Monday, 8 December 2014

Little India Riot: One Year Later

The night that changed Singapore
Law and order reigns again in Little India - but amid tighter control. Insight does some soul-searching and looks at what else is altered.
By Lim Yan Liang And Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

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.

Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Jumani, whose own and surrounding blocks of flats do not have void decks that residents can use.

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 - Mr 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 Mr Jumani, despite the setting up of a Committee of Inquiry (COI) 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, Mr 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.

Mr 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."

Mr 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.

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

Likewise, Mr Pereira also disagrees with Mr 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 centres 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 Mr Pereira. "What we have always wanted is for the workers to behave according to the norms that we are used to."

Negotiating space

ALL this points to a negotiation of space - both physical and metaphysical - as Singapore grapples with the spotlight cast on a group of people who were previously hardly visible.

In the day, they toil on high-rise buildings or deep underground tunnels within walled-off construction sites. When they knock off, they go back to their temporary homes at dormitories.

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor of sociology Premchand Varma Dommaraju says: "They are seen as separate from the rest of Singaporean society. They are transient and are not really integrated and so most Singaporeans don't see or think of them that much at all."

What may spring to mind is the "not in my backyard" sense of entitlement. For example, in 2008, Serangoon Gardens residents objected vociferously to plans to build a foreign workers' dormitory there. Some 1,600 residents signed a petition protesting against the siting of the dorm on their doorstep. Some in the upper-middle-class neighbourhood wondered whether property prices would nosedive and crime soar.

National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Paulin Straughan says the lack of day-to-day interaction with these foreign workers, unlike other more visible groups like maids or service staff, may be a reason behind the ugly invective online following the riot.

"It forces us to think whether this segregation is the best way to manage foreign workers, how can we do better, how we can mitigate the factors that may have led to this kind of unhappiness," says the former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP).

Political watcher Eugene Tan, who is a law professor at Singapore Management University (SMU) and a former NMP, agrees.

He questions the moving of foreign workers towards the outskirts, and then also putting them in gated communities. He says: "It seems to hint at an underlying need to keep them away from the usual areas where Singaporeans go about their activities."

However, Associate Professor Straughan says: "The foreign workers must be inducted into the Singaporean way of life. They must know about our norms and expectations, to come and accept them as 'normal'.

"Likewise, Singaporeans must learn to accept them in our midst. Prejudice is built on fears and ignorance."

The uncertainty and ignorance towards them could have perpetrated fears of purported unruly behaviour, drunkenness or dirtiness, "forcing" Singaporeans to stay away, and to want them to be kept away, she adds.

Sociologists and observers wondered to Insight if the riot has widened the gap between those whose social consciousness was pricked, and others who are convinced there is a sense of lawlessness residing within the immigrant workforce.

Even as the COI concluded that the fracas was not the result of any "systemic dissatisfaction" among the workers, the riot did serve to draw attention to longstanding issues that non-governmental organisations have been championing.

The Migrant Workers' Centre (MWC) and Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) has seen growing momentum from this. MWC chairman Yeo Guat Kwang tells Insight there has been a "renewed vigour" from Singaporeans to know, and be involved more in, discourse about migrant worker treatment.

The Member of Parliament for Ang Mo Kio GRC says that the centre has received more than twice the number of invitations from schools and organisations to conduct talks and engagement sessions in the past year.

"If anything at all, migrant workers have reflected that Singaporeans care more about them now, and this is something that inspires them to work harder and contribute more to their beloved adopted country," he says.

Likewise, Home executive director Jolovan Wham observes more sympathy towards foreign workers, particularly when cases such as abuse and exploitation are reported.

Racial lenses

PERHAPS these sensitivities are why a Facebook post about an anti-riot drill made by Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan last month drew so much flak from Singaporeans.

The hour-long exercise on Oct 26 at a Woodlands dormitory involved South Asian workers, and pictures showed them throwing plastic bottles at police officers carrying shields.

Many netizens commented that it was racially insensitive and in poor taste. User Feng Yi, in a comment which drew 185 likes, said she "cannot help but feel disturbed by the racial undertones".

Mr Khaw later clarified that the joint exercise is "one of the many engagement and education sessions" conducted, regardless of nationality or race, and done with the intent of promoting mutual understanding.

However, SMU's Assoc Prof Tan says: "Realism is necessary but there's a need to balance that with sensitivity. It makes no difference whether the rioters in the drill are Caucasian or Indian or Chinese."

He adds: "It reinforces certain stereotypes, and (this) does not help in the trust and confidence building that we need."

To NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser, we can never sidestep the issue of race. For this incident, he says: "Much as we should avoid racial or national profiling, there are good reasons to try to understand what happened and how to engage with workers from the sub-continent, through ambassadors from their midst.

"Propagating racial stereotypes is obviously a bad thing, but reaching out to the foreign workers through people they can identify with and trust is, in my view, a good thing."

So how can we co-exist?

AS RESIDENTS like Mr Jumani point out, the riot has catalysed the Government to take action on many fronts - be it alcohol curbs or improving local infrastructure.

SMU's Prof Tan says it is ultimately a question of misplaced priorities, as well as dollars and cents.

"There was a sense that this is a transient community, that the congestion was only once a week and so it raised the question of whether it would be cost-effective to embark on measures in a very significant manner. Unfortunately, it took a riot before we see concerted action and a coordinated response kicking in."

Mr Jumani feels there could be better use for physical infrastructure like the bus station in Tekka Lane, as a multi-purpose hall for Little India residents who lack communal space.

This could be done on every day of the week except Sunday, when the bus services operate. He says: "When my children have their wedding in future, it will be good to be able to use that space. What a waste if it's used only on Sundays."

Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Mathew Mathews, who specialises in social cohesion issues, says the concern expressed by Little India residents so far is "not unexpected".

But, he adds: "Such discomfort may not just be directed at foreign workers, they may even feel this discomfort if it was a large number of Singaporeans who would, for some reason, flock to their area and do this on a regular basis."

Physical space aside, a major mindset shift will be needed to shift perceptions of this group of foreign workers.

NUS sociologist Tan says he does not expect every Singaporean to interact with foreign workers. But they should still be respected as fellow human beings.

MWC's Mr Yeo urges the authorities to gradually ease the restrictions implemented in the wake of the riot. He says: "This will truly demonstrate the trust we have in the community and also our migrant workers."

And this could benefit the wider community.

SMU's Prof Tan says: "If we can feel this way towards a foreign worker, there is nothing stopping us from taking the same attitude towards a Singaporean who does not know his rights, or is in no position to defend himself.

"It's the whole mindset: They are migrant workers, they do menial work, and so they do not deserve our care or concern."

The COI checklist: What's being done
THE Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the causes of the Little India riot made wide-ranging recommendations in its June report, most of which were to do with preventing future riots. Walter Sim looks at the changes taking place.
The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014


WHAT THE COI SAID: Improve police communications, command and control capabilities.
- A new Combined Operations Room with more advanced communications, imaging and mobile computing technology will be ready by year end.
- Trials started for body-worn cameras, which are clipped to an officer's uniform and can record in high definition, and for vehicle-mounted cameras, which will be installed in all fast-response cars by the end of next year.
COI: Train and equip front-line officers to deal with large-scale public order incidents.
- The police will further review capabilities, training and equipment that front-line officers need.
COI: Increase manpower resources, but focus on quality rather than quantity.
- There will be 300 more officers hired by 2017 for the Special Operations Command (SOC). This will double the current number of officers.
- Three units of Police Tactical Troops, instead of two, will be on standby. Each will have 44 officers deployed, instead of 35.
COI: Cut layers of approval or time needed to activate essential police resources to respond to incidents and other emergencies.
The approval process for activating the SOC has been made more direct. Division commanders can activate the first SOC troop, rather than only the police director of operations.


COI: Install more lighting, safety and surveillance devices in areas where large groups of foreign workers meet and provide better facilities at these places.
- The Government said in July that additional lighting was being installed in 44 locations. As of last Sunday, more than 100 street lamps have been added at 42 spots, including alleys and back lanes.
- Steps are being taken to better manage pedestrian and vehicle traffic and facilitate bus services for workers.
- Police cameras have been doubled from 113 to 250 in public areas and all HDB blocks. Another 88 more will be installed by next December.
- There is an increased police presence; 20 to 30 more officers and a dedicated SOC unit are there on weekends, along with auxiliary police officers.
- Operators of the 200 buses that ferry workers between dormitories and Little India on Sundays have a new route in the area, as well as drop-off and pick-up points.
- Permanent facilities like sheltered waiting areas are being provided progressively from this month.


COI: Set restrictions on alcohol in hot spots where crowds indulge in heavy drinking.
- Changes to the law will be introduced before the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act expires in March 2015.


COI: Provide more services and amenities to foreign workers outside of areas such as Little India.
- There will be four more recreation centres in tandem with the increase in foreign worker numbers.
COI: Workers' accommodation, while better than that provided overseas, can be improved.
- Construction of purpose-built dormitories will be stepped up. These will have in-built amenities and recreational facilities. There are already about 50 purpose-built dormitories here with some 200,000 beds. More will be launched and completed over the next two to three years.

THE DRIVER: 'It wasn't my fault. I have moved on.'
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

WHO: Mr Lee Kim Huat, 55, who also has the alias Lim Hai Tiong.

HIS INVOLVEMENT: He was the driver of the private bus involved in the fatal accident that sparked the riot.

Mr Lee was arrested and released on bail. In February, he resumed driving after he was cleared of criminal charges by the Attorney-General's Chambers.

HIS STORY: When Insight visited Mr Lee on Wednesday at his four-room Housing Board flat in Hougang, he is having his dinner in front of the TV, with his dog beside him.

He has just ended a long day at work, ferrying students and workers. He is still with the same employer, Mr Ben Tan of long-established BT & Tan Transport.

Of that fateful Dec 8, Mr Lee declares in Mandarin: "It wasn't my fault. I have moved on."

But it did take its toll. Shortly after, he fell into a two-month depression, spent most of his time at home and avoided the media.

Although no blame was laid on him at the Committee of Inquiry hearing, the incident scarred his life, says Mr Lee.

He developed a fear of going to Little India. "I have never been back," he says. "I avoid going there as I don't want to be reminded of the incident. I am also afraid people there would recognise me and start attacking me."

Another change: He has "downsized" from driving a 40- to a 19-seater coach.

"I no longer have a regular, fixed route (to and from Serangoon Road)," says Mr Lee. "I still fetch foreign workers, but not from Little India. But most times I fetch students from international schools."

He adds: "I don't think of the accident anymore. It caused me a lot of stress back then."

Says his 53-year-old wife: "His health took a nosedive. I was so worried when his blood pressure kept rising."

Mr Tan, 47, tells Insight that Mr Lee has taken "quite a number of medical leave (days) this year". He adds that Mr Lee has to miss work again for a few weeks "as he needs to go for cataract surgery".

The sole breadwinner in the family, Mr Lee, who has an 18-year-old daughter, earns under $1,800 a month.

He has been driving for 30 years and says the accident in Little India was the only time that he has knocked down someone.

Indeed, Mr Tan says Mr Lee has a clean driving record, except for the occasional summons for parking on double yellow lines or speeding while overtaking.

As Mr Lee talks to Insight, he tucks into a simple dish of vermicelli with soup while watching a Chinese variety show. "My life is very simple. Driving is the only job that I have learnt to do," he says.

THE BUS TIMEKEEPER: 'I'm still scared of that place...'
By Yeo Sam JoThe Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

WHO: Madam Grace Wong Geck Woon, 38, former bus timekeeper with the Singapore School Transport Association

HER INVOLVEMENT: Madam Wong was responsible for the movement of buses transporting foreign workers to their dormitories from Little India. On the night of the riot, she ordered 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu off a bus he had boarded. He later died when the bus ran over him. Madam Wong was attacked by rioters and injured.

HER STORY: One cracked tooth and a faint scar above her left eye. Those are physical clues that Madam Wong was right in the thick of the Little India bedlam. But one year on, the mental scars remain, too.

"I'm still scared of that place. I won't go back again," declares the 38-year-old in Mandarin, shuddering involuntarily.

On Dec 8, as rioters hurled concrete slabs and glass bottles at her, she took refuge in the bus. But two of them managed to climb through a broken window and assaulted her with a stick.

The attacks left the mother of one with cuts and bruises on her face and limbs, and a minor fracture to her right hand. A cut above her left eye required six stitches.

During the Committee of Inquiry hearing in February, others alleged that Madam Wong had used vulgarities and derogatory terms such as "stupid" and "idiot" with the workers, and even pushed them.

But she flatly denied this in court, saying she went only as far as raising her voice at times.

Speaking to Insight at her Potong Pasir flat this week, Madam Wong is chatty.

The permanent resident from Malaysia breaks into a smile when Insight notes that the scar on her left brow is barely noticeable.

"I used this ointment recommended to me by Mr Sitoh Yih Pin. It's really effective," she says, referring to the MP for Potong Pasir.

She has since left her timekeeping job, and sells children's clothes at flea markets, as well as taking care of her five-year-old daughter.

"She cried when she first saw me injured. But now she knows what happened," says Madam Wong, who had nightmares for a week after the riot.

While the future may seem uncertain, one thing is for sure - she will not be resuming her position as a bus timekeeper.

"My husband won't allow me to go back. And I don't want to, either. It's too dangerous," she says. "I just want to put this all behind me."

THE LOCAL SHOPKEEPERS: Business has taken a beating
By Lim Yi HanThe Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

WHO: Operators of shops and restaurants in Little India.

THEIR INVOLVEMENT: A year ago, they enjoyed a bustling trade, selling provisions such as alcohol to foreign workers or running eateries where workers hung out.

THEIR STORY: The Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association says that 95 per cent of the businesses in Little India are dependent on foreign workers, and all have been affected.

Chairman Rajakumar Chandra says: "The liquor ban badly affected the liquor shops. Some closed down, and some are trying to see what other things they can sell. Other shops are also affected... because fewer people are coming to Little India. It's improving but will never go back to the old level (of sales)."

At Komala Vilas Vegetarian Restaurant in Race Course Road, business has fallen by up to 30 per cent. Manager T. Richerd Leo, 41, says: "The workers used to come for dinner and drinks on Sundays and stay till late, but now they have to go back to the dormitories earlier."

After Dec 8, operating hours of buses ferrying workers to and from dormitories were shortened; services now end at 9pm, instead of 11pm. On Sunday nights, where once there were crowds of up to 100,000 in the area, "now, by 9pm, the whole area is empty", says Mr Richerd.

Ms Riya, 22, who helps manage her family's provision shop in the same street, says: "There were three provision shops in this stretch, but the only one left is us. There is no increase in business, though."

The undergraduate says at least seven workers helped out in the shop on Sundays before the riot. Now, just two are needed. The alcohol ban hit their business badly. "We used to earn $20,000 on one Sunday alone but, now, at most $2,000. I hope they can extend the selling hours for retail shops till 10pm, since restaurants can continue selling them."

Licensed shops can sell alcohol only up to 8pm on weekends, public holidays and eve of public holidays. Alcohol also cannot be consumed in public places during certain periods.

Mr Siva Kumar, 38, owner of Mannai Wines in Buffalo Road, says: "Business has been very, very slow. After I pay my workers and the rental, there is no profit. Before the riot, I could make a profit of $6,000 to $10,000 each month."

Mr Raja Athan, 43, who owns a shop selling phonecards and mobile phone accessories in Chander Road, says business has slumped 40 per cent. He adds that some dorms have shops selling phonecards, which hits his business.

But some are less affected. Mr Ong Cheng Teck, 57, who owns a shop selling toiletries in Buffalo Road, says: "After the riot, people avoided the area and business was down by almost half, but it has slowly picked up from the middle of this year. Maybe because we don't just cater to the Indian workers...

"The security around this area is tighter, and I'm happy with the changes. It's definitely safer now. Last time, I could see drunk workers around here."

THE MP: Residents want current alcohol curbs to stay
By Walter SimThe Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

WHO: Ms Denise Phua, 55.

HER INVOLVEMENT: She is Mayor for Central Singapore District and an MP for Moulmein-Kallang GRC, whose Kampong Glam ward includes part of Little India.

HER STORY: Little India residents have been vocal in calling for the temporary measures implemented in the area after the riot to remain, Ms Phua tells Insight via e-mail.

Particularly welcome, she says, are the curbs on the sale and public consumption of alcohol. This has greatly reduced incidents of foreign workers getting drunk, littering, urinating and sleeping along corridors or staircase landings, which she says was a concern for her residents.

But the measures under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act (POATM) will expire on March 31 next year. Ms Phua says: "My residents are not unreasonable and not so naive to demand that no foreign workers should visit Little India. They are simply asking for their privacy and their communal spaces to be returned to them.

"They do not want the neighbourhood shops in their heartland to be primarily selling alcohol or merchandise that cater to, and attract, large congregations of foreign workers."

According to the police, there are 321 liquor licences in the 1.1 sq km zone proclaimed under the POATM as of June 16 - 10 fewer than last year. They declined to provide updated statistics.

As of Nov 30, some 300 people have been issued advisories for drinking in public outside permitted hours, that is, from 6am on Saturday to 6am on Monday, as well as from 6am on the eve of public holidays to 6am the day after.

Ms Phua acknowledges that the restrictions have affected some businesses, especially those depending largely on foreign workers.

She has worked with the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association to ask the authorities to give these merchants priority, if tendering for shop spaces at decentralised recreation centres or dormitories for migrant workers.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs, which had started a review on alcohol measures even before the riot, is expected to introduce new laws by April.

Calling on the authorities to "not disappoint the residents", Ms Phua says she hopes the current alcohol curbs in Little India will stay.

She says: "I urge the authorities to give more weightage to the needs of the residents affected in the congregation hot spots and especially in Little India where the riot happened. These residents live there, day in, day out, and are there after the visitors have left."


'We come here to earn money, not riot'
Two foreign workers talk to Walter Sim and Lim Yan Liang about being in Little India on Dec 8 last year, the preventive measures and why, like Singaporeans, they just want a quiet life
The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

INSIGHT meets Mr Palaniyappan Sakthivel, 34, and Mr Natarajan Muruganandam, 26, at a meeting room at their Jalan Papan dormitory deep in the heart of an industrial zone off Jurong Port Road.

They are among 5,000 foreign workers who count Terusan Lodge I as their temporary home while they earn a living here.

Both workers are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and visited Little India on Dec 8 last year - just like Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu (no relation), whose death after falling in the path of a bus that night sparked a riot.

The interview with the duo, who are fellow construction workers at Singapore company TTJ Design, is at 10.30pm on a warm Wednesday night.

As our driver turns onto the unevenly paved road at 5A Jalan Papan, we see workers walking around freely, having their meals at a canteen or running errands at a convenience store.

Both of us get curious looks. The dormitory's night supervisor, Mr Charles Allimuthu, ushers us into a clinically corporate meeting room, with a white board, sofa, a meeting table and six roller chairs, their yellowing plastic covers still attached.

Mr Palaniyappan, who is helping build Mediapolis@one-north in Buona Vista that will house MediaCorp and other firms, and Mr Muruganandam, who is working on the Thomson MRT Line, arrive at 10.45pm, having washed up after a day's work.

Tucking into the supper we took along, they speak to Insight - in English - about the Little India riot and the changes they have observed since, only occasionally deferring to Mr Allimuthu, who is present to help with the translation.

Dec 8, 2013, was on the weekend after payday, and the two men were in Little India to remit money home.

Mr Palaniyappan, who has worked in Singapore for 10 years on projects such as Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, is a father of three - two girls, aged seven and five, and a boy aged three. He earns up to $1,200 a month, including overtime, and sends about $800 home.

Mr Natarajan came in 2012. His wife is expecting their first child, due in three weeks. He earns up to $900 a month, including overtime, of which he remits $700.

Besides remitting money, they also met up with friends from their villages. Just as they were about to set off to their dormitory, violence broke out.

What happened?

Palaniyappan Sakthivel (S): I transferred money at Western Union, and bought some vegetables, cooking items.

When I was walking (towards Race Course Road), many men came towards me and said: "Inside got problem, don't go there."

A policeman said that one person died and there was very big crowd. He said I was not allowed inside, so I walked to the nearby Rex Cinema to go to the train station. It was only after I came back and listened to the radio news, that I knew (there was) a very big problem.

Natarajan Muruganandam (N): I was crossing the road (from Tekka Centre) to take the bus, and I heard stones and bottles being thrown.

A policeman told me to take public transport, because there was no more bus to Jalan Papan.

So I went to Little India MRT. When I was waiting, I heard a big crackling sound, like an explosion.

And then, after you came back to the dormitory?

N: The policemen were here at midnight. When I woke up at 6am they were still here. At that time, we were not allowed outside the dorm.

S: The next day, they asked us to stay inside the dorm, cannot go out. The policemen wanted to investigate. They stopped the workers (from) going out and interviewed all the workers in the dormitory. (About 3,000 people were there at the time.)

N: I saw the news, the rioters setting fire, throwing the bottles. I felt very sad. This kind of behaviour, I don't like. We come here to work, to earn money, not to do that. I was shocked also. I didn't think that the accident will lead to this. I did not expect such things to happen at all.

A COMMITTEE of Inquiry (COI) found that Indian cultural attitudes, as well as several misunderstandings about the fatal bus accident, contributed to the violence.

It said 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 bus driver responsible for the death; investigations would later show that the victim had fallen under the bus by his own doing.

If an accident like this happens in India, we understand that people get angry and sometimes there will be rioting?

S: I know some places have this type of behaviour, but my own hometown, I've never seen.

N: The driver may be drunk or careless, and causes a fatal accident. Then sometimes the aggressive people will beat the driver.

If the driver made a mistake, sometimes they can't control (their emotions) and they beat him (up). They think it's his fault and they're angry.

The people, they just want to find the victim and take him to hospital. But if the driver causes an accident and tries to run away, or tries to quarrel with bystanders, it sometimes becomes a fight.

So is this a form of seeking immediate justice?

N: Sometimes the driver straightaway admits, he goes to the police station, (turns) himself in. But sometimes the driver quarrels, or if he's drunk, surely the public will be angry with him.

So if it's because of liquor that the accident happened, or if he said stupid things to them, surely they'll get angry. Not that they want immediate justice.

In this case we know that the driver was not drunk, and that it was not due to his carelessness. Why do you think bystanders reacted so strongly?

N: Some workers were there and they were drinking liquor. When they knew the accident had happened (and) someone had passed away, they got emotional and involved in the riot.

When they don't drink, people think of their families and why they come here. But when they drink, they forget everything.

At first they were targeting the bus driver and the timekeeper. Later, why did they target the police and paramedics?

N: This, I don't know.

MEASURES like alcohol curbs and increased police patrols in Little India are being enforced under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act.

Private bus services which ferry foreign workers between their dormitories and Little India now end their service at 9pm, instead of 11pm.

We discuss the changes, and what they think about the punishments meted out.

How have things changed in Little India?

