Tuesday 1 July 2014

Little India Riot Committee of Inquiry Report

3 key factors in Little India riot: COI report
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

THE riot in Little India was triggered by a fatal accident involving a worker from India, but it was a confluence of factors that escalated the violence into the mayhem that shocked Singapore, found a Committee of Inquiry (COI).

These are: A misconception of the accident and the actions of the first responders, combined with a desire for "street justice" that is likely due to the rioters' cultural background.

Firstly, the crowd perceived bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Gek Woon to be responsible for the accident that killed 33-year-old construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu. So, they were angry to see the two of them protected by shields instead of being arrested when the police arrived on the scene.

Also, rumours had circulated that Mr Sakthivel had not been immediately killed in the accident, but was crying for help beneath the bus. There was also talk that responding officers had kicked and "disrespected" his body. This sparked a violent response.

"In many countries, and especially in rural and sub-urban settings, there is a 'retaliatory ethic' and a sense of the need for retribution for 'wrongdoing'," said its report released yesterday.

In addition, alcohol was a "major contributory factor", the committee added, noting that four foreign workers who hitherto pleaded guilty to rioting and were convicted had admitted consuming alcohol on the fateful night of Dec 8 last year.

The police and Singapore Civil Defence Force were commended by the committee for their teamwork and the leadership of both their ground commanders in the initial phase of the incident.

But the police slipped up in the 30 minutes between the extrication of the dead man's body and the arrival of anti-riot troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC).

The police's decision to hold their positions instead of engaging the mob gave the rioters a "free rein to do whatever they wanted" despite the presence of a sizeable number of officers.

"The COI believes (police incident manager) Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim should have made more effort to establish the resources available and find out more about the situation," said the committee.

DAC Lu had testified that engaging the mob with the officers he had before the SOC's arrival could have sparked retaliation and forced the use of firearms.

Disagreeing, the committee noted that two officers who charged and drove the crowd back temporarily were not overwhelmed.

It also said the riot was not caused by any deep-seated unhappiness among the foreign workers, but was the result of an "emotional outburst" following the death of Mr Sakthivel.

He was run over by a private bus after he tripped while chasing after it. It led to a riot by about 400 foreign workers, mainly from South Asia.

During the two-hour mayhem, 54 police officers and other first responders were injured, and more than $530,000 worth of government property damaged.

The four-man committee, set up to get to the root cause of the violence, sat for five weeks, heard evidence from 93 people and produced a 75-page report of its findings and recommendations.

Released by the Home Affairs Ministry, the COI made eight recommendations in its report, most of which were on preventing future riots. These include: Beefing up police manpower, including the SOC, cutting the layers of authority needed to activate emergency personnel and improving communications and command-and-control capabilities for officers to get a better picture of the ground situation during public disorder.

In addition, strictly enforcing measures against public drunkenness, and putting in place alcohol restrictions in hot spots where large crowds typically indulge in heavy drinking.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday thanked the panel comprising retired judge G. Pannir Selvam (chairman) and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, former NTUC president John De Payva and Mr Andrew Chua, chairman of the West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee.

Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister, said his ministry and the Manpower Ministry would study the recommendations and give the Government's response in Parliament on Monday.

'Misunderstandings intensified rioters' fury'
Indian cultural attitudes on 'street justice' also contributed to violence
By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

THE Committee of Inquiry (COI) into last December's riot in Little India found that several misunderstandings about the fatal bus accident that sparked the fracas, and Indian cultural attitudes both contributed to the violence.

Evidence and eyewitness accounts indicated that the "triggering cause of the riot" was a road traffic accident that killed construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, the COI said in its report released yesterday.

It added that the mob's "perceptions and misperceptions about what followed ignited further fury that led to an escalation in violence and scale of the riot".

These included wrongly holding the driver of the bus responsible for the death of the worker from India, when investigations later showed the victim had, in fact, fallen under the bus by his own doing.

The blame was not born out of malice, noted the committee.

"As bystanders, they could not have known that Mr Kumaravelu had fallen under the bus while running in (the bus driver's) blind spot, nor that Mr Kumaravelu had fallen because he had lost balance after placing his hand on the moving bus," read the report.

The crowd also misunderstood the intentions of the first responders, it added, and the workers could have been enraged that public officers were shielding rather than handcuffing the driver and the bus timekeeper.

Interviews with workers revealed that rumours about Mr Kumaravelu being pinned under the bus alive and crying for help - when he had, in fact, died upon impact - could have led the crowd into thinking that rescue efforts were insufficient.

Other misguided rumours about the bus timekeeper having pushed Mr Kumaravelu off the bus prior to the accident even though she was not near the bus when the incident occurred, and of first responders kicking or disrespecting the body also "contributed to a sense of injustice that fuelled the anger of the crowd".

