, Indian- and Malay-origin communities. The Chinese community is dominant (some three quarters of the total), but in the coming decades, migrant workers are projected to make up 40 per cent of the total population, especially if indigenous fertility levels remain modest.
So, as in other small, wealthy states such as Qatar, the relationship between the indigenous and migrant communities is of considerable importance. But as the 1969 riots remind us, tensions exist.
In May that year, riots broke out following rumours that Malays in Kuala Lumpur and other cities had attacked Chinese Malaysians. Four people died and scores were injured. The riots served as a powerful reminder that both Singapore and Malaysia have had a difficult post-colonial history.
In the aftermath of the more recent incident, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, convened an investigative committee. He also promised that firm action would be taken against those convicted of rioting, while at the same time urging Singaporeans not to be hostile towards migrant workers.
In the past, migrant workers have complained of the tense relationships with the bus drivers who ferry them to and from their dormitories. Accusations abound of abuse on the one hand and fare dodging on the other. Concerns have also been expressed about the numbers being housed in the dormitories. And migrant workers complain that policing in Little India tends to be hostile; auxiliary police offers are accused of being particularly abusive.
The workers themselves are vulnerable to deportation at any time, and they aren’t represented by any independent trade unions. There are tight controls on migrant workers and a levy system operates to help equalise the cost of foreign labour relative to domestic labour.
Whatever the outcome of the legal proceedings, the prime minister and the People’s Action Party, which has dominated Singaporean politics for more than 50 years, face a dilemma. Migrants are vital to the Singaporean economy. They provide a cheap labour pool and work in key sectors such as services and construction. Migrants from South Asia dominate the construction sector, working for salaries of about US$400 per month, which is seven to ten times lower than a typical Singaporean salary.
Although most Singaporeans implicitly recognise that the city-state remains highly dependent on migrant workers, there’s evidence of growing resentment of their presence among native Singaporeans. What the incident has revealed, perhaps more than anything else, is that migrant workers have been insufficiently integrated into mainstream Singaporean society.
This story was published in the February 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine