Friday 14 March 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 14

Soul-searching needed on first reactions: NGO chief
Foreign workers here to stay, so S'poreans must develop healthy approach to situation
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2014

SINGAPOREANS should do some soul-searching on whether some of the initial responses to the riots showed latent prejudice against guest workers here, said the president of human rights group Maruah, Ms Braema Mathi.

Ms Mathi was sharing her views yesterday with the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Dec 8 riot in Little India.

Foreign workers are here to stay, she added, and a healthy and open approach must be developed to deal with this reality, including at the level of schools.

Taking the committee back to the immediate days following the violence, Ms Mathi said reactions to the violence ranged from "being bigoted to being compassionate", with some labelling groups of foreign workers as a mob.

"We cannot fluctuate from a moment of dehumanising them, and then suddenly... we humanise the person," she told the inquiry. "It has to be consistently borne from a value system."

The law to enforce public order that was subsequently implemented in Little India, was also a case of "too fast, too quick, to quickly put it all on alcohol", said Ms Mathi, who asked what this signalled to migrant workers.

Instead, she recommended that frontline officers who deal with foreign workers regularly be given soft-skills training, such as an understanding of South Asian cultural norms, language and behaviour.

She cited the example of an incident that happened in January at Rex Cinema, which is located near Little India.

She said police officers responding to a case then had used the word "dey" (Hey, in Tamil) to address the crowd of South Asian foreign workers, rather than "thambi" (younger brother) or "annai" (older brother).

Some 150 angry Indian movie-goers had refused to leave the compound that night, after a Tamil movie's premiere was postponed.

Some had been workers who had taken the day off specially to catch the movie.

"I think the guys in uniform will be the most important folks, the most neutral folks, to help us in bridging (communities) because they are walking the streets every day."

More work also needs to be done in schools to inculcate a value system from a young age, added Ms Mathi.

"(Education) Minister Heng Swee Keat, when he first came to Parliament, said values are the most important thing," she noted. "Are we doing enough value training on how we treat guest workers? I think this is the biggest area we have to work on."

Maruah is one of the non-government groups invited by the COI to share their views on what led to the riot, and what more can be done to help prevent another outbreak of violence. Wedding planner K. Vataramathi, who had volunteered to appear before the inquiry to share her thoughts on the issue, also suggested that there should be better integration of foreign workers.

This could be done, for instance, by having a more racially diverse mix of shops in Little India, she added.

Interacting with Malay and Chinese merchants in the Indian enclave could help migrant workers pick up local languages and "would be more representative of Singapore society", added Ms Vataramathi, who used to have an office in Little India.

She also cited the example of successful prata shops opened by Chinese entrepreneurs in places like Australia.

"In Singapore, our multiracialism is much appreciated," said the 53-year-old. "I think in these foreign workers, we have to instill that too."

Resident misses area's charm and vibrancy, others say it's peaceful
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2014

WHEN Ms Tan Huilinn moved into her Buffalo Road flat seven years ago, the area was already a bustling enclave for workers from India, Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia.

Noisy chatter from the crowds gathered at the void decks of Housing Board blocks and open fields in Little India on Sundays added, rather than detracted from, the area's charm.

The housewife - who testified yesterday before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Dec 8 riot - gave a markedly different take from many long-time residents of the estate who appeared before and after she took the stand at the hearings.

On Tuesday, Mr Martin Pereira, a resident of Klang Lane which is just a stone's throw from the epicentre of the riot, told the committee that foreign workers would have a picnic, consume alcohol and sleep at void decks and other public places.

The chairman of the Tekka Residents' Committee said residents want to feel safe and not have their neighbourhood intruded by "hordes of men in a drunken stupor".

Ms Tan, however, said that an "unnatural" calm has now settled in Little India after the authorities clamped down on public intoxication and increased enforcement patrols in the wake of the riot.

"I feel that Little India has lost its charm and vibrancy," she told the inquiry.

For instance, foreign workers used to be seen and heard cheering and whistling during the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal, said Ms Tan, who is in her 30s.

But this year's celebrations were significantly muted.

The droves of foreign workers who make their way to Little India on their days off each weekend gave the area its liveliness and distinctive atmosphere.

These workers, she said, are usually polite and would only cause minor inconveniences, such as chatting loudly or falling asleep in public places after a few drinks.

The alcohol ban - a move she does not support - has driven some of them away.

Ms Tan told the COI that while it is all nice and quiet at night now, it is also "kind of strange at the same time" because it is "unnatural" for Little India.

"It's a forced kind of silence," added Ms Tan, who has an arts degree from a university in Australia. "It's nice to see the workers being able to relax and just sit on the fields, catching up with one another. But now, you don't see any of that, which is kind of sad in my view."

But residents who moved into the area before the influx of foreign workers - which many say started about 12 to 15 years ago - welcomed the new restrictions on alcohol sales and the increased patrols by both the auxiliary and regular police.

They said the clampdown on public consumption of alcohol has helped reduce the size of crowds that congregate in the public areas around their neighbourhood, finally bringing them some peace and quiet. Foreign workers, they told the committee, would vomit, urinate and litter at their void decks.

Mr Lim Choon Kiang, who has lived in Buffalo Road for 32 years, usually meets his 25-year-old daughter at the Little India MRT station when she returns home late at night to walk her home. This started after she was harassed by workers who would whistle at her or ask her for money.

The 54-year-old wants the restriction on alcohol sales and consumption to be made permanent so workers will stop congregating in the estate.

Mr Ho Kin Hong, who has also lived in the area for 32 years, noted that more shops in the area now sell alcohol, which add to the chaos on weekends. But things have been looking up since the authorities stepped in after the riot last year.

"Before the riot, the condition here was very chaotic. There would be cars blaring their horns, noise pollution," said the retiree. "By 9 o'clock these days, it feels very peaceful, not much noise there now."

Thai workers have help fitting in here, thanks to group
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 13 Mar 2014

THE Thais were here first, making up the bulk of workers during Singapore's construction boom in the 80s and early 90s, years ahead of workers from India and Bangladesh.

Like them, the Thais also had an enclave of their own - Golden Mile Complex.

But unlike their South Indian counterparts, they could count on a body that acts as an intermediary with the Thai government and helps them integrate into Singapore society.

The Friends of Thai Workers Association operates under Thailand's Office of Labour Affairs but is run by volunteers. It organises courses, such as English lessons and computer classes, as well as recreational activities, to help keep Thai workers here occupied and out of trouble.

Committee of Inquiry chairman G. Pannir Selvam mentioned this group on a few occasions - most recently on Tuesday when he told Transient Workers Count Too president Russell Heng of its efforts to help ease Thai workers into life here by teaching them local languages.

The committee had also gone down to Golden Mile Complex in the course of their investigation to speak to migrant workers from Thailand.

Yesterday, three representatives from the association appeared before the panel to share its experience.

Language, said Ms Rungnapa Kitiarsa, is crucial in helping Thai workers fit in. Her late husband, one of the association's earliest volunteers, started English classes for workers who were usually skilled but struggled with the language barrier.

The association, she said, is also a "second home" for Thai nationals here, and a platform for them to learn new skills.

"It's people living there instead of going to hang out drinking or spending time doing something else... They can upgrade themselves to get a better job as well," she said.

Little India Riot COI: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, Day 12, Day 13

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