The Online Citizen

Little India riot – time for complete and honest evaluation

Little India riot – time for complete and honest evaluation
December 12
12:00 2013

By Howard Lee

The government’s immediate response to the riot in Little India has to be commended as a textbook example of the components needed to respond to a crisis. However, this well-orchestrated and affirmative response cannot be mistaken for depth of understanding about the crisis in its totality, and much is still needed to assure citizens about the future that lies in the wake of the incident.

In the traditional crisis communication model, we have often been told to put a CAP on it – Concern, Action, Perspective. Concern was well demonstrated by our leaders. Members of Parliament for the constituency went down to ground zero to assure residents. Even the Prime Minister himself expressed condolence to the family of the deceased. Much was also said about the need for calm and to refrain from inciting further violence between Singaporeans and foreigners.

Action was in abundance. Emergency services responded as best as they could, police subdued the rioters without deadly force and arrested suspected perpetrators. Restrictions were subsequently placed on alcohol sales, alleged to be the “cause” of the riots. Police presence was beefed up in Little India. A commission of inquiry has been called.

And finally, everything was put in Perspective. This is a remote example that does not speak for the generally peaceful migrant worker population. Rioting is illegal and the perpetrators will be dealt with in accordance with our laws, which have been upheld firmly that night, for which the Home Team deserves a massive pat on the back. As an inquiry has been called, “netizens” should refrain from speculating on the cause of the riot and wait for the verdict.

Even more amazingly, all the politicians who have voiced out about the riot have been saying pretty much the same thing – in essence, for citizens to exercise restraint and not speculate on the cause of the riot.

Singaporeans will sleep well, knowing that everything is under control, and our government has done a great job in protecting the Singapore way of life.

Or can we?

Indeed, most if not all of the statements in the above CAP model cannot be disputed. Our leaders had a crisis thrust upon them, and the need to respond affirmatively is of paramount national importance. Singapore has not had a riot since independence, and citizens have a right to be concerned. Credit must be given to what is by all counts an excellent dosage of crisis communication, well-coordinated to boot. But has the responses merely secured an immediate truce, or contribute towards an effort for longer-term peace?

Some parallels can be drawn from the London riots in 2011. Nipping at the heels of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the riots risked derailing the government’s plans to project the city as a choice destination for visitors. The rioting continued until the UK government “reclassified” the rioters as hooligans, looters and criminals, whereupon the police took action to arrest them on sight. The continued refrain was that the incident remains a one-off incident and in no way reflected the actions of regular Londoners.

However, some bouts of thinking following the incident suggested that the root cause of the London riots might not be as simple as a case of pure criminality. The theory is that people don’t riot just because they feel like going on a crime spree. Understanding the reasons, often social ones, behind rioting offer a better perspective on how such future incidents can be prevented.

What of our Little India riot? While the speed of response from the government was commendable, the substance of the response has to be evaluated more closely. There was too much inference to the rioters as drunks, and this has also been, unfortunately, carried to the death by mainstream media. Can the influence of alcohol be the only contributing factor to the riot?

Oddly, it is more telling to examine some of the side remarks made by our leaders:

“The COI will also review the current measures to manage areas where foreign workers congregate and give suggestions on how they can be improved, Mr Lee added. He also said last night’s riot at Little India was an isolated incident and it should not tarnish our views of the foreign worker community in Singapore.” (from Today Online)

The two statements, coming from the same person, appear to contradict each other. If the riot was an isolated incident, why would the congregation areas of foreign workers be a concern? Singaporeans from all walks of life, too, congregate in numbers for alcoholic consumption. Do we also now take a look at these congregation areas?

And there is this other one:

“Whenever you have an incident like this, we have those on the web who will cast it as foreign worker related,” [Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew] said. “I urge everyone to look at it in a calm manner and give the police the support they need. It is not the time to go into the 6.9 million issue again. Let’s confine it to just this situation.” (from Today Online)

Besides contradicting the COI’s current charge to look specifically at “areas where foreign workers congregate”, this statement also drew reference to “the 6.9 million” issue. Why the concern that people will draw references to that? Have we reached a state where enough people automatically link unruly behaviour by foreigners with our immigration policies, such that the Transport Minister has to offer a media statement to anticipate and diffuse it?