What followed was an attempt by the mostly South Asian workers to exact "street justice" in targeting the driver, the bus, the timekeeper, and the first responders. "Street justice involves punishment meted out by members of the public to people who are perceived as 'wrongdoers'," reported a Behavioural Analysis Group, convened at the request of the COI Investigation Team and led by Home Team senior consultant psychologist, Dr Majeed Khader.

This was supported by testimonies of individuals who lived or grew up in India, said the COI.

A "sub-culture... among some working-class men in Tamil Nadu" to "feel heroism" in disobeying law enforcement could have further compounded issues, heard the committee.

However, the COI also noted that people holding such beliefs "constitute a very small minority (in) Singapore's foreign worker population".

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor of sociology Premchand Varma Dommaraju, who studies Indian population issues and teaches about society and culture in South Asia, agreed that the findings corroborated "common behaviour" in India.

"Carrying out 'street justice' and disobeying law enforcement is common in India," said Dr Dommaraju, himself from Tamil Nadu.

"Disobeying is not seen as confrontational, it's just a way to make a point."

He said law enforcement officers should be better trained on dealing with people from different cultures.

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Mathew Mathews agreed that the desire for street justice "cannot be discounted in accounting for what happened" though it is "nearly never demonstrated in Singapore".

However, National University of Singapore assistant professor in sociology Manjusha Nair, who grew up in South India, disagreed that a cultural explanation of the behaviour of the rioting workers was "entirely satisfactory".

"Stereotyping the cultural traits of the workers and essentialising their characteristics will take our attention away from the external problems that might have contributed to the riots," she said.

"In my opinion, we need to think seriously about solutions and look beyond cultural explanations, in order to prevent such incidents in future."

Liquor curbs at hot spots, stricter law enforcement mooted
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

LIQUOR restrictions at drinking hot spots and stricter enforcement of laws against public intoxication will prevent a breakdown of public order like that during the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) said.

Its investigation into the fracas established that alcohol was an aggravating factor leading to its escalation of violence, after a fatal bus accident triggered the riot. The four men convicted of rioting so far had all consumed alcohol, the committee said, with one of them "so drunk that he did not remember what he had done until he was later shown video footage".

In restricting alcohol sales, "simply limiting the number of liquor licences in the area is not the solution", the committee said.

It noted that public intoxication has been an increasing problem in Little India in recent years - despite a fall in the number of liquor licences.

An islandwide ban on public liquor consumption is also unwarranted, the COI said. Rather, measures should be implemented at hot spots where "large crowds typically indulge in heavy drinking", such as Little India and Geylang.

These include stricter enforcement of Section 18 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which criminalises public drunkenness.

First-time offenders face up to one month in jail and a $1,000 fine. Subsequent convictions carry a maximum $2,000 fine and three months behind bars.

The COI said: "More vigilant enforcement would help to mitigate the effects of excessive drinking and the public order threat this presents."

It also supports restricting at hot spots the hours in which people can drink alcohol publicly and the areas where they can do it.

Such restrictions were imposed in Little India after the riot.

There were 321 liquor licences in the area as of June 16, 10 less than last year. Some 149 people have also been issued advisories for drinking outside permitted hours under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act (POATM).

The Ministry of Home Affairs had already started a public consultation exercise on alcohol measures before the Dec 8 riot.

That exercise is now in its second phase, in which it is calling for views from the public via government feedback portal Reach.

In this phase, which ends on July 31, feedback is being sought on the methods used overseas to limit public drinking.

The Straits Times understands that in reviewing the liquor regulatory framework, measures tailored for problem hot spots are being considered.

Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua, who oversees part of Little India, said: "If the strict measures under the existing POATM remain, then the number of liquor licences in Little India need not be drastically reduced."

She emphasised the need for varying degrees of restrictions on alcohol consumption at public places, with the strictest measures taken in residential areas.

Mr Edwin Tong, who oversees several lorongs in Geylang as MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, said: "This is a sensitive issue and there is a need to strike a right balance.

"The rules have to be defined more strictly and we have to learn from experience to identify high crime areas to prescribe rules for these areas."

The lawyer said stricter enforcement against public intoxication may be needed. "A lot of leeway was previously given and we don't see much prosecution there, which is something to consider."

Home Team did well but missed chance to quell riot: COI
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

THE Home Team's response during the Little India riot was overall "commendable" as there was no loss of lives and the violence was contained within a short period of time, found the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the mayhem last Dec 8.

But the four-man panel also noted that police lost an opportunity to quell the riot by remaining inactive while it waited for riot squads to arrive at the scene.

"The SPF (Singapore Police Force) officers decided to hold their positions. This allowed the rioters to pelt them with projectiles, and overturn and set fire to emergency vehicles," said the committee in its report, adding that the police inaction could have encouraged and emboldened the rioters even further.

"The COI believes that the number of active rioters in (this) phase was not large, but they had free rein to do whatever they wanted."

Giving a detailed assessment of what happened that night, the committee said that there were two distinct phases to the riot before the Special Operations Command (SOC) or riot police arrived.

