By Howard Lee
Workfair Singapore (WS), a group of civil society volunteers championing labour rights, have issued a statement expressing their concern with the summary report by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) for the Little India riot in December 2013, which they felt had “simply reiterated the position articulated by Cabinet Ministers” regarding the riot, and “a missed opportunity to truly get to the heart of the appalling problems faced by low-waged migrant workers here”.
When giving evidence during the inquiry, WS had encouraged the COI to take a broad interpretation of its Terms of Reference (TOR) as allowed by their wording, but expressed disappointment that COI chairman G P Selvam had refused to do so, without giving a reason.
The group also felt that the COI did not sufficiently examine the links between poor living conditions of migrant workers and the riot, and also indicated that the “constitution and functioning” of the committee limited its potential to get to the bottom of the riot. This was perceived mainly in how the COI’s handled evidence related to the case.
“WS considers the COI to have been a wasted opportunity which will contribute little, if any, to the improvement of migrant labour conditions in Singapore, which have been the subject of activism for almost thirty years. Indeed, the Report may well generate further problems regarding migrant labour policy in the medium term.”
WS indicated that the close link that the committee members had with the government made it difficult for the COI to resist the government’s interpretation of the riot” which have been published well in advance of the COI’s formation.
“The Report notes that after the riot, many commentators were eager to hypothesise on the causes of the riot. The Report glaringly omitted to mention that senior members of the government had also been eager to do so, despite an almost total lack of evidence at the time.”
WS also took issue with how the evidence for the case has been led by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, which again raised concerns about its impartiality to the government’s position.
In addition, this evidence was also not evaluated independently. “Evidence of widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was also neither adduced in evidence nor corroborated in cross-examination. The only evidence of alcohol consumption was in respect of the deceased man who, of course, cannot be considered as having initiated or contributed to the riot since it was his injury that sparked it.”
WS also expressed concern about the evidence given by 20 workers that supported the government’s claim that alcohol consumption was a factor, as they were deported before the COI sat.
The group also queried the COI’s claim that the majority of foreign workers did not have issues about working Singapore, citing evidence from itself and other NGOs that had been presented to the COI.
WS also expressed disappointed that “evidence of unprofessional and high-handed behaviour by auxiliary police agencies which was given unequivocally to the Inquiry by several NGOs was not addressed in the Report in any meaningful way.”
“It is regrettable, therefore, that the Report almost entirely replicated the government’s conclusion of the causes of the riot made well before the Committee sat,” the group said. “It is equally regrettable that in doing so, the Committee abandoned the possibility of helping to improve the appalling conditions of low-waged migrant workers.”
Similarly, WS also raised concerns about the COI’s recommendations, which it said repeated “almost wholesale the actions already taken by government agencies in response to the riot”.
The COI had suggested that surveillance efforts be stepped up in places frequented by migrant workers, for more recreational facilities to be provided at foreigner worker dormitories, and for the government to impose stricter control of alcohol supply and consumption in these areas.
WS raised concerns that these measures do not address the root problem of the riot, but only contain workers’ unhappiness, restrict the movement of migrant workers, and could potentially curtail civil liberties through alcohol-related legislation.
WS ended its statement by clarifying that it does not wish to express contempt of the COI’s proceedings.
“We offer this critique solely for the improvement of future inquiries and in the hope that the government will improve its efforts to eradicate the appalling conditions faced by low-waged migrant workers.”
This was not the first time that WS had raised concerns about the investigation and arrests related to the Little India riot. In December 2113, the group had queried why four Indian nationals were deported despite the fact that charges of rioting against them were dropped.