So much has been said about the Little India riot with blame implied by our Govt and unsubtly pinned on the supposed drunken fury of the workers. At this stage, the causes of the riot have not been officially defined nor has it been proven that the rioting was due to drunken states. Yes, the workers were wrong to have rioted but has our Govt ever considered that they are ultimately responsible in a way for failing to consider the infrastructural and sociology-psychological impact and consequences of shipping in 700,000 foreign workers (excluding domestic workers) onto a tiny island (just 710 sq m in size) to work in hard laborious jobs? Of these 700k, about 300,000 are South Asian blue collar workers.
When you have such a large number of lowly paid and over worked transient workers here, you must plan for them as human beings and not as mere digits to fulfill an economical need. Did the government work to ensure that their well-being and welfare is taken care of? Are these poor and powerless workers housed in decent lodgings, fed decent food, and given enough time to rest? Did our government plan for sufficient recreational outlets and facilities to cater to the workers’ interests and different needs? (sitting around and walking around Little India every single weekend as the main form of recreation can get frustrating even for a local so let’s get real here and view all the workers of different nationalities as people with genuine needs and feelings).
We all have different sets of experiences, values and customs. Some of us are more reserved, some of us are passionate and expressive. Some like to drink, and some hate drinking. Even among locals, we have many differences, what more with those of other nationalities? The government’s declaration that foreigners have to live and behave the “Singapore Way” shows a complete ignorance of and a lack of empathy for human behavior and our individual needs. And it reflects this govt’s blinkered dictatorial mind – Do it our way or no way. Should they not consider the differences of our diverse population and learn how to manage and yet cater to the differences in a small melting pot?
The Govt wants the integration of these workers with our society but this is somewhat naive when dealing with transient workers who are here on short contracts. What integration are we talking about when some locals have even suggested building fences and gates to protect all public housing in Little India (will that be our new apartheid complete with signs saying “Foreign workers keep out”?). What integration when Housing Minister Khaw Boon Wan has even once suggested the possibility of housing foreign workers on outlying islands (a nicer version of Robbens Island with a curfew?). What in the world are these people thinking of? Keeping the foreign workers out of the way is simply not right morally. Adaptation with minimal conflicts is a more realistic goal.
It is too late to put back the clock now with such a huge number of imported workers already here (and that’s not counting numerous others on other employment passes), hence the Government needs to get down to work fast to have a good grasp of the situation. Instead of just doing a technical Committee of Inquiry investigation of the riot, they need to do soul-searching and hold discussions with all relevant parties including transient workers groups. Instead of trying to put a quick ending to this riot, which must be mortifying to the Govt and is a huge slap to their proposed Population White Paper to jack up the population with more foreigners, the G needs to do a holistic review of the foreign worker and population issues.
This riot is not something that can nor should be left to Home Affairs Ministry alone to analyse and handle. The Manpower Ministry and community agencies across the government must come together and conduct proper research and thorough planning to ensure that the welfare and needs of these workers are met. There is also no better way to understand the situation, the frustrations and the needs by speaking to the workers themselves. Don’t interrogate them. Ask them what they think and feel. The answers may surprise.
Can ways be found to help these workers adapt? Can ways be found to give them better treatment? Can ways be found to provide them with more avenues for relaxation and recreation? Can ways be found to help Singaporeans understand and adapt to them better? Can the government review and scale back the population targets and numerous construction projects to balance the influx of workers with the small size of our nation and needs of the local population? Can our government even begin to reflect honestly and ask themselves what went wrong and what can be done better for the foreign workers and for the citizens of the country?
Things often happen for a reason in life. This unfortunate riot has a silver lining in that it has opened a Pandora’s Box and reminded us that there are many deeper issues that must be examined and answered. Dealing with these underlying issues and treating people decently will be the necessary first step to having long-term harmony among vested parties on our little island country.