In the first phase, from the time of the accident at about 9.20pm which killed 33-year-old Indian national construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, to about 10.15pm when his body was extricated and the bus driver and timekeeper evacuated, it was "clear that the responding officers... did a commendable job of handling the situation", said the committee.

It said the police acted wisely in not arresting the rioters whose anger was targeted at the bus, its driver and the timekeeper, and not the responding officers.

"Any direct action taken by the police against the rioters in this phase would have taken an ugly turn. There were too many rioters and too few SPF officers there," it said.

But in the second phase of the riot, from 10.15pm until the arrival of the SOC at 10.45pm, video footage indicated a lull, with fewer rioters and onlookers than before, said the committee.

"The SPF officers at the scene were not visible in the videos at this time. SPF and SCDF (Singapore Civil Defence Force) vehicles were left unprotected, essentially sitting ducks," it noted.

The committee rejected the police's claims that they could not act because their officers were outnumbered.

"There were sufficient officers to take action had they been marshalled and directed to do so... The COI does not agree that it was a life-threatening situation, or that the officers would have been in severe danger had they moved in to stop and arrest the rioters at this time," it wrote.

The COI cited the case of two responding officers who were not overwhelmed in their attempt to charge at or detain the rioters. Likewise, rioters had "melted away" upon seeing a Police Tactical Troop column of six officers walking down Hampshire Road.

The committee also noted that jammed airwaves had made it difficult for police officers to communicate, and suggested that a command post and reporting station could have been set up to mobilise resources while waiting for SOC troops.

This could also be used as a base to effect arrests.

It singled out the police ground commander that night - Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim - for criticism, saying that he could have "made more effort to establish the resources available... either by instructing his officers to move around, or doing so himself".

He should also have re-evaluated the decision to hold his position until the arrival of the SOC, when it became clear that the riot troops - with a delay in deployment and traffic congestion - were going to be late. The SOC took 50 minutes to get there.

"Riots are dynamic situations which call for a dynamic response," the committee concluded.

It also criticised SCDF officers for returning to their base after completing rescue operations, as their fire engines could have been on hand to deal with arson.

To strengthen the Home Team, the COI called for better technological capabilities to see what was happening on the ground.

These include monitoring social media, as well as available video feeds from closed-circuit television cameras on the streets, in-vehicle cameras and body-worn cameras.

Training and equipment for front-line officers should also be reviewed to enable them to quickly defuse public order situations.

The COI supported Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee's request to boost manpower, such that more resources can be deployed in mass congregation areas.

Also, the police and SCDF could develop joint standard procedures to manage such public order incidents.

More can be done for foreign workers: Panel
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

DISSATISFACTION among foreign workers with employment and living conditions in Singapore was not the cause of the Little India riot, said the Committee of Inquiry (COI) in a report submitted to Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday.

But it also acknowledged that more could be done to improve the treatment of foreign workers.

An objective of the month-long inquiry was to examine the issues and concerns broadly faced by migrant workers, and identify any that might have contributed to the Dec 8 riot last year.

One was the possibility of deep-seated unhappiness among migrant workers. The committee said it spent much of the inquiry - both before and during the public hearings - gathering evidence for and against this.

They spoke to foreign workers and visited dormitories, construction sites and other areas where workers congregate.

"Nearly every foreign worker the COI spoke to - including those who were involved in the riot - testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore, consistently rating Singapore as 'number one' among countries who receive foreign labour," said the committee.

It noted, however, that there are workers here who face real difficulties, especially from errant firms who withhold salaries or medical leave and fail to maintain standards of accommodation.

"However, there is no reason to believe that rioters present at the scene that night - who, investigations showed, worked for different employers and lived in different quarters across the island - had, as a common cause for rioting, dissatisfaction with their employment and living conditions in Singapore," concluded the COI.

"Anecdotal complaints, however valid, do not amount to evidence of systemic mistreatment."

Still, the committee devoted a whole section of its report to how to improve the lives of workers.

It called on the Government to try to solve "on a bilateral basis" the problem of high fees charged by employment agents in workers' countries, and urged more effort in educating them on their general rights and protections under the law. It recommended that staff who frequently interact with them, such as "bus drivers, timekeepers, auxiliary police officers and even Singapore Police Force officers", be given "basic training" in cultural sensitivity.

The COI also warned employers that they need to go beyond "just paying a salary" and consider setting up and funding support communities for foreign workers.

Still, migrant workers' satisfaction with Singapore remains high, said Migrant Workers' Centre's (MWC) executive director Bernard Menon.

Preliminary results from a survey conducted by MWC this year showed about 95 per cent were satisfied with law and order, job prospects and salaries here.

But more still needs to be done, said groups working with migrant workers.While these are steps in the right direction, the question is how to take them further, said president of human rights group Maruah, Ms Braema Mathi.

She said: "We can over-police everything but what is the point if we do not have a clear system on how to treat foreign workers?"