What are the underlying issues behind the riot? There could be one or many. Some have suggested lack of policing know how in preventing an escalation of the situation. Some have suggested that the rioters have felt marginalised to begin with and the accident that killed one of their fellow countrymen was only the spark that ignited the simmering resentment within.

Any one or more of these hypotheses could be right, or wrong. But clearly, alcohol consumption is definitely wrong as an underlying cause for the riot. It is at most the trigger, not the fuel.

Unfortunately, the current narrative suggests that the government will look at the incident in isolation, without reference to other social factors and a deliberate steer towards alcoholic consumption, ignited by the death of a comrade, as the chief culprit.

Such an approach is short-sighted and will leave us no better at managing future incidents. It will also mean that our efforts are geared towards responding to incidents (e.g. more police on the ground) rather than preventing such incidents from happening to begin with (e.g. building better police rapport with the ground).

As such, now that calm has settled in – applause to the citizen peace-makers and the Home Team alike – it is time to get down to a complete and honest evaluation of all that has gone wrong, so that we need not go through this again.

  • AlanJustice

    The inebriated construction worker was asked by Madam Grace
    Wong, 38, the transport coordinator on the bus, to alight as he was causing
    trouble. Investigations revealed that after Sakthivel disembarked, he was
    walking or running after the bus in “an unsteady manner”. “He then stumbled,
    tripped and fell onto the path of the rear tyre of the bus and was run over, ”
    the police added. People in the bus and people who saw Sakthivel walking or
    running after the bus are important witness. It could be a misunderstanding by
    the rioters of the cause of accident. Oops.

    • Marvin Fok

      The victim was caught on the CCTV video that he was running dangerously after the bus in a drunken stupor. Not fair for the bus driver to take all the blame.

      • AlanJustice

        Wow, I would like to see this CCTV video.

  • Andrew Leung

    PAP must design and build a Passenger Lounge for the FW Bus Arrival and Departure Point for Little India. They must ask SIA to give some training to the Bus Drivers and Conductors on safety tips and customer service. How to handle emergency and VIP drunk passengers and unhappy passengers. They must have more National Conversation on the future of Little India Development and FW issues.

  • john tan

    maybe that night ,most of the policemen were guarding BIG PAP convention, asking people don’t ‘ CRY FATHER CRY MOTHER ‘ during the PAP internal meeting , most of the police resources were used to protect PAP fat cats that night. ha ha

  • yuen

    I suggest showing free bollywood movies every sunday afternoon in Hong Lim, with renting out of space to drink/food carts (no alcohol however) to recover cost; afterwards, the viewers can take NE Line from Clark Quay to Little India, just 2 stops away; they would have less time to get drunk before going back to their dorms

  • FreedomAfterSpeech

    Great read. You are absolutely right that they have already “decided” the cause of the riot to be alcohol and thus there is no need for the COI to perform additional investigation to determine the root cause. For some interesting reason, our esteem leaders are able to determine the root cause without the COI. I wonder why do we need the COI then.Of course, the 24 charged will never be given an opportunity to speak to e.g. the alternative media, to tell us why they did what they did. They would be deported as quick as the Chinese workers and before we know it, the issue is closed and deeply buried. Well, it is just another day for them, albeit a rather stressful day.

