Little India riot – time for complete and honest evaluation

Little India riot – time for complete and honest evaluation

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.

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