Riots a worrying sign in Singapore

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 2:30pm

Global and regional movements of people seeking opportunities created by demand for their labour can test the tolerance and values of host communities and guest workers or migrants alike. Sadly, it is not uncommon for such cultural and social tensions to be fanned into disorder and violence - by a burning resentment or a single spark. A riot on Sunday night involving about 400 South Asians that left burnt-out police vehicles and cars and damaged property is the latest example. What set it apart is not the cause, but the location - Singapore, a multi-ethnic success story with a reputation for public order. The worst outbreak of violence in more than 40 years has tarnished it. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong condemned the "violent, destructive, criminal behaviour" - regardless of the cause - and vowed to bring the full force of the law to bear on those held to blame.

That said, it was not an organised or spontaneous demonstration that got out of control in an area known as Little India where South Asian labourers gather on Sundays to shop, dine and socialise. The death of an Indian worker run over by a private bus sparked mob hysteria, possibly fuelled by alcohol.

If underlying unrest were a factor, that recalls a rare strike about a year ago by 100-odd mainland bus drivers who were angry at being paid less than permanent local employees. It was hardly comparable, but nonetheless not the only reflection of tensions over immigration to fill low-paying jobs amid rising living costs and declining living standards at the lower end of the labour market. A protest earlier this year by about 4,000 Singaporeans against immigration was a sign of greater political engagement. So was the outcome of the latest election in 2011, won easily by the government, but with its lowest-ever vote.

The events on Sunday should not be dismissed too hastily as mindless violence. It is therefore good that Lee yesterday set up a commission of inquiry not only to look into the causes of the rioting and how it was dealt with, but to review the management of areas where foreign workers congregate to see if it can be improved. Measures to encourage responsible supply and consumption of alcohol should be considered.

Meanwhile, online postings have condemned foreign workers. Thankfully, they do not reflect general public sentiment. It is important for the future of Singapore which, like Hong Kong, is an Asian hub with an outwardly oriented economy, that its people do not become xenophobic.