  • Silvester Goh

    Every cloud has a silver lining & perhaps from the riot I hope we all can learn useful lessons & plan a better future for all…..foreign workers & singaporeans.
    There have been many comments & quite a few are very constructive.
    We can cherry pick what we believe are useful.
    Perhaps the Authorities through the COI should carefully consider the many useful suggestions & take a more HOLISTIC approach when making recommendations for improvements……for example, we know that alcohol consumption might have been a contributing factor,so do haul up our liquor licensing department & get their take on whether access to drinks has been too lax? Do we have too many outlets in Little India (I think YES!). In many countries, consumers are not allowed to drink in public; they are only allowed to drink only at their homes or INSIDE the premises selling liquor & the vendor has the responsibility to monitor who has had more than enough & stop delivering anymore drinks to that consumer. Re-look at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) practices to see how we can tighten the recruitment (making sure the workers are properly informed of what they are getting themselves into BEFORE coming to work in Singapore eg who their employers are, what is their pay, etc) of foreign workers & ensure their living conditions are adequate, look into employers’ abuse more thoroughly. Take on the Indian High Commissioner’s offer of doing more for Indian nationals by assimilating them more into Singapore’s culture; this will increase the understanding between the foreign workers & Singaporeans & can lead to better harmonious relationship; MOM could work with the Indian High Commission on this. Re-look at parking in little India on sundays! Race course road is already so narrow, but we still allow carparking at the road side! Can we have ”no parking” day on sunday evenings (maybe from 5pm till 10pm?) to avoid motor traffic & human traffic congestion? There is a huge open-air carpark opposite muthu curry——its usually empty on sundays!
    Again, I recommend take a holistic approach. A piecemeal-patchwork approach will not work….there are too many moving parts.
    Do a on-the-spot study of the whole little India phenomenon on a sunday evening—it is a must; a TASK FORCE should be present & witness it, make observations, talk to the workers, shopkeepers, residents etc, then a complete picture can be developed & then set out to address the issues.

  • Scott

    This is one of the most insightful articles on this subject. When I first read our leaders’ comments, i didn’t see the various contradictions you pointed out eg isolated incident doesn’t require COI. Pinning the cause to alcohol risks missing out a holistic examination and preventive measures. Thanks for the analysis that gets readers and all thinking

    • James Tan

      Finally someone is on the same book

  • littleindiariot

    Hi all. As a Singaporean living overseas – I was left saddened by the Sunday’s events and frustrated by the standard of official reportage. With that in mind, I created a site that presents real-time updates on the riots through social media – drawing both official and alternative media sources. I would be honoured if the readers here would be kind enough to use the site as a resource to keep up to date and help them to make a more informed understanding of the riots and its implications on society.

  • Silvester Goh

    what? I read that the Indian High commissioner to Singapore issued a statement that they didn’t find any ”discernable dis-satisfaction” among the indian foreign workers here? Who have they been talking to? Sure by far & large, the workers may not be complaining too much but do note where you do your survey; this is to anyone who wants to conduct any PROPER survey. May I suggest that if the survey was done at any NGO that assists foreign workers who find themselves in trouble in Singapore due to 1) salary dispute, 2) injury (from which his employer is trying to evade responsibility) 3) abusive treatment …….you may have a different viewpoint. There will be DISCERNABLE DIS-SATISFACTION.

    • nelsonmandala

      yeap the indian high commission also neber ear of workin without wages for the next 9 months or so….
      torkin bout embassies..
      any of the foreign talents embassies will NOT get involved in any of their workers bein abushed (xcept the filipino 1/2way house for runaways)

  • muijeow

    So many comments, so much analysis, so many criticisms of communication, but nobody said anything about staying vigilant and helping to keep peace throughout the country. But of course, that is Govrnment’s job. Citizens’ duty is to find fault.

    • Duh

      Oh look!! Another PAP IB in full force. What happened to your friends ‘silentmajority’ and ‘Bryan Ti’? LOL

    • nelsonmandala

      and you gladly pay every GOVERNMENT ministers more than $100,000 singapoor dollar$/month incl the related presidente?
      so far hav ANY of the minister/mayor or even mp make a street to street survey and comfort the residents nearby?

  • Silvester Goh

    I think everyone has had time to reflect, recover from their individual shock.
    Its time to move on but not forget to spare no effort to try to find the causes… it just a mob’s emotional re-action or if there are latent underlying causes/grouses.
    Personally, I doubt such a riot can ensure if there are no bigger underlying grouses.
    Perhaps we will never really know ! Even if we never find out, there is nothing to stop all of us to take note of the useful suggestions we have seen expressed & go through them to assess if we can adopt changes for the better.
    If we fail to do this reflection/assessment and NO POSITIVE CHANGES arise from this, then we have not benefitted anything from this incident & that itself is an even bigger disaster than the riots itself.

  • muijeow

    And by the way, where does it say that alcohol IS for a fact the ONLY cause of the riot?

  • TED

    Continuous problems in Singapore are symptomatic of Leadership failure