Lee Hsien Loong orders inquiry after Singapore's first riot in four decades

Violence leaves 39 police and civil defence staff injured after city's first street violence since 1969

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 2:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 2:22am

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has ordered an inquiry into Singapore's first riot in four decades as tensions rise over the state's reliance on foreign workers.

The hour-long fracas on Sunday night, triggered when an Indian construction worker was struck and killed by a private bus in the Little India district, left the nation questioning the causes behind the violence.

Last year Singapore experienced its biggest outbreak of labour unrest in years when around 170 bus drivers from mainland China went on strike illegally.

Police said about 400 people were involved in the riot on Sunday, and that 27 South Asian workers had been arrested on charges punishable by up to seven years in prison as well as caning.

Lee said the rampage left 39 police and civil defence staff injured and 25 vehicles, including 16 police cars, damaged.

"There is no excuse for such violent and criminal behaviour," Lee said.

A Committee of Inquiry will look into the reasons for the riot and how it was handled, and review how the government manages areas where foreign workers congregate, he said.

The city-state prides itself on social order and racial harmony, and many citizens expressed dismay over the mayhem.

Prominent blogger Andrew Loh said that Singaporeans were astonished as "we have not seen something of this scale before".

"I have worked with foreign workers and I generally know them to be quite sensible and hard-working people, so there must be quite a serious reason why the riots happened," he said.

Of the 27 men arrested, 24 are Indian, two Bangladeshis and one other is a Singapore resident.

Analysts played down suggestions that the riot, which was brought under control by police commandoes, could be an indication of wider discontent among poorly paid migrant workers.

Devadas Krishnadas, the founder and managing director of Future-Moves, a Singapore-based risk consultancy, said it was "an isolated incident where a variety of factors combined to blow matters out of hand".

Jolovan Wham, an activist on migrant workers' welfare, said that "in the absence of sufficient information about the riot, it is difficult to determine if it is a symptom of pent-up rage".

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew said that the cause of the riot was unclear, but that "alcohol could have been a contributory factor".

Sunday's violence was the first riot in Singapore since racial disturbances in 1969. Since then, the government has imposed strict controls on protests.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg