On a Little Street in Singapore
By Vernon Chan
The Little India riot broke out on 8 December 2013 and already the event is being mythologised by both media and public, made to fit into various narratives of “the Singapore way”, race, crime and order, idleness, and mob mentality. By leaving out certain inconvenient truths and peddling a few convenient fictions, an indigestible event is dressed up, fit for ready consumption.
I do not wish to offer a new mythology, a new way to simplify this problem to a single cause. What I offer is a way of explaining why certain narratives have formed surrounding this riot, why and how the migrant worker in Little India has been labelled as troublesome and criminal for the past 15 years, and what can be learnt from Sunday’s episode.
Approaching the city
Louis Wirth (1937: 4) postulated more than half a century ago that the growth of the modern city (and its differentiation from earlier, historical forms of ‘the city’) is characterised by “the technological developments in transportation and communication”. Consequently, the Wirthian urban scientist is very much aware that the network is the artery of the modern city. Disruptions to traffic or information flows threaten the normal function of the city, hence the need to regulate and protect ‘the flow of things’ by the state, and the subsequent need to study the social process of this regulation by the engaged citizen.
Perhaps a ‘sociology of traffic jams’ is impractical to study because in their ideal form, traffic jams – problems affecting physical movements in the network of the city – are necessarily ephemeral and random occurrences. ‘Ideally’, traffic jams always constantly exist but they are always different, unpredictable, and changing. When a set of traffic jams is almost totally predictable and regular, it constitutes a visible and definable threat to the protocol of the system of movements and the spaces that are constituted by it. Such is the case of the South Asian migrant in Little India.
Whose Little India is this?
Little India is officially imagined as an ethnic space for the Indian population of Singapore in urban planning since the late 1880s. In the previous century it has functioned as a mostly residential settlement for the non-mercantile South Asian migrants. Today, after the redistribution of ‘squatters’ under the housing development drive of the 1970s, it is a commercial space with a preponderance of ‘ethnic products’ (jewellery, clothing) and services (the ubiquitous Indian restaurants) catering to the Indian community.
This ethnic space has been taken over and recontextualised by huge numbers of South Asian migrants who congregate in the large open plots of land along Serangoon Road, often spilling over into the outermost lanes of the road itself to cause the infamous weekend night traffic jam at Serangoon Road, with scenes of jaywalking, public drunkenness, and loitering. Labelling of the migrants as potentially dangerous and Little India as potentially crime-ridden on the weekend stems from this phenomena.
In the bigger picture, the roots of this ‘persistent epiphenomena’ can be traced to the country’s reliance on temporary migrant workers, especially South Asian, in the construction industry. The traffic jams in Little India have escalated in tandem with the intensification of construction activities beginning in 1999. In 1999 when Singapore’s long construction boom began, the import of South Asian migrants for construction alone was reportedly worth $560 million, involving 70,000 workers a year (The Straits Times, 10/24/1999: 23. Singapore’s Department of Statistics has since stopped breaking down non-resident population figures into ethnicity, countries of origin, and employment in industries). It is with these numbers that a mere weekend retreat from work by these migrants becomes a gargantuan traffic problem – part of which is self-inflicted. [Currently, there are 300,000 construction workers in Singapore: Source]
The very small number of bus-stops and their wide spacing from each other, in conjunction with the well maintained walkways, presence of empty plots of land, and shops and restaurants/eateries based on a common ‘ethnic’ theme, are all features which construct Little India as a pedestrian mall. Unlike the other pedestrian mall of Singapore in Orchard Road, pedestrian movements here are truly subversive in the manner described by de Certeau (1984), where the ‘do nots’ of walking are disregarded – jaywalking, walking along bus lanes, and so on. These simple acts of walking, congregating in public spaces, or having ‘picnics’ in open areas become subversive acts when they cause disruption to the city’s transport network. Serangoon Road, migrant workers, “crime prone” and “unsavoury characters” are interrelated concepts in popular discourse (ST 01/29/2000: 72) because of the subversive movements of the workers and their disruptions to the transport network.
A brief history of disciplining the South Asian migrant worker
Since the South Asian migrant worker in Little India was identified as a problem in 1999, a set of increasingly sophisticated and deliberate measures have been taken to alleviate the traffic problem.
It begins crudely with temporary metal barricades to keep the migrants off the road, and with bus stops policed by ticket inspectors from bus companies to direct the movement of the buses. Then “bright fluorescent lights and security cameras” installed around a proprietor’s family-owned food court in Little India. (ST, 02/07/99: 26). While the workers probably had the most innocent of motives for hanging around the area (i.e. to socialise with one another after a week of heavy work), they are now construed as turning the food court into their home. Similar measures were adopted by various jewellery shops as well. The intention of these measures? To make the workers aware that they were being constantly watched and monitored, and to drive foot traffic to the other side of Little India.
