Some reflections on the Little India riot

By Donald Low

In the aftermath of the Little India riot, I have been asked by several people about my views on it. I have resisted writing about the riot as I didn’t think I could add much more to what’s already been said by various more informed commentators. I’m also not particularly familiar with issues related to the welfare of our migrant workers.

But an interview request by Channel News Asia combined with how the riot is being characterized and rationalized by the authorities have forced me to think more deeply about the riot – its causes as well as how I think government and society more generally should respond to it. So here are my preliminary thoughts on the matter.


Resisting our Impulses

One of the things that behavioral economists and cognitive psychologists emphasize is the very human, deeply psychological tendency to respond to complex and unexpected events instinctively– what Daniel Kahneman calls “fast thinking” or what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (of “Nudge”) call the Automatic System. With respect to the Little India riot, we can quite clearly observe two impulses in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. And both impulses, while quite understandable and even natural, should be resisted.

The first impulse is that in the face of shock like this, we often reach for simple (and simplifying) stories that are consistent with our preconceived assumptions and biases (in this case, of foreign workers). These stories help us make sense of a complex reality, but they are often not grounded in empirical fact. So for instance, one of the simplifying stories that emerged even as the riot was unfolding is that the foreign workers rioted because they are prone to drunkenness, violence and criminal behavior. It is a very convenient, even comforting, story because it is consistent with the negative perceptions many of us already have of foreign workers. So we caricature and demonize foreign workers – and in the process, dehumanize and rob them of their individuality – to rationalize and explain the riot.

But such stories are not grounded in fact. Our crime statistics do not show that the incidence of crime among migrant workers is any higher than that of the local population. It is simply not the case that foreign workers are more prone to violence or criminal behavior. On the contrary, it is probably the case that migrant workers in Singapore are very conscious of the fact that they are in a foreign land with different rules and norms. Having risked so much to come to Singapore, they are also likely to be quite careful about ending up on the wrong side of the law.

The corrective to this impulse of explaining complex reality through simple and simplifying stories is to look at hard evidence. And the evidence of course points to the fact that the vast majority of foreign workers here are law-abiding. This has been highlighted by many others, including the government.

The second impulse which we should avoid is more subtle, and that is instinctive defensiveness. This impulse exists because when confronted with something that has gone wrong, our human minds tend to reject any suggestion that we may have anything to do with it. We all have a self-image of ourselves as decent, honorable and competent people. Admitting that we fell short or made a fatal mistake causes cognitive dissonance – something we all try to avoid. This reflexive defensiveness allows us ignore the possibility that there might be anything wrong with our society, or with our policies, institutions and practices. It also encourages us to deal with the riot as a purely law and order problem – to respond to it only through the criminal justice system.

My view is that at the very least, we should be open to the possibility that there were underlying grievances and social tensions which contributed to this riot – whether these have to do with the working and living conditions of migrant workers, the discrimination they face, or the sense of powerless and helplessness that I suspect many of them feel. As Martin Luther King said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” I’m not saying these must be the causes of the riot, but we should at least be open to the possibility that they may be.

Social psychologists usually explain riots as a reaction against social injustice, poverty and oppression. This explanation holds for the immigrant riots in Stockholm earlier this year and the 2005 riots by immigrants in the suburbs of Paris. I don’t believe we should start with the assumption that we are (that) exceptional; I don’t think we should automatically and instinctively rule out the possibility that Little India riot reflects a deeper resentment and frustration among migrant workers.

If we look at our own history of riots in Singapore, won’t we say that students and bus workers in Singaporeans rioted in the 1950s because they experienced social injustice, oppression and economic deprivation? So why should we think that it should be different in this particular instance?


Keeping an Open Mind

So how should we be responding to the riot? At this stage, I suggest that we keep a genuinely open mind about the causes of the riot and honestly try to find out whether there might be systemic grievances and injustices that foreign workers here experience. There are at least three reasons why I believe this is the only reasonable response.

The first is that we don’t have sufficient data – beyond the anecdotal – on how well foreign workers here are doing. Do they feel they are exploited or fairly treated? Do they experience discrimination and oppression? Do they think that their basic needs and welfare are looked after?  The fact of the matter is that we don’t know the answers to these questions. In the absence of hard evidence, surely the only sensible response is to be agnostic and keep an open mind about what caused the riot.

Second, if we asked Singaporeans whether they are proud of the way foreign workers here are treated, I suspect most of us would say “no”. I asked many of my colleagues this question today and not a single person replied in the affirmative. Most of them immediately and vehemently said no. So if Singaporeans themselves don’t think this is an area where we do well, why should we start with the presumption that there weren’t underlying grievances among foreign workers?

