By Vincent Wijeysingha
The incident on Sunday night turne
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 communi
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.