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.
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.
- “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.
- “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”
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