Mr Jolovan Wham, an activist with the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics, said: "The recommendations do not go far enough."

Lessons learnt to make sure Singapore stays safe
COI has balanced its work with the need to maintain standing of police force
By Francis Chan, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2014

AFTER coming under intense scrutiny during the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearings, the men and women of the Singapore Police Force are likely to take heart from its report on the Little India riot.

The committee declared that the force had responded "relatively swiftly and efficiently" to the incident on Dec 8.

This seems a fair conclusion, not least if one remembers that there was no loss of life as a result of the violence, and the police did not have to resort to more forceful or aggressive means, such as using tear gas or firearms to neutralise the mob.

The findings, however, will strike many as being in marked contrast to the committee's tone when it questioned several policemen, including senior officers, during the public hearings which ended in March. Then, police officers who responded to the riot were grilled on their decisions and course of action during the riot when they took the witness stand.

These range from why the police did not engage the rioters earlier to quell the violence to why there was a delay in activating anti-riot troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC), and whether officers could have been more assertive when confronting the mob, among other issues.

On one particularly memorable day during the inquiry, the incident's ground commander, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, was questioned by the committee for more than four hours over his decision to hold the ground instead of trying to disperse rioters as they torched police patrol cars and an ambulance.

Former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba said the perceived police inaction at the time could have made the rioters bolder.

DAC Lu hit back by saying that the police doctrine was to hold and "wait for superior forces" before moving in. His small group of officers could have been overwhelmed, which would have forced police to open fire, he said. But COI chairman and retired judge G. Pannir Selvam, replied: "It is just your imagination and self-delusion."

When word of the exchange between DAC Lu and the committee got out to the ranks of the force, morale among the officers took a hit, going by comments of many of the former and serving officers in the force that I spoke to. Some wondered if the committee's approach and line of questioning was fair. After all, it had the luxury of hindsight, unlike those on the ground who faced hundreds of angry rioters that night, many highly intoxicated.

So the more measured tone adopted by the COI in its report will come as a relief. After reviewing evidence, the committee broke down the police response into two phases: The first from around 9.20pm, when the fatal accident that sparked the riot occurred till the body of the victim was extricated at about 10.15pm, and the second from 10.15pm until the SOC troops arrived at about 10.45pm.

The force was roundly commended for the handling of the first phase. "Any direct action taken by the police against the rioters in this phase would have taken an ugly turn. There were too many rioters and too few (police) officers there," it said.

Several lapses in the actions of the police during the second phase, however, were highlighted by the COI. But it acknowledged that the officers at the scene had faced "severe communications problems", which made it difficult to establish proper command and control at the scene. This lack of communications also added to the delay in the activation and arrival of anti-riot troops, it said. But when the reinforcements from the SOC arrived, the rioters were dispersed within "a very short time".

Turning back to the big picture, however, the committee was quick to emphasise its view that these lapses in the second phase of the riot were "an aberration from the norm", adding that they did not reflect a "serious and systemic defect" in the force as a whole. It also acknowledged that none of the officers that night had encountered a major riot incident before.

"In the view of the COI, (the police force) is on the whole an efficient and effective institution, and is one of the finest police forces in the world," said the report. "The key is to learn from this incident, so that mistakes are not repeated and future responses are improved."

So, did the COI help ensure the right lessons are drawn after it took a hard look at what transpired that fateful night? Or did it pull its punches?

To be fair, the committee seems to have weighed the need to ensure that the morale and standing of our men and women in blue were not diminished by its process, given the critical role they play in keeping Singapore one of the safest and most peaceful cities in the world.

In 2009, during the Group of 20 summit in London, the Metropolitan Police was sharply criticised for its rough handling of protesters, including pushing into crowds with shields and batons. Some have argued that this eventually contributed to a "softly, softly" approach to policing when riots broke out in London two years later. Media reports noted that one of the more astonishing sights of the 2011 riots was how the police held back from arresting looters only metres away. "A police officer later told me that this was all part of official policy: Better to let a few criminals smash up a few shops than intervene and spark off a full-scale riot," wrote a journalist from The Daily Telegraph.

So, having looked at what happened on Dec 8, the COI sought to help ensure that lessons are learnt, and the force recovers its ability to continue to keep Singapore safe.

Little India COI report "robust": MP Hri Kumar
Channel NewsAsia, 1 Jul 2014

The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot has produced a "robust" report, with good recommendations on how to improve training and equipment for frontline officers, said Government Parliamentary Committee Chair for Law and Home Affairs Hri Kumar Nair .

He added while it's important to boost the Home Team's capabilities to deal with public order situations, building on the soft skills of police officers and auxilliary police officers (APOs) who patrol Little India can make a difference too.

"One of the things the COI pointed out was the incident escalated because of perceived unfairness in treatment, the perceived thinking that the officers were not doing their job, or at least doing their job in an unfair manner, so if you build up a trust and rapport with them, that's not the first thing that will come to their mind, particularly in difficult situations. So I think that's something we can do better in, and it takes time and effort and that's something we should strive towards," said Mr Nair.

