The little India riot and the spatiality of migrant labor in Singapore

By Daniel Goh, article first published on Society and Space (Image by Terry Xu)

Migrant Labor Flows and the Asian Global City

Migrant labor flows from poorer to richer countries have been raising significant political, social and cultural issues worldwide. For conservatives, these flows pose issues of national integration and identity, and provide fodder for early pronouncements of the death of multiculturalism, as we have seen in Britain, France, Germany and Australia in recent years. For liberals, questions of human rights are sharpened when illegal economic immigrants are shot or left to drown in the borderlands, and when the citizenship and labor rights of those already working in the country are denied or neglected. For me, as a student of spatial politics based in Singapore, I am interested in how these issues intersect with the production of space and the rapid urbanization of Asia.

In comparison to the migrant labor experience in North America, Europe and Australasia, these issues take on a different color for Asian cities attracting migrant workers from the poorer hinterlands. To differentiate even further, there is a special class of Asian global cities that have been attracting cross-border migrant labor immigration. Unlike the Chinese coastal cities or the South Asian mega-cities, transnational and transient migrants flows to aspirant global cities, such as Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Qatar and Singapore, pose special problems and raise peculiar issues. These are cities ruled by national regimes with an autocratic grip on municipal space. “Flexible citizenship”, extra-legal recruitment regimes and exclusion from labor laws are used to control and manage migrant workers.[1] A recent mission to Qatar by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants highlighted recruitment practices and exclusion from labor protection as sources of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers.[2]

Since the riot by hundreds of South Asian migrant workers on 8 December 2013 in Singapore, the first major riot in decades, Singapore has been in the international news for similar issues raised by the UN Special Rapporteur’s mission to Qatar. The Wall Street Journal pointed to rising anti-foreigner sentiment and resentment against perceived discrimination and poor working conditions. The New York Times noted the high indebtedness of migrant workers to hiring agents and their having few means of expressing grievances. The Guardian featured in-depth interviews with non-government organizations providing help and advocacy to the workers and low wages and poor working conditions. I discuss here the spatiality of migrant labor flows and control that underpin capitalist labor exploitation and led to the riot in Singapore, and conclude with a short reflection on the question of spatial justice in the Asian global city.

The First Riot in Four Decades

The evening of the eighth was like any other peaceful Sunday night in Singapore. Residents of the city were winding down the weekend and preparing for another grueling workweek ahead. In Little India, tens of thousands of South Asian workers were also beginning to head back to their dormitories spread out across the island. Little India, just north of the downtown civic district, has been designated as a historic neighborhood representing the constituent Indian community in Singapore’s multiracial national make-up. The neighborhood comprises a tight grid of narrow streets branching off from the main trunk, Serangoon Road, and is made up of densely arranged low-rise shophouses of early twentieth century heritage architecture. Every weekend, migrant workers from South India and Bangladesh packed the area, leaving very little room for vehicular and sometimes even pedestrian traffic, to meet friends, eat hometown foods and consume services such as repatriating money home, calling loved ones, getting a hair cut, and paying for sex.

The night of the eighth ended differently. At the bus boarding area close to the Little India subway station, an unfortunate accident took place. Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33 years of age and a construction worker from Tamil Nadu, ran after a moving bus, fell in the path of the bus as it turned and got crushed under its wheels, dying instantly. He was earlier ordered off the bus for apparent drunken behavior. An angry crowd quickly trapped the bus driver and timekeeper in the bus and attacked the bus. After Sakthivel’s body was extricated and the driver and timekeeper escorted out of the area by police and rescue officers, a large group of workers descended on the scene and attacked police and rescue vehicles, while pelting the officers with stones and bottles. Over 50 officers were injured and 23 emergency vehicles were damaged in the 2-hour riot….

To read more, visit Society and Space for the full text of Daniel Goh’s article.


[1] Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.

[2] United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François CrépeauAddendum, Mission to Qatar, 23 April 2014, A/HRC/26/35/Add.1.