Where workers used to board public buses to return to their sleeping quarters along Serangoon and Upper Serangoon roads, resulting in patterns of incivility on the part of bus drivers towards the migrant passengers (most drivers were curt beyond the point of polite economy when having to answer some of the workers’ questions on bus fares and service routes, or that some drivers tended to speed off rather than wait for passengers rushing across the road to board the bus), private coaches are now hired to ferry workers to Serangoon Road during weekend afternoons and back to their dormitories (now located far from Serangoon and Upper Serangoon roads). Although numbers are at still noticeable levels, ‘civility’ and ‘tolerance’ on the buses have improved, probably because of the alleviation of the ‘stress’ of having too many foreign Others patronising a public service.
Then there is a series of concerted actions by government ministries and the police force to clamp down on crime in the area (ST 10/02/99: 51), followed in short order by the formation of a Little India Working Group “to channel the workers to other areas, as well as to provide activities to keep them out of harm’s way” (ST 01/29/2000: 72).
Not shortly after, the effort to ‘clamp down on crime’ is outsourced to Singapore’s auxiliary police, employees of private security companies which have no affiliations to the Singapore Police Force. Anecdotal accounts suggest that over the years, these security personnel have conducted a campaign to issue migrant workers in the Little India area with fines and summons for the imagined offences of littering (accounts suggest that being found near a cigarette butt on the floor is sufficient for the auxiliary police to fine a migrant worker), sleeping on benches, eating in public spaces – acts which would not garner any police attention had the ‘perpetrators’ been Singaporean citizens. This constitutes a deliberate campaign of harassment and psychological intimidation of the migrant worker in Little India, whose goal of taking the migrant worker out of Little India is approved by the civil and business alliance called the Little India Working Group.
Deconstructing the public announcement of this ‘working group’, we find several statements are made to both the public and the migrant workers. The workers need to be channelled to other areas because they do not belong in Little India. Their presence and pattern of movements upset the neat psychological boundaries of the city: the ethnic quarter of Little India, the concept of home in Rowell-Selegie residential area, the boundary between safe demarcated residential space and the unscripted activities promoted by a public space of a pedestrian mall. Hanging out, congregating in open spaces are denied the status of legitimate activities. One only need look at the popular youth hangouts at the Orchard Road pedestrian mall to understand the hypocrisy of this policy.
The riot in perspective
Overall, the ad hoc policies to solve the problem of the South Asian migrant in Little India have had mixed success, with only the engagement of coaches creating a sub-optimal but more bearable situation in Little India during the weekends for much of the past decade.
One may pinpoint the root causes of the riot of 8 December 2013 ironically to these two initiatives. By encouraging construction companies to engage private coaches on the weekends (and coupled with the fact that Singapore’s public transport fares have been inflated in the last decade beyond the means of an average migrant worker’s wages), Singapore’s authorities have achieved the removal of the migrant worker from Singapore’s public buses. Leaving the migrant workers with no viable options aside from chartered buses mean that they’re forced to stay in Little India for long hours to wait for the transport back to their dormitories. It is no coincidence that cheap alcohol became easily available once it was clear that South Asian migrant workers were spending more and more hours in Little India during the weekends.
My humble suggestion would be to cancel the chartered buses, increase the fleet of public buses servicing Little India, and most importantly, institute heavily subsidised rail and bus passes for the more than 300,000 migrant workers in Singapore’s construction industry. This is sorely needed to alleviate the traffic ‘problem’ of Little India, and also serve as a real incentive for migrant workers to return much earlier to their dormitories, and in a sober state.
On a wider note, the Department of Statistics should be more transparent about migrant worker figures and breakdowns in various industries. Such timely information is needed for both citizens and planners to identify and address problems before they escalate.
(Image of riot police by Vinod Rai Sharma)
de Certeau, Michel. 1984. “Spatial Practices”, in Practices of Everyday Life. California: U of California Press.
Wirth, Louis. 1938. “Urbanism as a Way of Life”, in The American Journal of Sociology, July 1938, 44:1, pp 1-24.
“Express Buses to Little India” in The Straits Times (Singapore), 09/17/99: 49.
“Little India swoop nets more than 100”, The Straits Times, 10/02/99: 51
Andrianie, Siti. “Community focus works in Little India”. The Straits Times (Singapore), 02/07/1999: 26
Tan, Ooi Boon & Tan, Valerie. “Safe … but danger may lurk in dark places”, The Straits Times (Singapore), 01/29/2000: 72
Vasso, Sharon. “Big money in labour import racket”. The Straits Times (Singapore), 10/24/1999: 23
Little India: Ethnic Quarter. Singapore Tourism Board, Aug 1999.