The incident at Little India yesterday evening was regrettable but not improbable. This is for two reasons. One is environmental and the other sociological. Both conditions were necessary for the incident to occur but the latter is more significant.
First, let us consider the environment at the scene of the incident. The conditions for the riot could be said to have been in place for years. It becomes a highly dense environment on weekend nights filled with workers out for some recreation before returning to another week’s labour. Historically, small scale incidents of affray, disorderly conduct and loitering without intent are not unknown in the area but the numbers have always been low.
Never previously though, despite the decades in which Little India has been the gathering place for workers, have we seen anything remotely similar to the events last night. The often made observation that many may jay walk across the roads in the area should not be interpreted as lawlessness in the district or of a general carelessness about the law on the part of the workers. The overwhelming evidence across a long stretch of time is that the workers have been generally well behaved and orderly.
Second, is the more important sociological factor. When in an emotionally charged crowded situation it is very easy to trigger a mob phenomenon. All that was needed was a spark to dramatically blow the scale of events outwards. This spark was provided by the death of a worker when he was hit by a ferry bus at the junction of Race Coarse road and Tekka lane – the busiest junction in the area. His death was unfortunate and does not justify the events that followed.
Once a few began to overreact and behave violently, it can become quickly contaminative. Unlike individual actions, a mob situation creates the opportunity to be relatively anonymous. A mob situation also is a like a fever where the energy level can quickly inflame otherwise well balanced and orderly people. The dramatic escalation of events was also succeeded by an equally quick de-escalation, albeit once Police presence was reinforced. This demonstrates how effective counter action can quickly deflate bravado and cool the crowd fever by returning most to their senses.
As worrying as the incident is it is important that we retain perspective. Indeed, the continuing worry is not about the incident but the reaction, often racist vitriol, shown by Singaporeans in the online commentary space. If anything, such behaviour is as much mob like as what happened in the night.
There are several important insights to this incident.
First, the restrained shown by the Police should not be interpreted as axiomatic of general response to incidents of this nature. Police were proportionate in their response and maintained a situational awareness of the operating environment. However, no one should come to the conclusion that Police are not prepared to operate with force if and when the conditions are assessed to be justified. In other words, the calibrated response in this incident should not tempt any group – foreign or domestic – to test the limits of the Police.
Second, this is not an incident about “us versus them”. Based on the available information, this was an isolated incident where a variety of factors combined to blow matters out of hand. The fact that it involved foreign workers is incidental not central to the events. Those involved will face the full force of the justice system. There is no justification to generalise the blame across any group, any race or any gender.
Third, while it is inevitable that the incident would be perceived by some as tarnishing the image of a safe Singapore what would really tarnish our good image is the unrestrained, race based and over-the-top reaction by Singaporeans. This would show us to be xenophobic and unbalanced. Totally incongruent with our claim to be a first world city with a highly educated population.
Fourth, there are some who draw inferences between the infrastructure challenges facing Singapore and the riot. This is unsubstantiated. The workers are not housed in Little India. They frequent the area for recreation and to socialise. Little India is a historical place and thus does have sub-optimal characteristics when having to absorb, albeit temporarily, a large amount of human traffic. However, this is not a reflection of infrastructure lag but of historical circumstance meeting modern demands.
Fifth, some may be tempted to link the large presence of foreign workers at Little India to the population augmentation strategy. Again, this is a far stretch. Foreign workers, on work permits, have been a presence in Singapore for decades. They are essential to the urban renewal effort in Singapore. Their numbers today are not much larger than the historical mean.
Finally, it is not helpful for anyone to speculate wildly about the events of last night. Reason should be the master of our thoughts and actions. This is not a small incident but neither is it a sign of Armageddon. At this point, it is not insignificant that the incident occurred but it is most significant that the incident is over and was handled with professionalism and firmness by the Police. Hence, order has prevailed.
Things happen but how we respond to them define us. Let us allow the authorities to conduct the necessary investigations and take the lawful actions to ensure that law and order is maintained. But it is up to each Singaporean, no matter how upset they may instinctively feel about the incident, to govern themselves to a model of conduct which would exemplify why Singapore deserves the sobriquet of being a first world city.
Devadas Krishnadas is the Managing Director of Future-Moves. For ten years, he was a senior officer in the Singapore Police Force.