Martin Pasquier

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Singapore and “Little India Riot”: When demographics knock on the door again

December 9, 2013

Yesterday night saw Singapore having its first riots for more than 40 years, so you can imagine it’s the hot topic everybody is talking about this December 2013. Incidentally, I’m living in Little India area too, and went to bed hearing the not so common police siren, so I told myself, ok, let’s see tomorrow morning what’s happening.

singapore little india riots december 2013 martin pasquier blog

The blunt facts: a bus running over an Indian or Bengali worker at 9.30pm. Apparently no police or security forces for 30min. 400 angry men around rioting and destroying the (guilty?) bus, and, when security forces at last arrive, they burn the ambulance (which explodes) and flip a few police cars. After 2h, a few dozen of the rioters are arrested and everybody goes back to bed.

Living in Little India, let me please explain exactly how things work on Sunday nights (worth also for the other days, but with less intensity):

  • Traffic is high. Little India is crossed by at least two large roads (Serangoon eastwards, Jalan Besar westwards), all 4 lanes (or 5?), with buses, cabs, construction trucks.

 

  • Population density is super high. Of the 600 000+ “Indian” (Bengali, in fact) workers in Singapore, I would bet that at least 100 000 of them are on Sunday night in the rather small district of Little India. Streets are crowded with young men treating themselves a few drinks after a 6-day, 10-12h a day week of work building (or rebuilding) Singapore.

 

  • Drink level is high too. Workers are drinking almost every night in our back alley, but then again, how do you compensate for a 10-12h workday knowing that all other entertainment in Singapore is very expensive, and that they’re rarely compatible with the culture of these workers (who just like to sit down in streets and drink)

 

  • Jaywalking is super high: The large roads in Little India are almost sort of highways, and you have to wait a lot before you can cross. The sidewalk is crammed with shops where there already are customers so people can not do else than flock to the street. Especially on Sundays. In the same time, drivers that go through Little India are quite nervous too: they know people will jaywalk and they need to pay double attention, but Singapore is not a paradise for pedestrian and cars/buses are not especially trained to drive in high pedestrian areas, this is obvious.

 

All this converge to a higher risk of accident, and it’s a miracle there’s not this kind of collision every week when you look at the circumstances.

Now, let’s zoom out and try to figure out the bigger picture to address a few concerns seen in comments or on Twitter:

  • “Do these Indian/Bengali riot at home whenever there is an accident” – Surprisingly, yes. It’s a common sense advice that whenever and whoever you have a car accident in Indonesia, for instance, you should never, never stop. Run at the 1st police station, but don’t stay on the spot of the accident. I would bet the same apply in India and Bangladesh, where the super high density of people + a culture of closeness between people hard to understand in Chinese or Western culture makes any accident on a “member” of the crowd a trigger for hysteria. Most workers in construction in Singapore are from Bangladesh and India, and there is no or little cultural adaptation to clean and orderly Singapore. It’s like to put an ice cube in hell, a match in Antarctic: you can’t barely think of two cultures more extremely opposed in terms of human interaction and group behavior. Happy to have feedback on this sensitive point, and please, keep non-judgemental, it’s just this way the same that we French people go to the streets for no reason.

 

migrant population in Singapore 2012 2013 immigration indian workers little india riot 2013 martin pasquier

 

 

  • “Why don’t we send back all these Indian/Bangala guys back home” – This is where Singaporean expect an answer from their government, and this is where the trap of their economic model lies. There are about 600 000 construction workers in Singapore, as the “garden city”. Paid around $500/month with a 1 or 2 year contract, 1 holiday per week and national holiday (not all as I see/hear them working everytime in a nearby hospital). 10-12h of work every day, with an average 33¬į and 80% humidity. On the other hand, Singaporeans (citizens or PR) make an average $2000/month, with 2 holiday per week + national holiday + 15 paid holiday per year. I don’t think I need to push further the calculation: no Singaporean would ever work as these construction worker do, period. Besides, Singaporean are not making babies anymore, and needs a lot of foreigners to make the economic engine work.

 

 

singapore-immigration-policy-birth-deaths-no-immigration-martin-pasquier

 

 

  • “Do we need to build so many things anyway? Why not just keep Singapore as it is for a few years?” – Not possible. With a fast aging population, Singapore need hospitals¬†(two are being built in the 500m around my home in Little India). WIth a population growing from 3M in 1990 to more than 5M today, and an expected 7M in 2030, Singapore needs roads, residential buildings, transportation (there are 7 existing MRT/metro lanes today, and no fewer than 15 more are planned or being built right now). If you don’t build, expect some social bumps down the road. MRT is already super crowded, and traffic quite high at peak hours. Besides, the position of Singapore as a transportation and oil & gas hub is clearly threatened. Other capital cities in South-East Asia are growing fast (KL, Bangkok, and Jakarta to a lesser extent), and with the opening of a northern way through the North pole to get oil & gas go from Europe to Asia, traffic in Singapore port *will* decrease (another mega project has Thailand and Myanmar work over a canal and a huge port, but it’s not for today or even tomorrow”

 

Singapore MRT/metro before (now) and after (in years to come)

Singapore MRT/metro before (now) and after (in years to come)

 

So this accident and subsequent riot, despite its sadness, is a catalyst of the situation of Singapore today, be it regarding its economic structure or its immigration needs.