S: It's safer now. Last time, people could drink and make noise everywhere. We sometimes saw them fight. They would sit at the grass patch, leave their rubbish everywhere. I don't like (it). Last time, police came around but also didn't disturb them.

(By ending bus services at 9pm), if people miss the bus, there's still the public transport. It is safe, and costs only 50 cents more (each way), although (it takes) a longer time.

N: From here in Jalan Papan to Tekka, 6.45pm is the last bus. From Tekka back, the last bus is at 9pm. Suppose we miss the $2 bus, then we'll take public transport back.

Because of this restriction, I just want to come back to the dorm early, after remitting money and meeting some friends.

The last bus at 9pm is better; last time, at 11pm, it was very crowded, very problematic.

We prefer to take the $2 bus because of the point-to-point service. We spend only one hour in Tekka because our purpose is to remit money.

We don't have to meet (friends and family) and talk for very long - we can talk on the phone, too.

After Dec 8, some Singaporeans were angry, and asked why we allow so many workers here when they drink, and then vomit and sleep everywhere. What do you think of the stereotype?

S: Singapore is a very clean and safe city. So if these people are vomiting or throwing rubbish and the local people are angry, it's because they made mistakes. I can understand.

Newcomers are aware of Singapore regulations, but those who are very new may do the same here as what they practise in India. They will take some time to memorise all the things. After they memorise, they will follow the regulations.

Do you pity the people who got sent home?

S: They made a mistake and so they are punished by the Government. It's the law. I listen to the news on radio, one more person was just punished (on Tuesday).

N: I worry about their families... if they are newly married or have a small child. Before they got involved in the riot, they should have thought about their family.

Before they come here they are briefed on the rules, what they can do and what they cannot. They have made mistakes and so there surely is a punishment.

IT IS mid-week, and both men have had a long day. Yet both have dressed in their Sunday best for the interview. We ask them what they do for leisure, and their long-term plans.

Why do you visit Little India?

N: We talk about what we read in newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, if there's a newcomer here from our village, he can tell us how our family is doing.S:Some of our friends who have just come back from a short holiday to India will bring some things for us from our family, like sweets and homemade snacks.

We go to Little India once a month. Only when we need to buy something do we go to Little India. If not, we don't go.

How do you unwind on your other Sundays off?

S: Every day when we finish work and come back to the dorm, shower and sleep, it's late at night. We need to wake up early, sometimes 6am, 6.30am.

On Sunday, we can wake up at 11am and eat breakfast - or wake up at 2pm also can. So whenever we can rest on our day off, we take our rest.

N: They show Tamil movies in the dormitory. Also, different blocks have television sets showing different channels.

Why did you choose to work in Singapore?

S: My father worked here before. He said unlike other countries, Singapore is safer and there is more freedom.

N: On weekends, we can meet friends any time, we can go to any shopping mall also. Because, Singaporeans don't think we are a different kind.

How is your interaction with Singaporeans?

N: The engineers and colleagues are very friendly, the local people advise us what courses are important to us that we can take.

S: One time, about seven years ago, one (colleague) invited me to his Housing Board flat for Chinese New Year. We celebrated with the family, they gave us makan (food).

When you first came to Singapore, what was your long-term plan?

S: We earn money, build a house, marry and then settle down. Then you have children, and the children need to study, get married..

Many people work here for three to four years, get married and then settle down in India. Some stay here for as long as 10 years, 15 years.

The buzz is still there, but...
One year after riot, Little India has most definitely changed
By Mark Cheong, The Straits Times, 6 Dec 2014

ON DEC 8 last year, at around 8pm, I was in Little India at a Housing Board block in Chander Road, adjacent to Race Course Road, shooting pictures for a story about alcohol consumption which was slated to be published the following day.

The place, albeit noisy with big groups of people drinking and spilling out on to the void deck, was vibrant and extremely welcoming.

I approached several foreign workers who were enjoying a beer and they were more than happy to talk to me - taking photographs was not a problem, either.

I left the place after getting my shots but got a call from a supervisor to return to the area because of a reported riot.

Just after the junction of Bukit Timah and Race Course roads, I was greeted by the unusual sight of tall flames and a line of Special Operations Command personnel facing off against a mob in the distance, men who periodically threw projectiles towards the policemen.

Shortly after, a burning ambulance in the distance exploded and I headed to Tekka Centre to get closer to the scene.

While making my way towards the fire, I couldn't help but notice the severity - and surreality - of the situation and the vast difference in atmosphere a mere two hours made.

As the night passed, I snapped pictures of a very different Little India - a far cry from the picturesque tourist attraction that it had been.

Vibrancy had turned to chaos. Shouting by policemen and rioters echoed through connecting lanes, with the ambulance still burning eerily a short distance away.

