Little India Riot: Not A Little Local Difficulty

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By Vincent Wijeysingha

The  incident on Sunday night turned the world’s spotlight  towards Singapore. We have in turn focussed that spotlight inward, searching for answers to this first violent commotion to hit the island  since the sixties.

While the NGOs have raised  the problems of foreign workers to national consciousness, the Population White  Paper crystallised the resentment of citizens at immigration policy. An unhealthy and largely defective binary has  emerged.

The  government has made limited policy changes. But without a deeper assessment of the mismatch between the capabilities  and aspirations of our people and the needs of industry, citizens remain  sceptical of the potential for change.

Tempting though it is for Sunday’s incident to be  neatly interpreted from either side of the coin, the truth  is we do not yet know what caused the incident to occur and, therefore, how we  should deal with it.

Early reactions by the  government point towards restricted and externalised  explanation: a little local difficulty caused by anti-social elements inimical  to our way of life. “Not the Singapore way,” Police Commissioner  Ng Joo Hee told the media at Monday’s press conference. An “isolated incident  caused by an unruly mob,” the PM said.

The challenge  of this reaction is that  it may misidentify and, hence,  misdiagnose the problem. We will only kick the  can a little further down  the road.

Quoted in the Wall Street  Journal, the Manpower Minister said “There is no basis to link their  unlawful behaviour to workplace issues”. The Foreign  Minister said: “There is no evidence to suggest that the foreign workers involved in the  Little India riot were unhappy with their employers or the government”.

Unlike their counterparts  from Home Affairs, neither minister is understood to have visited Little  India prior to making these statements. Unless they have  spoken to those remanded since yesterday (which would be entirely inappropriate  given the case is now sub  judice), they could not  at the time confirm the accuracy of these observations.Though workers at the dialogue  session with Shanmugam on  Wednesday said they were happy to work in Singapore, their view cannot be taken  as shared with those who have been arrested.

Social  scientists, on the other hand, tend to agree that riots emerge from stress and  grievance which erupt into violent dissent. Ethologist John  Calhoun showed that  overcrowding and tension lead to anxiety and  stress resulting in anti-social behaviour.

The inquiry into the 1981 riots in London and Liverpool and the  aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in  2005 bear out the truth of these findings.

No doubt the available data will assist towards a  proper assessment of  the incident and its precipitating factors. But what is crucial is that we leave it to the proper forums to consider the issue.

The case must go through the  Courts without unnecessary pronouncements from ministers or the police. The Committee of  Inquiry should proceed in the correct  fashion, which is to say that it facilitates fact-finding. Its aim cannot be to confirm the position the  government has already articulated.And equally importantly, the media, both online  and mainstream, should report  broadly and deeply without  being unnecessarily beholden to one or other causal explanation, whether  emanating from government or the NGOs.

If the COI replicates the  approach taken in last year’s SMRT industrial action and Dinesh Raman’s death in police custody, it will lose its  way. Furthermore, it may  give rise todisquiet or, worse, the suspicion that investigations were  aimed at preserving the status quo and returning the nation to  business as usual, having isolated and inoculated largely localised motivations.

How should the CoI conduct itself? Its deliberations must  be an open process to which the media and  public are invited and it must  publish an unedited report with transcripts of all the  evidence taken. A very senior lawyer told me that  it should admit into evidence the expert  knowledge of the labour activists. To this, it should add  the insights of academia and industry.

Such a confident and yet  humble approach will hinge on the appointment of  the chairperson. He or she will have to be  trusted by both government and  people to conduct an effective and unfettered  inquiry, unafraid to record what might  be unpalatable facts, and communicate them meaningfully to government. Any less and we will have had a pointless navel-gazing exercise providing little ammunition to avert a similar crisis in future.

Ultimately and fundamentally, the CoI must not be a  government-led affair held in camera because its findings will have  ramifications for every single person on this island,  migrant or otherwise.

Last year’s strike  by the SMRT workers was  handled clumsily. If the government  has not learnt some necessary lessons to handle this incident better, it is  virtually predicting further unrest. The resentments of the last several years are building. They will  not disappear by a selective and localised  response.

The  restlessness that flickered  into conflagration on Sunday night  will smoulder away awaiting another moment to  spark again. We must seize this opportunity to learn the lessons the trial and an independent COI could make  available to us.