Little India: Was street culture a factor?

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The Little India riot Committee of Inquiry identified the street sub-culture among the working class men of Tamil Nadu as a possible factor for the events following the accidental death of a foreign worker.

Mob violence usually took over as the street crowds sought revenge and acted to protect their kind.

This was what happened on the fateful and tragic night of December 8, 2013, according to the COI. Investigations had shown the worker’s death was an accident.

But would resorting to perpetuating stereotypes about South Asian workers be helpful or even advisable?

Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies Gillian Koh did not think so.

Koh said: “It would be more accurate to say that the COI found that the social-psychological mindset is but one factor, and the riot happened because of the intermingling of many factors including alcohol consumption.”

“This makes all the difference in understanding what happened, and it should be emphasized,” she added.

She also said that having insights to cultural orientations of different groups of people – which can be shaped by nationality, race, religion – would help to “build-up cross-cultural understanding” among us all.

“But we should check them against reality and not use these insights as stereotypes; so it has to be a balanced approach,” she warned.

Bridget Welsh, who is Senior Research Associate at the Centre of East Democratic Studies at National Taiwan University, thought that drawing a link between the riot and the crowd’s “sub-culture” had an apparent racial undertone to it.

“From a perspective of social science research, very few studies have tried to justify the idea of “sub-culture” in cases of clashes with the police,” she said.

She questioned further: “What do they mean exactly by subculture?”

“The assumptions in using the concept of sub-culture to justify violence appear to be racial in nature. So the implication is that the use of the term here is derogatory,” she said.

“This is not helpful for a constructive dialogue.”

Constructive dialogue follows an empathetic understanding of each other’s cultural orientations, not labelling.

“Singaporeans need to play their part too.  At the same time, we hope foreigners will also understand the cultural orientations that we have as this nation called ‘Singapore’, our social norms, our practices and expectations of behaviour too,” said Koh.

“With both sides taking steps towards each other, there will be stronger basis for social peace in Singapore.”