By Andrew Loh
Minister Khaw Boon Wan’s Facebook posting of an anti-riot drill involving some “foreign workers ambassadors” and the Police and SCDF has come under fire for supporting the joint-exercise which some saw as racist and insensitive.
Migrant workers’ non-governmental organisations, TWC2 and HOME, have criticised it, along with members of the public who registered their disapproval on Mr Khaw’s Facebook page.
Mr Khaw and the police have since responded to the uproar and defended the joint-exercise which was held about two weeks ago at a foreign worker dormitory in Sembawang.
See TOC’s earlier report here: “Minister’s Facebook post comes under fire”.
Is the joint-exercise racist? Or racially-insensitive?
Mr Khaw explained in his posting that the exercise was to “test our response capability” in the event when “quarrels erupt, leading to fights or worse.”
“These are possible scenarios, given the concentration of foreign workers in one locality,” he said.
“It was a useful way to network up the various agencies, and spread preventive messages,” he added. “Prevention is always better than cure.”
Questions have been raised about why it was necessary to hold such exercises at foreign workers’ dormitories which, in this case, housed workers from the South-asian community - namely, Indians and Bangladeshis who make up the majority who spend their weekends at Little India.
The inference to last December’s Little India riot is thus unmistakable – Indians had rioted there.
And here perhaps is why asking both Indian and Bangladeshi “ambassadors”, as Mr Khaw described them, to participate in the drill held at a dormitory where they stay, is offensive to some.
The insinuation is that these – Indians and Bangladeshis – are more prone to rioting or causing unrest.
It feeds into the misrepresentation that South-asians are more susceptible to violent means than others – although evidence does not support such a claim.
In fact, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself cautioned against such mindsets after the Little India riot.
"We should not generalise a group because of some individuals. I don't think that is fair or justifiable because their (foreign workers) crime rates are, in fact, lower than Singaporeans in general."
Focusing on the South-asian community thus reinforces the discriminatory views that they are more prone to violent acts, despite what the PM himself had said.
Also, Mr Khaw’s post that the joint-exercise was because of potential “fights” in areas where there is a “concentration of foreign workers in one locality” does not make sense either. If that were so, why only conduct such exercises in dormitories for foreign workers?
Fights occur in other areas as well.
Some have thus rightly asked why similar exercises of this nature have not been held in other areas where crime and violence are, some argue, even more pronounced than in the dormitories for foreign workers.
Geylang, for example, which the Police Commissioner had described as a “powder keg” waiting to explode. The area is frequented by Chinese nationals.
And then there is Clark Quay, where Caucasian expats and Singaporean executives spend their time when away from work.
Just one and a half years ago, the Chinese newspaper Shin Min reported a rather alarming statistic:
It said that “each year, an average of 170 fights or violent acts break out in the Clarke Quay area.”
Read that again – “170 fights or violent acts”.
In the Clarke Quay area.
That’s an average of one fight or violent act every other day.
Is there any foreign workers dormitory which comes close to such a situation in comparison?
In a New Paper report in March 2012, titled “They club, then they fight”, the paper said:
Official numbers also indicate that fights at nightspots are on the rise.
Figures released by the police showed that there were 26 cases of reported nightspot brawls last year.
Police said that of these, nine were rioting cases and 17 serious hurt cases.
There were nine cases of rioting.
17 serious hurt cases.
But such cases didn’t happen only last year.
In May this year, for example, this headline appeared in the papers:
How many such cases have happened in foreign workers’ dormitories, or in areas where foreign workers gather, including Little India?
Even theft cases were reported to be on the rise at Clarke Quay.
So, the question: have the authorities conducted similar anti-riot/unrest drills at Clarke Quay, or at areas where known expats or Singaporeans congregate?
And have the police asked these expats or Singaporeans to be “ambassadors” and participate in such exercises or drills, simulating rioters?
If they did, it would be good for the authorities to release information about this, to debunk any allegations of racism.
At the end of the day, this is perhaps what those upset by the joint-exercise in Sembawang are unhappy about: that lower-skilled, lower-wage foreign workers are singled out for special attention when the evidence seems to indicate that in fact they are not the main troublemakers, as it were.
This was also what PM Lee said, did he not, when he said that foreign workers crime rates “are, in fact, lower than Singaporeans in general”?
So, if as Mr Khaw said, the joint-exercise is to prepare our security personnel for “fights” which may occur in areas where there is a concentration of foreign workers, then perhaps the focus should be in these other areas of Singapore which are frequented by expats and Singaporeans.
There is thus merit in asking if the authorities are – wittingly or unwittingly – reinforcing the racist impression that South-asians are more susceptible to violence, in spite of the evidence.
For the moment, it would seem that the fights which Mr Khaw spoke of are more likely to happen in areas such as Clarke Quay than the dormitories for low-wage foreign workers.