I could sense the dilemma of the policemen as they manoeuvred around the scene, strewn with debris and rubbish from overturned dustbins.

At the end of the night, I was still trying to grasp what I had just witnessed - scenes I had seen in news photographs from everywhere else but Singapore.

The riot being the biggest piece of local news last year, many stories followed this year, and I had the opportunity to revisit and observe how the stretch of Race Course Road had changed.

While the number of foreign workers frequenting the area on weekends in the aftermath of the incident declined sharply, the police presence increased dramatically.

The sale and consumption of alcohol in the area became a sensitive issue, with bans put in place. Barricades were set up on weekends and auxiliary policemen helped to direct vehicular and human traffic along busy junctions in Race Course Road.

Little India had suddenly lost its original "character".

One year on, the hustle and bustle is still a far cry from what it used to be. While the crowds may be returning, the area in Race Course Road is much more "tame" and less vibrant than before.

Two things stood out for me when I was there last Sunday - the newly built bus terminal for shuttle buses ferrying foreign workers to and from their dormitories, and the cordon tape put up at restaurants and beer gardens to mark the boundary between the no-drinking zone and the area where alcohol may be consumed.

The fenced-up bus terminal in Tekka Lane looked to me almost prison-like, with several members of the Singapore Police Force around the outskirts when I visited the area.

The establishments surrounded by cordon tape made for an interesting sight. To me, the area had become tightly controlled and extremely cautious.

That said, many things remained unchanged. The grassy fields in Race Course Road are still frequented by cricket enthusiasts who are mainly from Tamil Nadu in South India, with small crowds turning up to watch.

Foreign workers patronising barber shops and photo parlours there still turn up in force, drawn by good deals, and popular areas around Chander Road are bustling with people, most using their phones to call home, or hanging out with friends who might live in different areas of Singapore.

One year on, the buzz around Race Course Road isn't the same. Little India has most definitely changed.

Little India still popular one year on
Workers take stepped-up security after last year's riot in their stride
By Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 8 Dec 2014

ITS streets and alleys are still filled with male workers in their weekend get-up of checked shirts and striped polo T-shirts but, these days, cordon tape and barricades have become fixtures too.

A year after Singapore's worst public order disturbance in four decades played out on its streets, Little India is still a popular hangout for foreign workers.

Workers standing around to chat with their friends in groups of twos or threes were a common sight when The Straits Times visited the area yesterday.

But signs of stepped-up security are unmistakeable too.

At Village Curry, workers sit around enjoying food and beer while the area just outside the eatery has been cordoned off as a no-alcohol zone. Likewise, beer houses and parts of eating places have been cordoned with tape to indicate the areas in which customers are allowed to drink alcohol.

Signs saying "no alcohol" adorn the lampposts lining the streets and back alleys of Race Course Road and Kerbau Road, among others.

The riot on Dec 8 last year saw 23 emergency vehicles damaged, and 54 responding officers and eight civilians hurt. It was sparked after a foreign worker died under the wheels of a private bus.

A year later, a bus terminal has been built in Tekka Lane and barricades have been put up to ensure orderly queues.

"It's a lot more organised now. Last time, the workers would crowd around at the grass patch. There were no queues so the workers would just rush for the doors when the buses came," said a staff member of the Singapore School Transport Association stationed at the terminal, who gave her name only as Ms Zhang.

The first Sunday of each month draws larger crowds as workers get their pay. Ms Zhang said the buses ferry more than 4,000 workers back to their dormitories in Kranji and Mandai on Sundays.

Merchants and workers said Little India has become more orderly.

Mr Gurpal Singh, 32, manager of Indian Express restaurant, said: "There used to be people drinking outside; some got into fights and slept along the pavements.

"Now there are more police (officers) patrolling the area and it is less rowdy."

Police cameras in the area have been doubled from 113 to 250 in public areas and all HDB blocks.

Construction worker Subramanian Kalimulha, 31, from Chennai, said Little India still attracted crowds. He said there used to be "too much fighting", but now the place is more controlled.

- 'No alcohol' signs line the streets and back alleys of Race Course Road and Kerbau Road.
- Maps and notices remind the public of the ban on public consumption of alcohol.
- Beer houses and parts of eating places are cordoned with tape to indicate the areas where customers are allowed to drink alcohol.

