Little India riot: One year later

By Chung Joo-won
  • Published : Dec 9, 2014 - 20:59
  • Updated : Dec 9, 2014 - 20:59

Every Sunday, from the living room of his third-floor Housing Board flat in Little India’s Buffalo Road, Singaporean Jumani Hori can see foreign workers playing cricket on a grass patch along Tekka Lane, and hear the hubbub of conversation.

Jumani, 52, has learnt to tune this out, as well as the booming music that stallholders play to draw the crowds, and the general bustle that electrifies the ethnic enclave.

But a year ago on Dec. 8, the noise turned into a commotion that erupted into Singapore’s first riot in more than 40 years.

The company driver recalls: “There was whistling, shouting, and the sound of stones being thrown. I looked out the window and it was terrible.”

A foreign worker died under the wheels of a private bus, sparking a riot by about 300 who massed and regrouped at and near the very grass patch Jumani looks out on. Fifty-four responding officers and eight civilians were hurt, and 23 emergency vehicles were damaged, including five that were torched.

When Insight visited the area last Sunday, one notable change is that a brand-new bus terminal now stands in Tekka Lane.

And that is a source of resignation for Jumani, whose own and surrounding blocks of flats do not have void decks that residents can use.
Foreign workers cross at a junction along Race Course Road under the watchful eyes of an auxiliary police officer (left) and a plain-clothes police officer (center) on Nov. 30, 2014. A year after Singapore’s first riot in 40 years broke out in Little India, law and order reigns again ― but amid tighter control. (Mark Cheong/The Strait Times)

He tells Insight he is perplexed by the signal that the government is sending, with the construction of purpose-built bus terminals for transient foreign workers. Another terminal, in nearby Hampshire Road, is set to be finished early next year.

Previously, workers queued for buses to their dormitories in an open field dotted with trees.

While many might welcome the new facilities ― some would say they were long overdue ― Jumani chaffs at the sense that the authorities seem to be doing more for the foreign workers. He laments that the concerns of residents over issues like public drunkenness, urinating, vomiting and loitering, have been overlooked for years.

For Jumani, despite the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry whose recommendations on safety and prevention have been adopted on the streets below him, issues still remain. This is also so for shopkeepers whose businesses were hit, for Singaporeans injured in the violence, even as foreign workers themselves readily accept the security crackdown.

Then and now

As the shouts turned into sounds of shattering glass that Dec 8 evening, Jumani rounded up his family, locked up his home and headed to the 10th floor of his block.

“They were throwing things at our police, and even the security personnel had to retreat,” he recounts. “Upstairs, there were three or four foreign workers also. You know what they commented? That our police ran because they were scared. I couldn’t tahan (Malay for tolerate).”

In the end, law and order prevailed. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong subsequently called for a COI into the riot. It examined the oral and written testimonies of more than 300 witnesses.

To date, 22 of the 25 Indian nationals charged for their role in the riot have been dealt with, while another 57 men have been repatriated. Today, the authorities run Little India as a very tight ship.

Martin Pereira, who was Tekka Residents’ Committee chairman when the riot happened, notes: “Before, the authorities had felt the best way was to apply a light touch. Unfortunately, the trust given to them was, in my opinion, abused when they decided to riot. The measures need to be what they are today so that there’s no ambiguity as to what you can and cannot do here.”

Lui Tuck Yew, an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, in which Little India falls, tells Insight that residents tell him on his walkabouts that they appreciate the positive changes.

Lui, who is also Minister for Transport, says: “They now feel more comfortable as they go about in their neighborhood. I think we are moving in the right direction.”

Likewise, Pereira also disagrees with Jumani’s view that the new bus stations and other changes to Little India ― new traffic lights along Serangoon Road and better lighting at 42 locations, for example ― mean the workers’ rights have been placed above the concerns of residents.

These steps are to make the enclave work for all parties, he says. While dorms and recreation centers are being built outside Little India for the workers, most residents know that, for the time being, the area is still the de facto gathering place on the workers’ day off, he says.

“I don’t think any resident subscribes to the fantasy of a Little India that is clear of foreign workers,” says Pereira. “What we have always wanted is for the workers to behave according to the norms that we are used to.”

By Lim Yan Liang And Walter Sim

(The Straits Times)