The riot took us by surprise. Footage uploaded onto the Internet show an angry crowd of what looks like foreign workers from South India, shouting and throwing things at a bus, at an ambulance, at police cars, at auxiliary police officers. Vehicles are overturned. One goes up in flames. A common refrain online that night, “Is this really Singapore?”
We know now that a fatal accident triggered the incident in Little India on December 8, that things got heated after a bus ran over an Indian migrant worker. It remains unclear though just why the situation spiraled out of control.
Amid the talk and speculation, there are calls for us not to jump to hasty conclusions. A Commission of Inquiry has been tasked with finding out what went wrong that night. The official stand is that we should all wait for the COI to finish its job. And yet, the Singapore government and mainstream media appear strangely eager to shape the narrative – the riot, they say, was possibly the result of drunken misbehavior. One particularly disgusting headline on a local paper screamed, “When they drink, there’s trouble”. A partial ban on alcohol is now in place in Little India.
There is something inherently, no blatantly, racist in the way all this is playing out – the way authorities have chosen to fall back on a tired old stereotype: that South Asian men like to drink and are violent drunks. Alcohol might have impaired the judgement of some of the rioters, but police say nearly 300 (down from an initial estimate of 400) people were involved. Surely not all of them were drunk? What other factors were at play?
There are some who cite the poor treatment of migrant workers in Singapore as a possible reason for the violence. Perhaps pent-up rage imploded amid the despair, panic and confusion that followed the accident? We might never know if this was really the case, but to listen to Law Minister K Shanmugam, such a scenario is implausible. He’s been quoted as saying that there was “no evidence to suggest that the foreign workers involved in the Little India riot were unhappy with their employers or the government”.
One wonders which worker would dare tell the Law Minister (no less) that life is anything but rosy in Singapore. Mr Shanmugam was after all, visiting them during a time of great uncertainty. Arrests had been made. People were fearful. Jobs were at stake.
But let’s assume the Minister is right. Maybe the men who rioted did so for reasons not related to their work. This still does not negate the fact that migrant workers are often treated, to put it bluntly, like shit in our country.
I’ll never forget the rat and mosquito-infested dormitories we visited when we were shooting our documentaries, ‘Migrant Dreams‘ and ‘Human Trade’; never forget Abu Sama who was slapped so hard by his Singaporean supervisor, the impact ruptured his eardrum. We took Abu Sama to the doctor, and then to the police. Despite medical evidence showing that he had been beaten, his supervisor received no more than a warning.
Over nine months of filming and research, we learnt about the lucrative scams surrounding the manpower trade – the hefty agent fees workers had to pay in order to secure jobs in Singapore, the kickbacks that employers received in return for hiring them. To raise funds, the men sold land, pawned jewelry and took on massive debt.
Imagine doing all this, and then discovering upon arriving in a strange new country that the job you were promised doesn’t exist, that your boss is an abusive asshole and that if you complain, your work visa will be cancelled and you’ll be sent home.
Initially, we thought that the cases we encountered were one-offs. Surely, things couldn’t be that bad? But the horror stories kept coming – in a single week, we met, literally, hundreds of workers who had been badly exploited.
One afternoon, we followed Abu Sama’s colleagues to the Ministry of Manpower. Their company, Ocean Marine, hadn’t paid them in months and they wanted to lodge a complaint. The large group must have taken officers there by surprise. The men were herded to the back, individually searched, then made to sit on the ground in a courtyard before they were eventually seen by MOM personnel. They were victims with genuine grievances and yet we got the distinct feeling that they were being regarded as troublemakers
Their case was eventually settled. Ocean Marine paid up. But in the period in between, the men had nowhere to go, very little money, and mounting debts back home in Bangladesh. We learnt as we followed them that they were not the only ones. At night, we saw numerous workers sleeping in the back alleys and by the train stations in Little India. Many had also been scammed. Most rarely got a full night’s rest. Auxiliary police patrolling the area regularly chased them away.
MOM has since enacted some laws to make it harder for employers to accept kickbacks for hiring migrant workers. And yet, our labour activist friends continue to document account after account of abuse and exploitation. The will to institute comprehensive change is so weak, there’s very little a migrant worker can do if he is screwed over.
Sometimes, it takes a politician in the know to put things in perspective. When it comes to foreign labour, there’s no clearer explanation of our policy than this:
“When we look at the migrant workers’ issue, we are not looking at it from the perspective of human rights. We are looking at it on a need basis… Like it or not, we need to sustain and grow an economy that is able to generate an annual per capita [GDP] of US$35,000. At the end of the day, whatever factors would be able to help us to sustain the growth of the economy for the benefit of our countrymen, for the benefit of our country; we will definitely go for it.”
Yeo Guat Kwang, MP and Chairman, Migrant Workers Centre
Oh, how we’ve gone for it. We’ve imported planeloads of cheap foreign labour, while doing just the bare minimum to ensure that scams don’t proliferate, employers aren’t abusive. Our streets have become increasingly crowded. Our own people cannot compete with those who pay to work.
But still, our Law Minister is certain that the workers “involved” in the riots were not unhappy with either their employers or the government. He’s also come out to say that foreign workers who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear.
The problem is, even if they do nothing wrong, they have plenty to fear. Our system allows not just the government, but also employers to unilaterally terminate a migrant worker’s contract, cancel his permit and send him home. This leads to a massive imbalance in power. Workers who are exploited or cheated are often too scared to speak up or take action for fear of being repatriated.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot, Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee had this to say:
“Wanton violence, rioting, destruction of property, fighting the police is not the Singapore way and the police will spare no effort. First to identify, and then we will find and then we will arrest and then we will prosecute everyone who was involved in yesterday’s violence.” (link)
How swiftly authorities have acted. Police have completed their investigations. 28 people will be charged. 52 Indians and one Bangladeshi have been deported and another 200 issued advisories. A further four, who were given what amounted to an acquittal, have also been repatriated.
Singaporeans can be proud of the efficiency with which calm was restored to Little India – a kind of efficiency not granted foreign workers when they dare turn to authorities for help. Abu Sama waited months for police to complete investigations on his former employer, only to be told the man who abused him would receive little more than a slap on the wrist.
When asked about the decision to deport 53 so-called “rioters” without first trying them, Mr Shanmugam couched the issue in economic terms – it would be too expensive to house and feed the men while they waited for their day in Court.
But what about due process? What about the workers’ right to defend themselves? What if not all of them are guilty?
Some of the answers provided by our clever, well-paid leaders, are mind boggling. Indranee Rajah, our Senior Minister of State for Law and Education, tells us the men were not denied due process because they were sent home in line with our system. She omits the blindingly obvious: laws (yes, even ours) can be flawed, illogical and unfair. Still, the Minister must realise the ridiculousness of her assertion because she then tries to justify the system – it is in place because “Singaporeans’ safety and security are of paramount importance”.
No one is safe or secure – no, not even citizens – when a government makes clear it is willing to treat human beings as little more than economic digits whose fates can be decided as part of an administrative exercise.
Amid all of this, there are pleas for compassion, for understanding. It is ironic that some of these calls come from the Law Minister himself. Compassion is a lovely thing. But it is hypocritical to ask that your people show it, when your own policy is to withhold it in the name of expediency. It is an inherently unjust system. The official mindset seems to be that migrant workers – whether they be victims or alleged perpetrators – are less deserving of equitable treatment. As fellow human beings, we should be appalled. As citizens, we should be worried. Today it is them. Tomorrow it might be us. This cannot be the Singapore way.