This could mean having officers who can engage the foreign workers in their Mother Tongue, he said. "That's important. You want APOs and officers who are not just there to enforce the law, but also to engage. You would hope that they would talk to foreign workers there, build a rapport, make their presence known, make it clear that they are not just there to enforce the law, but to help and to maintain order. People who they can trust, not just authority figures. And that will take time, but speaking the language I think, is one of the critical factors."

He added that this might require casting the net wider - to include retired police officers, community leaders, and non-governmental organisations. Mr Nair also suggested reducing the turnover rate of migrant workers here. Those who have been here longer would be more aware of Singapore's social norms, and can better educate and guide new workers who come to Singapore.

HOME welcomes Little India riot COI recommendations
Channel NewsAsia, 1 Jul 2014

Migrant worker help group, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), said it welcomes the recommendations by the Committee of Inquiry for the Little India riot.

Executive director Jolovan Wham on Tuesday (July 1) said HOME is glad the committee - in its report released on Monday - acknowledged the important role that low-wage migrant workers play in contributing to Singapore's economy and community. However, "Singapore needs to go beyond the recommendations laid out by the committee by introducing systemic changes in order to fully realise the rights of low-wage migrant workers", he said.

In particular, HOME recommended:
- More oversight and enforcement in the area of recruitment, to ensure that Singapore only approves work permits of workers who have gone through legal channels in their home countries, and to prevent employers and recruiters based in Singapore from getting large kickbacks
- Better legal protection to prevent wage discrimination by nationality
- Changes to policies and laws that make it difficult for migrant workers to defend their employment rights and file cases of abuse
- More training of law enforcement officers to be sensitive when dealing with foreign workers
- Improvements to accommodation of foreign workers, as large numbers continue to live in cargo containers, factory-converted dormitories, and even construction work sites
- More resources be poured into establishing welfare groups and that employer groups consider setting upand funding support communities for migrant workers
Home added that there is a need for better independent representation of migrant workers by unions, with only 11 per cent of all foreign workers in Singapore unionised.

Recommendations from the Little India riot COI "holistic": Denise Phua
By Imelda Saad, Channel NewsAsia, 1 Jul 2014

Many in Little India say since the area was marked a Special Zone, there have been fewer incidents of public disorder. MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC Denise Phua says the recommendations from the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot released on Monday (July 1) are heartening, and "holistic".

She also says residents want the enhanced police power in Little India to continue. They also want the restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol to be in place for the long term.

Ms Phua agrees there should be stricter enforcement of public drunkenness, especially in shared spaces.

"Much needs to be done about restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Please, not on the ground floor where my residents are living for example, and also consumption of alcohol in public spaces, especially when there are also residents going there - the families, the young kids, the ladies coming home from school. (People) shouldn't be drinking publicly in the void deck, playground and elderly equipment places," she said.

On the flip side, business owners say they are suffering. Since restrictions to the sale and consumption of alcohol were put in place in Little India, business owners say revenue has drastically gone down. We're told that just over the last six months, about seven restaurants and 15 liquor shops have closed down. And having seen the recommendations from the committee, they are concerned.

Their wishlist - to reduce restriction hours for liquor sale by one day, and have it start on Sunday. Also, they want to extend the pick-up time for workers headed back to their dormitories by one hour to 10pm.

Said Mr Rajakumar Chandra, the Chairman of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, "We know that not many foreign workers come at this time, it's not that they are all here and the policy is being tweaked to help businesses but generally when you look at it. On Saturday evenings, you don't find that much crowd, it's just like a normal weekday. It's only on Sunday that you find the crowd comes in after 4, 5 o'clock - so till then, the restriction to the sale of the alcohol really affect the sales of businesses, at least let them do a little bit more business."

"The businesses are also important stakeholders," Ms Phua acknowledged. "Of course, for many years they have had a good run. The number of foreign workers supporting our economy has grown so the business has grown bigger for them and the nature of the trade has also changed to cater to many of the foreign workers. Their livelihood is important, but let's think of creative measures by which there could be a win-win situation.

"The businesses which specialise, which have really good network and the skills and expertise for these kinds of businesses - could we help them expand their business network? Put them in dormitories, give them a chance, help them build a network, so that the negative impact on their business is not as much."

Mr Rajakumar said he hopes Little India merchants will be given priority when tendering for shop spaces at new recreation centres for migrant workers. "Hopefully there are other recreational centres which can be opened and all these merchants can be given a chance to do business. At least they could have another branch there to cover their loses here," he said.

'Bridge cultural divide' to avoid friction seen in riot
Foreign workers should trust police, who must also respect them: Experts
By Hoe Pei Shan, The Straits Times, 2 Jul 2014

THE cultural divide between foreign workers and local service providers and law enforcement should be bridged in order to avoid the kind of friction that contributed to the riot in Little India last Dec 8, said academics.