Third, given that Singaporeans aren’t particularly proud of the way we treat foreign workers, why don’t we use this crisis as an opportunity to engage in some soul-searching and critical reflection? As a wise man once said, we should not let a crisis go to waste. Even if we find out later that foreign workers here aren’t unhappy with their conditions here, and they don’t feel exploited and discriminated against, how does it hurt us – as a society or as a government – to reflect on our treatment of foreign workers and on how we can do better? Since we’re not proud of Singapore society in this respect anyway, we are only doing ourselves a favor by engaging in a process to determine what citizens, employers and government can do to improve the livelihoods of foreign workers. In so doing, we’d also become a more humane, reflective and deliberative society.


The Foreign Worker Trilemma

My final thought on the matter is that one of the reasons the government has responded the way it did so far is that it is caught in an intractable policy trilemma (not just a dilemma). In a policy trilemma, the government finds that it has three policy goals but it is forced to choose only two of them.

In the foreign worker trilemma, the three goals which the government aims to achieve are:

  • The political imperative: Citizens’ acceptance and accommodation of foreign workers;
  • The economic imperative: Foreign workers constituting a relatively high proportion of the workforce;
  • The moral imperative: Fair and (near-) equal treatment of foreign workers.

The central idea of a trilemma is that governments can only do well on two of the dimensions (any two), and sacrifice the third. In cities like Singapore and Dubai, I would argue that governments have chosen the political and economic imperatives. Both places have large contingents of foreign workers; their citizens mostly accept the large foreign populations in their midst. But this acceptance of a large foreign workforce is secured by ensuring that citizens get a better deal than the foreign workers. So in both Singapore and Dubai, foreign workers have no rights of residency and no path to citizenship; they also enjoy distinctly much lower subsidies from the state. In recent years, there has also been greater emphasis in Singapore on the benefits of citizenship vis-à-vis what foreigners are entitled to. In other words, Singapore and Dubai pay an ethical price (in terms of fairness and equality) so that they can optimize along the political and economic imperatives. And as the foreign worker population continues to grow as a share of the total population, the government may find itself having to sharpen the benefits differentiation between locals and foreigners even more to maintain citizen support.

Other societies choose different goals in the trilemma. Some of the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland and Norway for instance – choose to pursue the political and moral imperatives. In these places, immigrants are treated almost as well as citizens. They have access to almost all the benefits of their extensive and generous welfare states. Clearly, the only way that their governments ensure that society accepts this state of affairs is to take in much smaller numbers of migrant workers. This ensures that their immigrant populations – which are less educated and lower-skilled than their citizen population – do not impose too large a burden on the welfare state to the point that they undermine public support for the high taxes required to finance it. As Milton Friedman said, a country cannot have liberal immigration policies and a welfare state. These countries thus pay an economic price (their workforce is not as large as it could be and business costs are higher than elsewhere) by choosing to optimize on the political and moral imperatives.

Finally, a few European countries may be characterized as choosing the economic and moral imperatives at the expense of the political one. Countries like Britain, France, Sweden and Germany have relatively large shares of foreign labor (at least by European standards), and migrant workers enjoy (broadly) similar protection and benefits as citizen workers. But the price these countries pay is a political one. In these places, liberal immigration policies are increasingly unpopular, anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise, and right-wing parties have increasingly become mainstream (especially in France and Britain, to a lesser extent in Sweden and Germany). These governments pay a political price for pursuing liberal immigration policies while ensuring fair, equal treatment of their immigrant populations.

As part of the process of reflection and debate on foreign workers in Singapore, we should make the choices in the foreign worker trilemma to our citizens clear and ask if the current set of choices we have made is what Singaporeans want. I have strong suspicion that the answer we get is not one that liberals and progressives would like to hear. I think that the median Singaporean voter is quite happy with the current arrangement. If so, this would also explain the government’s reluctance to make any fundamentally different choice in the foreign worker trilemma. At most, it would try to regulate more aggressively the most egregious abuses of foreign workers here.

My own view is that even if the current arrangement enjoys broad-based political support today, in the long run doing the fair and ethical thing is the best policy. So it’s not surprising that liberals like me would choose the fair and ethical treatment of foreign workers over large numbers of them to keep business costs here low.

A large foreign workforce in Singapore provides us with cheap services that aren’t available in other developed cities. The rest of Singapore society does not have to pay for the housing, healthcare or welfare costs of foreign workers. But the benefits of having lots of cheap foreign labour come with certain ethical obligations – the obligation of treating them fairly and with respect, of accommodating them properly, of providing them decent healthcare and welfare. Either we pay directly for these obligations – which means foreign workers will cost society lot more, negating part of the savings they currently give us – or we run the risk of paying the price indirectly somewhere else (for instance, in a riot). It is in this sense that the Little India riot didn’t really come as a surprise to me.

This article was first published as Donald Low’s facebook note.

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December 2013