The night of the riot

Dec 8, 2013
- 9.17pm: Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a 33-year-old construction worker from Chennai, India, employed by scaffolding company Heng Hup Soon, boards a private bus back to his dormitory in Jalan Papan. Some workers in line complain to timekeeper Wong Geck Woon that he is drunk and has jumped the queue.
- 9.18pm: Madam Wong boards the bus and sees that Mr Sakthivel has dropped his bermuda shorts. She asks him to alight. He does so voluntarily, without being pushed or manhandled.
- 9.20pm: The bus moves off slowly, at 4.2kmh. Mr Sakthivel keeps pace for 11 seconds, but trails behind as the bus speeds up. He starts chasing after the bus in an unsteady manner, catching up when the bus slows down as it approaches the stop line at the junction between Tekka Lane and Race Course Road.
- 9.21pm: Mr Sakthivel places his right hand on the side of the bus. As the bus turns into Race Course Road, he falls and is run over.
- 9.23pm: Police receive a call saying "A bus has knocked down someone here. Ambulance required."
- 9.25pm: The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) is alerted.
- 9.31pm: The first SCDF ambulance arrives.
- 9.37pm: First two police officers arrive. A group of 100 people has surrounded the bus.
- 9.39pm: SCDF red rhino fire engine arrives.
- 9.40pm: Assistant Superintendent of Police Jonathan Tang arrives.
- 9.45pm: ASP Tang radios Tanglin Police Division to request assistance from the Special Operations Command (SOC), whose officers are trained to handle riots. By now, the mob has swelled to about 400 people.
- 9.51pm: Combined Operations Room seeks approval from the covering director of operations, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Koh Wei Keong, to activate SOC. He asks for more information on the situation.
- 9.54pm: Mr Sakthivel's body is extricated from beneath the bus by SCDF officers. The sight of his mangled body further riles the mob, which by then has started pelting emergency first responders with drain covers, concrete blocks and beer bottles. More police officers arrive.
- 10.03pm: DAC Koh approves the request to activate SOC.
- 10.04pm: The first Police Tactical Troop, call sign PTT KA, from the SOC is activated. Its members start moving to Little India from South Bridge Road, where they had been performing counter-terrorism security patrols nearby.
- 10.08pm: SCDF officers locate bus driver Lee Kim Huat and Madam Wong, who are taking cover from the rioters in the bus. The police later use shields to protect the two as they are escorted to safety by the SCDF.
- 10.15pm: A second troop, call sign PTT KG, is activated.
- 10.24pm: DAC Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, orders all available resources to the scene. Minutes later, rioters start flipping police vehicles and setting them on fire.
- 10.42pm: The PTT KA, which was hit by traffic snarls, arrives at the scene. It forms a cordon across Race Course Road to contain the rioters. Its tactical vehicles play dispersal warnings in various languages, including English and Tamil, at the rioters.
- 10.48pm: PTT KG arrives and takes up position near the junction of Hampshire Road and Race Course Road.
- 10.54pm: SOC troops are given the green light to use hand-held tear gas sprays in close engagements with rioters. These are not used.
- 11.25pm: The last group of rioters is dispersed.
- 11.45pm: High-visibility patrols are deployed to prevent rioters from regrouping.

Dec 9, 2013
- 12.01am: Investigations at the scene commence.
- 12.39am: Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean arrives with Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar.
- 5.08am: Clean-up of the area begins as site investigations are completed.
- 6.45am: Race Course Road is passable to traffic.

The aftermath

Dec 13, 2013

DEPUTY Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean convenes Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot.

The committee comprises retired Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam as chairman, as well as former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, former NTUC president John De Payva and Mr Andrew Chua, chairman of the West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee.

Dec 14

No alcohol allowed to be sold or consumed in a blanket ban within a 1.1 sq km zone declared a "proclaimed area" under the Public Order (Preservation) Act (POPA).

Private bus services stopped.

Dec 18

The Government announces relaxation of blanket alcohol ban.

On weekends, public holidays and the eves of public holidays, restaurants and businesses with public house and beer house licences are allowed to sell alcohol but cannot let customers consume the drinks outside their premises.

Convenience and liquor stores can sell alcohol on a takeaway basis between 6am and 8pm.

The Land Transport Authority announces shorter hours for private bus services, which will end at 9pm instead of 11pm.


Prosecutors proceed on charges against 25 Indian nationals for their involvement in the riot. Another 57 - all Indian nationals except for one Bangladeshi - are deported with stern warnings and banned from entering Singapore.

A further 213 are given police advisories and are allowed to continue working here.

Feb 18, 2014

Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill (POATM) is passed in Parliament.

It gives the police powers to interview and search people in the area for alcohol and prohibited items.

It also limits the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Six of the 16 MPs who spoke opposed the Bill as a knee-jerk reaction, lacking safeguards, and too broad. But they are in general agreement that an appropriate response is needed to maintain peace in the neighbourhood.

Feb 19, 2014

COI public hearings start, featuring 93 witnesses over 24 days.

April 1, 2014

POATM takes effect. It replaces the POPA, and is valid for one year until March 31, 2015.

June 27, 2014

The COI submits its report to DPM Teo. The report is released to the public three days later.


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