My girlfriend asked me this morning, as I’m a big fan of games, “if you were in Sim City, what would you do?”, and really I couldn’t find an easy answer. Betting on new industries (rather than oil & gas) is fine: Singapore makes a lot for entrepreneurship, innovation, environment… But it takes time, people, and infrastructure, and at least for the two latter, you need more people from foreign countries.

More in Immigration & Demographics in Singapore in a previous post

Martin Pasquier

Comments (14) Add yours ↓
  1. Vivek Palanisamy

    Very Neutral and Valid Points … will be interesting to see how the government is going to handles this…

    December 9, 2013 Reply
  2. Arthur

    Great post Martin!! Thanks for sharing.

    December 9, 2013 Reply
  3. zoé

    I can read at least 2 inaccuracies in your article. First of all about accident in Indonesia. I lived there for 5 years and never heard anything about not stopping when you have an accident! That sounds ridiculous and very weird to me, unless maybe you are in a very remote part of the country. Second of all, Singapore rely on PR’s and FT’s for the renewal of its population not on Indian and Bangladeshi workers who are not allowed to bring in their family and are entitled to the same rule applying to foreign helpers as to not have kids here or have girlfriends. I don’t think earning about $500 a month unsure them to “make the economic engine work”…

    December 9, 2013 Reply
    • Martin Pasquier

      Hi Zoé, thanks for your point of view and corrections.

      – On the 1st one, I have mixed testimonials, but I definitely have some supporting this point of view, and the news also brings a few of these happenings from time to time. It doesn’t happen to my knowledge in other countries (which can be crowded too)

      – On the 2nd point, maybe I’m unclear. I don’t say Singapore intends to renew its (almost) declining population with Indian/Bangladeshi. They renew it through a more skilled immigration (but an immigration Singaporean resent to the same level than with PRC/Indian/Bangladeshi/Filipino: richer immigrants just put everyone else out of the CBD/downtown/Central area, where there’s really few Singaporean living)

      – 3rd on the economic engine: of course it does! Should Singapore pay these workers even the average local rate for low-paid jobs (somewhere between $1000 and $2000, say), it could not afford to build so much in so little time, not even talking of the work conditions. So yes, paying unskilled workforce $500 is a way for Singapore to make the economy work (also applies to Dubai)

      M

      December 9, 2013 Reply
  4. Gautam

    Accidents happen everyday in india but no they are not followed by riots. Something else triggered these riots — most likely feelings of inequality, pent up frustration etc. We will probably never know. I have seen firsthand how rude some bus drivers can be to the workers. There was obviously tension which boiled over.

    December 9, 2013 Reply
    • Martin Pasquier

      Agree. Most discussions with cab drivers when going through Little India end up in a short but real racist rant.

      December 9, 2013 Reply
  5. Akshay

    So I understand the bus driver might have run over the poor deceased twice; once in the initial hit and second while trying to back away. I haven’t seen this in any official narrative, only through grapevine, so take it with a pinch of salt.

    The rioters were also convinced that the police were trying to whisk away the driver before anyone knows about it. Which is why they attacked. The police also acknowledged that the sight of forces in riot gear further aggreviated them, because they thought they were about to be attacked, when they shields were only to give cover for the SCDF.

    Finally, people need to ask themselves why so many workers congregate there on Sundays. Not because they want to, but they end up being bussed there by the powers that be. That is the real racism in the system, a certain NIMBY-ism that extracts sweat from people, but does everything to deny their presence in the social milieu.

    December 10, 2013 Reply
    • Martin Pasquier

      Completely agree.

      I don’t know the exact number of buses bringing workers from where they live (usually quite far away, the only place I’ve been was near Choa Chu Kang farms, but that’s quite an industry of its own.

      I usually run around my block on Sunday nights and I’m amazed by the evergoing flow of buses and workers there. Definitely organized.

      M

      December 11, 2013 Reply
  6. Afif

    Speakig from a third person point of view, I think that the point you made about drunkardness hits the jackpot. The little india district are full of drunkards especially during weekends. This is one of the social problems that these immigrants bring. At times you can see them lying next to the roads having passed out from intoxication. Do you see hundreds or thousands of singaporeans getting drunk at particularly the same area?(besides demarcated clarke quay)

    In my opinion, high levels of intoxication was the main cause of the riots. People lose sense of why they are doing when intoxicated thus are easily provoked upon even the smallest things. Probably one or two of them started the whole saga acting as provocators and it spread like wildfire. We all know the conclusion to the rest of the story.

    My view is that, the government has a huge role to play when it comes to situations like this. Stricter alcohol licenses should be enforced (something along the lines of limited purchase per individuals) or a situation like this might repeat itself.

    December 10, 2013 Reply
    • Martin Pasquier

      They’re drunk, this is a point, but one can also try to think why they are all so keen to drink. I think there’s a mix of harsh work conditions + few liberties + few other ways to unwind for these guys.

      I’d bet that stricter alcohol laws will just make the pressure increase a bit and lead to more incidents.

      M

      December 11, 2013 Reply
  7. Steve

    Very interesting. Singapore has changed a lot since I lived there in the 90’s, although both the UK and S’pore are struggling to adapt to high levels of immigration.

    December 11, 2013 Reply
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