Statement on aftermath of the Little India Riot

It is exactly one year today that the riot in Race Course Road took place.

Foreign workers were apprehended, charged and sentenced. The police were taken to task over their preparedness to deal with a riot. A Commission of Inquiry (COI) was set up and the findings released in the middle of 2014. New laws restricting sale of alcohol, drinking of alcohol, gathering places have come into effect. Employers and foreign workers are being encouraged to find new recreational areas at or near their worksites.

Much has changed since 8th Dec 2013. As a human rights group, MARUAH would like to highlight and reiterate some fundamental issues that we cannot forgo, from a rights-based approach and from a perspective of dignity.

Firstly, recreational spaces for foreign workers in Little India, especially on the stretch of Race Course Road, have become very limited. Foreign workers have lost much of the field, which has since been boarded up for development works. They have also lost the space to congregate in the pedestrian walkways, as security forces are rather vigilant in telling them to move away, especially on a Sunday when it is crowded in almost all of the public walkways. The Straits Times’ reporter, Mark Cheong, observed that the bus terminal in Tekka Lane now looks “almost prison-like” with its erected fences.

Foreign workers struggle with space issues on Sundays. Having a recreational and cultural space that they can identify with and relax in, is a provision that we must be able to provide. Since the riots, we are struggling to find a balance between security and recreation. This is part of adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 13 & Article 24.

Secondly, there are many ‘no alcohol zones’ in Little India today. We, too, are against open drinking sessions in the public and, in fact, endorse that this regulation should be enforced over the whole of Singapore. But if foreign workers are restricted from drinking at the workplace’s dormitories and from the spaces they occupy in Little India, then one has to ask where they can drink, if the shops are small and unable to host all of them. While no one is keen on drunken behavior, surely we need to find a way of treating them as adults and providing them with larger spaces for drinking and eating, like mess canteens.

Thirdly, it has been declared through the COI that the police faced some struggles to cope with the Race Course Road riot. No doubt, the officers tried their best. However, since Singaporeans have been assured that officers will be better trained and that more will be recruited to deal with such conflicts, we would like to ask for an update on this. The enhancement of our police force is pivotal to all of our security measures, not just in dealing with foreign worker, but any other provocations that might take place on a large scale.

Fourthly, we would like to highlight the foreign workers who were sent home because they were suspected of being participants in the riot. They were swiftly detained and one still wonders if this was premature, when the full-investigation of the COI ended up showing a lack of certainty over who the instigators, the participants and the onlookers were.

Finally, the Little India Riot has highlighted for us, our own insensitivities that we have when we deal with foreign workers. The Race Course Road riot has affected the whole of Little India, heightened the awareness of Singaporeans to the struggles of these “invisible” people, and at the same time, also brought out deep-set resentments and grievances. These issues need to be resolved and we all need cultural sensitisation. Unfortunately, the Police and Civil Defence recently tactlessly chose to use South Indian workers as mock-rioters in a riot simulation. Such exercises will deepen prejudices and also reinforce already-felt resentments among some Singaporeans and South Asians. While it is heartening that many Singaporeans expressed disapproval over the riot simulation, MARUAH would like to urge ministries and politicians to be more cautious as they are leaders and role models in the community.

If the wages are good for sustainable living in Singapore, Singaporeans too will do the jobs set aside for foreign workers, as once we worked as construction workers and domestic workers ourselves. But it is not sustainable living wages if one is a Singaporean. Since we are depending on foreign workers, then let us appreciate the conditions and laws under which they work. All of us need recreational space. However, since space is rather limited in Singapore, we need to continue to thrive as a community of diverse people who coexist with mutual respect for each other.

On this anniversary of the Race Course Road riot, we hope our ties between Singaporeans and foreign workers will improve, and we learn to share and respect each other’s space.

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