Trust should be developed among workers that most officers' genuine intention is to mete out justice and, on the other hand, those who interact with migrant workers must be trained to be sensitive to cultural differences and to treat workers with respect.

The academics were responding to the Committee of Inquiry's findings, submitted on Monday, that the crowd's misreading of a bus accident as well as specific cultural attitudes towards street justice for perceived neglect or wrongdoing contributed to the escalation of violence that night.

Dr Smita Singh, a social psychology lecturer at James Cook University in Singapore, who has done research in social and cultural indicators surfacing in mass media, said such a sub-culture of heroism against authority is "quite prevalent in southern India especially". She suggested that foreign workers be made more aware of the roles of law enforcement here, and that they should develop trust in the officers' ability to do their jobs. That would go towards dissuading them from trying to take the law into their own hands, she added.

Dr Singh, who also focuses her research on group behaviour psychology, said more could be done as well to better manage crowds where they congregate, such as Little India, to ensure that any displays of violent or criminal behaviour could be better controlled.

"The size of the group that night likely sparked a mob mentality, and one way to address that would be to make sure there aren't that many people in any one area by providing different options for gathering and transportation," she said.

This echoed a recommendation made by the COI that more services and amenities be made available to foreign workers to reduce crowding in a few areas.

The committee also recommended basic training for service providers and law enforcement officers in cultural sensitivity, including some basic language skills and an appreciation for the role played by foreign workers.

Agreeing, Professor Robin Jeffrey, a research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies here, said a cultural divide was inevitable but not insurmountable.

"There are obvious divisions: ethnicity, language, class," he said. "If a lowly paid worker on his one day off feels that he is being pushed around by a well-paid policeman who looks different and doesn't speak the worker's language, then one has a mixture that leads to resentment and possibly worse."

Prof Jeffrey agreed with the recommendations and added a novel suggestion of his own to boost interaction between both sides - have a police-workers' football match one Sunday afternoon.

Residents, shops welcome inquiry panel's proposals
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 2 Jul 2014

MOST residents and shop owners in Little India have welcomed the Committee of Inquiry's recommendations, especially its suggestion for better basic and security infrastructure in the enclave.

The committee specifically wanted more lighting, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and facilities such as toilets, bins and sheltered walkways.

"The lights and cameras installed soon after the riot are much appreciated by the residents and if more are set up, these will further heighten their sense of security, especially on weekends," said Mr Martin Pereira, chairman of the Tekka Residents' Committee (RC).

"You can't prevent foreign workers from coming here on the weekends, but you need to police them more effectively," he added.

Residents said they felt vindicated by the committee's call for greater policing of public drunkenness and its finding that alcohol was a major contributory factor to the escalating violence on the night of the riot last December.

Jewellery maker Nikki Lee Ryan, 24, who has lived in Little India for eight years, said she hopes police will take a stronger stance against excessive drinking.

"Maybe officers can first warn them, but if it's the same person who got drunk the week before, they should be booked," she said.

Ms Denise Phua, Central Singapore District Mayor and an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC whose ward covers part of Little India, strongly called for "varying degrees of restrictions on alcohol consumption at public places; with the strictest measures within residential zones".

Ms Phua, who often urged the Government to restrict alcohol consumption and sale in the area before the riot, added: "We must not return to the days when residents have to put up with public drunkenness and blatant sale of alcohol to congregations of visitors right where they live."

The two-hour mayhem on Dec 8, involving about 400 foreign workers, mainly from South Asia, stunned Singapore.

A Committee of Inquiry held a five-week hearing to get to the bottom of it and on Monday, its report set out the key factors for the riot and made recommendations on ways to prevent such public disorder from erupting again.

Its call for better facilities was endorsed by Ms Petrina Loh, 32, owner of Morsels restaurant in Mayo Street in Little India.

She hopes it will signal a general clean-up of the place. "If it's brightly lit, clean and they have benches where they can sit, the workers won't have the urge to litter or sit on the ground," she said.

Some liquor sellers, however, are dismayed at the report's recommendation for an alcohol ban at hot spots where heavy drinking occurs, such as in Little India and Geylang.

"Their business is still down 70 to 80 per cent," noted Little India Shopkeepers And Heritage Association chairman Rajakumar Chandra, 56.

"They know the bitter pill is necessary to prevent the same thing happening again, but they are finding it hard to swallow."

Restrictions on alcohol sale and consumption in Little India have been in place since Dec 14.

Mr Rajakumar hopes the authorities will give Little India shopkeepers a chance to operate at the existing and new worker dormitories to be built in other parts of Singapore.

"Little India merchants know what items suit the Bangladeshis and Indians, and can offer competitive prices because they import directly themselves," he said. "They have this experience."

