New face of Singapore’s Little India after riot

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Feb 4, 2014 - 19:23
  • Updated : Feb 4, 2014 - 19:23

(Clockwise from left) Workers Murugan Ponnusamy, 30; Mani Munusamy, 26; Velu Arumugam, 31; and Kuberan Mani, 25, having a beer last Sunday at Spice Box restaurant at about 4 p.m. The three brothers and their uncle, Mr. Munusamy, still meet every Sunday but do so in the afternoons instead of at night. (The Straits Times)

To the strains of a beating drum and a Hindu priest’s chant, cars roll up to the front gate of the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple in Chander Road, Little India.

Resplendent in shimmering saris and handsome kurtas, guests of marine surveyor Rathnesh Prathap Rai and accountant Saaniya Rai, both 29, arrive for the couple’s engagement ceremony, the first at the temple since the Dec. 8 riot.

Greeting the guests are the childhood sweethearts’ fathers, themselves fast friends from their kampung (village) days.

“We’ve been worshipping at this temple since childhood, and later with our own families,” said Vijay Shankar Rai, a 55-year-old estate officer and father of Rai.

“We found out our children had something for each other about 15 years ago, but told them to concentrate on their studies first,” he added with a laugh.

The auspicious date for last Sunday’s “Tilak” ceremony was selected in June last year, and about 150 people attended. Ms. Rai was thankful that Little India is quieter these days. “It was easier for our guests to come and go ― there was a lot less hassle,” she said.

It was quite a different experience for about 50 people who were at the 45-year-old temple on the night of Dec. 8 for the wedding of audit officer Andrea Posha Julien, 29, and restaurant manager Shri Anand Yadav, 30.

At about 10 p.m., as the couple were receiving their elders’ blessings, temple staff locked down the building. As the bridal party huddled within, glass was shattering outside. There was an explosion, and acrid smoke wafted in.

“These were sounds that we’d never heard in Singapore. And it’s certainly not something you’d expect to hear on your wedding night,” said the bride.

An auxiliary police officer helps to direct pedestrians in front of the busy junction at Kerbau Road in Little India on Sunday. The authorities are expected to continue to keep a close watch on the area. The stepped up patrols by auxiliary police officers are one sign of that. (The Straits Times)

The wedding party was holed up till after midnight, when auxiliary police officers came to escort them out.

The riot erupted that night after a private bus ferrying foreign workers was involved in an accident along Race Course Road that left 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu dead.

In all, 49 Home Team officers were injured and 30 vehicles damaged. Hundreds of suspects were rounded up, and 25 have cases pending in court for their alleged roles in the mayhem.

Staff of the Shree Lakshminarayan temple told The Sunday Times they had noted a rise in loitering and misbehavior in the area as more liquor shops opened in recent years.

Before the riot there were nine such shops along Chander Road alone, including the hole-in-the-wall Gall & Gall Minimarket just 10 m from the temple.

“Many workers would gather and sit in the streets along our temple to drink. There were occasional fights and sometimes our devotees’ shoes would go missing. Other times, intoxicated men would vomit on the footwear,” said the temple’s assistant secretary Dharmender Prashad, 50.

Temple leaders said they had petitioned the authorities repeatedly for the minimart to be moved.

A week after the riot, the 15-month-old Gall & Gall closed shop, and the space has been sealed and painted over.

Owner Gopal Nand said his tiny shop’s takings were typically $80,000 a month before the riot and the clampdown on liquor sales and consumption. His brother-in-law’s liquor shop in Kerbau Road made just $4,000 in the month after the riot.

Nand, 53, said the large number of foreign workers on weekends meant there was an obvious demand for beer and liquor.

“These are people who work very hard. If you work very hard, don’t you want to have a beer?” he asked. “Maybe you sit at a bar, have one or two beers. They’re doing the same thing.”

There are those who accept that he has a point, that the men who come to Little India on their day off ought to be allowed to have a drink if they choose.

But much has changed in the wake of the riot.

After strict initial rules that barred liquor sales and consumption, the authorities have eased up and now stores with retail or wholesale licenses can sell alcohol from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends, the eve of public holidays and on public holidays.

Establishments with public or beer house licenses can sell alcohol up to 10 p.m. or midnight, depending on the class of their license, during these times, provided customers drink only within the premises, as public consumption during the specified times remains off-limits.

Bus services between the foreign workers’ dormitories and Little India were stopped immediately after the riot but have since resumed at half capacity.

The pickup points now have temporary barriers to keep the men orderly before they board. And the last bus leaves earlier, at 9 p.m. instead of 11 p.m.

This has all had an effect on the workers, businesses, residents and other visitors to the area.

Workers return, but they are fewer than before.

Before the riot, the private buses alone brought about 23,000 workers to Little India every Sunday.

The men, mostly from India and other South Asian countries, came to meet friends, remit money home, stock up on groceries, shop for bargain-priced clothes, have an Indian meal from the area’s numerous food outlets and have drinks.

The workers kept away immediately after the riot, but as the restrictions were eased and bus services resumed, they returned, but in fewer numbers. The reduced bus service brings about 14,000 men to Little India every Sunday.

Last Sunday afternoon general worker Velu Arumugam, 31, was enjoying a Kingfisher beer at the Spice Box restaurant at the junction of Race Course Road and Kerbau Road with his two brothers and an uncle.

The men from Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, have been in Singapore for between six months and five years and they live and work in different parts of the island.

They gather once a week in Little India to share news about themselves and their family back home. Their weekly meetings are shorter now.

They still meet every Sunday but do so in the afternoons instead of at night. Previously they would meet at 7 p.m. and all could come, but now not all of them may be present if one or more has to work till 5 p.m.

“Last time we come, eat, drink at 7 p.m.,” said Mr Velu. “Now, 7 p.m. we go already.”

The Land Transport Authority has not ruled out adjusting the last bus timing as part of its ongoing review of bus services to the area.

Many workers have stopped coming to Little India as frequently as before, preferring to remain at their dorms or go elsewhere, both to avoid trouble and because of the reduced bus hours.

By Lim Yan Liang and Melody Zaccheus

(The Straits Times)