Riot 'not a political issue' between India and Singapore
By Nirmala Ganapathy, India Correspondent, In New Delhi, The Straits  Times, 2 Jul 2014

SINGAPORE'S Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said he did not see the Little India riot as "a political issue" between India and Singapore, and stressed that the incident was not a migrant or a foreign worker issue.

A day after the findings of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) were released, Mr Shanmugam, who is on a visit to India, said yesterday that the riot was "fuelled by alcohol and feeling of injustice".

"People see someone dying and they feel something wrong in the way the person died under the bus, which is why we had a full Committee of Inquiry to look into the causes of death," he told reporters from the Indian and Singaporean media.

"If a Singaporean is involved in a riot in India, I would expect him or her to be treated in accordance with the rule of law, and I would not make it a state-to-state issue because so far the rioters have been dealt with in accordance with the law. I don't see it as a political issue."

Mr Shanmugam also discussed the COI report in a meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, said Mr Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs. But he did not go into the details of what was discussed at the meeting.

The COI found in its report that a series of misunderstandings about a bus accident that killed an Indian national had led to the riot.

Mr Shanmugam yesterday noted that "statistically, foreign workers in Singapore commit far less crimes than locals".

"I visited the workers' dormitories after the riot," he said. "One thing that is often overlooked is that workers coming to Singapore make a free choice. They have a choice of going to any country... When they chose Singapore, they chose with full knowledge of the working conditions and salary.

"And if you ask them, Singapore ranks at the top of the list of countries."

A recent survey showed that 95 per cent of workers had no complaints, Mr Shanmugam said.

"It is not a situation where everything is perfect under the sun," he acknowledged.

But he added: "Systemically is there a problem? No."

Give foreign workers a fair deal
COI into Little India riot suggests sensible and practical ways to improve their lives
By Radha Basu , The Sunday Times, 6 Jul 2014

It is no surprise that the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot concluded that it did not think foreign workers' dissatisfaction over employment and living conditions caused the mayhem and damage of last Dec 8.

Its 75-page report made public last week confirmed what many observers suspected: that the riot was not a premeditated expression of worker woes, but the result of a combustible confluence of several factors including spontaneous anger and misunderstandings after a fatal traffic accident, alcohol and, later, police lapses.

Even so, the committee clarified that while work or housing woes were not the cause of this riot, "this is not to say that a riot may never occur on this basis".

That's something the authorities and employers should heed, given the growing numbers of foreign workers in Singapore.

As of last December, there were more than 770,000 foreign workers, excluding domestic maids. That number is 100,000 more than in 2010.

While most workers say they are happy in Singapore, the committee acknowledged that there are some who face "real difficulties in their employment or living situation", especially those employed by errant firms which withhold pay, make workers live in substandard accommodation or refuse them medical leave.

After acknowledging the work done by non-governmental organisations to help these workers, the report went on to make some sensible and practical suggestions on ways to improve the lives of foreign workers here.

High foreign employment agency fees is one key issue that must be tackled to improve workers' well-being, suggests the COI. Such costs often put the workers into heavy debt for significant periods of time.

The report did not go into specifics, but migrant worker advocates say they see workers who have paid up to $9,000 in fees to middlemen and recruitment agents to secure a job here.

A 2012 survey by welfare group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) showed that a fifth of Bangladeshi workers could be returning home without even recovering recruitment costs which, at an average of $7,500, came to more than 17 months of a beginner's average basic pay.

While the Ministry of Manpower regulates the fees charged by employment agents in Singapore, it is unable to do the same with agents registered overseas, points out the COI report, adding: "However, the COI hopes that something can be done, perhaps on a bilateral basis, to improve this situation for foreign workers."

This sound suggestion needs serious consideration. Indeed, similar schemes have already been implemented overseas.

Bangladesh, a source country for a growing number of foreign workers here, already has a database on its nationals who are eager to work in Malaysia as part of a bilateral arrangement with that country.

A semi-government agency has been set up to manage the recruitment, and prospective employees can submit their CVs at those centres free of charge. Such a scheme could be explored in Singapore too.

Another important suggestion from the COI has to do with wages. It says the Manpower Ministry could consider working with employer associations to encourage making annual increments an industry norm for foreign workers.

This is already the case with local workers. Last year, eight in 10 companies claimed they gave local workers who earned below $1,000 a pay increase.

Much has been done in recent years to shore up the wages of Singaporean blue-collar workers. Workfare and a new guaranteed pay of $1,000 for full-time cleaners - one of Singapore's most poorly paid vocations - helped bring about a 5.4 per cent increase in basic pay of rank-and-file workers last year, the highest such rise in 16 years.

Unfortunately, foreign workers are excluded from official wage surveys, so it is impossible to track their wage gains, if any.

But migrant workers' groups like TWC2 and Home still see cases of workers who earn as little as $16 a day before overtime, much as they did a decade ago.

The Sunday Times has been shown payslips of workers who still earn $2 or less an hour for construction or marine work, which is physically demanding, difficult and dangerous.

The poorest Singaporean workers, meanwhile, can easily earn $5 or more an hour - $40 a day - for jobs that are far less demanding. This yawning gap must be narrowed.

To make up for the low pay and recover their recruitment costs as quickly as they can, workers often have no choice but to put in long hours. The Sunday Times saw a payslip of a worker, who returned home last week, showing that he worked an average of 13 hours every day in May - without a single day off. His net pay? $781.

Workers like him can at least get some redress if they are short-changed because they have documentary proof in the form of payslips. However, payslips are not mandatory yet and a recent survey of 328 workers by TWC2 found that one- third of them had not been paid their dues. The bulk of the problems involved illegal deductions.

As foreign worker levies are raised, migrant activists fear that more unscrupulous employers may try to recover their higher costs not just by paying low wages, but also through kickbacks.

Workers' living conditions were another issue the COI touched on. It had heard from multiple witnesses, including foreign workers, that the housing available to foreign workers in Singapore ranks well against the world. "This is something Singapore can be proud of, but there is always room for improvement," it says.

In March, the committee heard how Singapore's purpose-built dormitories provide mandatory free Wi-Fi, mini-marts and canteens as well as air-conditioned television rooms and gyms - surpassing international standards.

But there are only around 200,000 beds in such dorms. The rest of the 770,000 workers here live in various types of accommodation - converted factories, temporary quarters near construction sites, rented Housing Board flats, shipping "container blocks" and so forth. Those who live in temporary quarters or factories may have to get by without proper kitchens or enough toilets.

While Singapore's housing conditions are indeed better than what is seen in some Gulf countries, for instance, it is not saying much.

Countries like Qatar have come under international fire recently with reports of workers being forced to live in filthy, cramped and dangerous makeshift dorms and work in slave-like conditions.

Some Singaporeans have long held the belief that if foreign workers don't like what they get here, they are free to go back.

But such attitudes don't just lack humanity; they could hurt labour productivity and Singapore's plans to renew itself by building a new airport terminal and a new waterfront city and relocating its world-famous port.


The Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot had these suggestions for improving the lives of foreign workers in Singapore.
- Tackle high employment fees faced by workers in their home countries by working on a "bilateral basis" with source countries that supply these workers.
- The Ministry of Manpower can consider working with employer associations to offer regular pay increases to foreign workers.
- Workers' accommodation, while better than that provided overseas, can be improved.
- Employers need to take responsibility for the welfare and well-being of their workers beyond just paying them a salary. They should consider setting up and funding support communities for foreign workers. These can be done through engaging the help of NGOs and community volunteers concerned about foreign worker issues.
- Those in jobs that require frequent interaction with foreign workers - bus drivers, bus timekeepers, and police officers - should get basic training in cultural sensitivity and an appreciation of the role that foreign workers play in Singapore. In particular, training which covers basic or key words in the workers' native languages would go a long way towards fostering greater understanding and communication.
- More effort should be made to fully educate foreign workers not just on their general rights and protections, but also on specific employment processes.

Greater protection and care for migrant workers needed

THE Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) is pleased that issues concerning the protection and welfare of migrant workers were highlighted in the article ("Give foreign workers a fair deal"; Sunday).

Practices of errant overseas employment agents have been a long-term challenge for the Government and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). We agree that international bilateral solutions should be pursued by the Government to help alleviate the situation, but believe this should be complemented by other measures to make more impactful progress towards eradicating this problem.

First, we need to ensure that work permit holders' contracts have key employment terms to prevent agents from using unfair or deceptive clauses to cheat migrant workers, which the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) has agreed to earlier this year.

Second, we need more employment education for migrant workers before they leave their home countries.

From our experience with migrant workers, we found that many are unaware of their rights. So we recently partnered MOM to produce a pre-departure video to educate them on unfair and illegal agency practices, social and cultural norms, employment rights and help channels.

Giving them this information in their native languages before they leave will give them a greater chance of recovering inflated charges they have paid under the laws and legal systems of their own countries.

The bulk of migrant workers we help come to us with salary-related issues. The process for claiming salary arrears requires them to provide evidence in the form of documents like payslips, which is difficult as the issuance of such documents is not widespread.

The MWC has been advocating hard for migrant workers' salaries to be paid through electronic means, to act as proof of payment. While we are encouraged that the MOM has said it is exploring this, we remain concerned about how long it will take to roll out this urgently needed protection for migrant workers. The most critical gap that needs closure is the migrant workers' inability to claim their rightful salaries due to lack of evidence, which the system does not compel employers to provide them with.

The MWC believes the protection and care of migrant workers is an issue of great importance to Singapore. We call on the Government, NGOs, employers and Singaporeans to make an effort to enhance the way we treat, protect and care for migrant workers. Let us send a clear signal that Singapore cares for, recognises and values every worker.

Yeo Guat Kwang
Migrant Workers' Centre
ST Forum, 12 Jul 2014

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