13 December 2013

Riot's Silver Lining

By now, almost everyone in Singapore and some people in India would have heard or read about the riot by 400 plus people in Little India last Sunday.

A number of policemen and ambulance personnel were injured. Police cars and an ambulance were torched. 31 alleged rioters have been charged.

The country's tranquillity has been shattered, its carefully nurtured reputation tarnished.

Was there a silver lining in the riot?

The Government claims that Singapore can accommodate 6.9 million people, and guided by this "planning parameter", is and will be pouring billions of dollars in infrastructure.

Unsurprisingly, an outlier recently claimed that Singapore can accommodate 8 million people. Perhaps, it would make 6.9 million look not so bad after all?

Unsurprisingly, other people will soon join the chorus, not only agreeing with the 8 million figure, but pushing it to 9 million and 10 million.

Not so long ago, in January 2008, then-Minister Mentor (and former Prime Minister) Lee Kuan Yew said that he had not quite been sold on the idea of a 6.5 million population size in Singapore. Saying that it was necessary to preserve the open spaces and the sense of comfort, he projected an optimum population size of 5.0 million to 5.5 million, a size that we have already reached. His wisdom apparently did not prevail.

10 million people are not a problem provided everyone works or studies from, or otherwise stays at, home or dormitory. But even 5 million are a stretch because we need to travel from home to work or school and back. We need space to socialise, relax, exercise and shop.

Perhaps, our planners and bureaucrats do not know — or do not really know — how most of us live, work and play. They interact with us in mostly pre-planned sanitised visits, where their underlings present them with an almost idealised world that hardly represents the challenges that we face on a daily basis in an over-crowded city state.

Do they know how over-stretched the infrastructure really is? Do they know how the vast majority of us feel having to contend with this on a daily basis?

Have they tried walking incognito in places like Little India on Sundays, when tens of thousands of people congregate to socialise or shop?

Singaporeans' relationship with foreign workers is not one of racism or xenophobia.

We recognise that many foreign workers are here to do the jobs that they don't want.

We hold no grudges against PMETs on employment passes. Some are here because some expatriate bosses here prefer their own countrymen and women over willing and able Singaporeans. All are here because they have been issued employment passes to work here to compete with us in our own country.

According to Transient Workers Count Too:

"The foreign worker communities here have been at the receiving end of employment unfairness for a long time. Many do not receive correct salaries, or have no way – in the absence of payslips – to check whether they have been correctly paid. Some have not been paid for months; TWC2 sees a regular stream of such complaints.

"Other workers have seen their friends injured at work, but denied proper medical treatment by their employers. Yet others have seen their friends repatriated suddenly without receiving full salaries or injury compensation."
Accounts such as this and others suggest that there may be more than a few work permit holders who feel oppressed by their profit-driven employers yet whose plight may not be adequately recognised or addressed by the authorities.
While such feelings of discontent may be neither the catalyst nor the tipping point for the riot, it is likely that they contributed to the underlying mood.

How long more will we allow this situation, in which workers perceive that they are getting the short end of the stick, continue?

Silver Lining?
The industrial action by SMRT drivers 12 months ago and last Sunday's riot in Little India seem to show that something is amiss.

Unfortunately, the drivers and the rioters broke the law and will have to bear the consequences. Putting the lives of others at risk and destroying property cannot be condoned.

Finding the culprits and punishing them is the easy part.

For the rest of us — whether work permit or employment pass holders or citizens — we hope that honest soul searching will go some way toward changing mindsets and changing direction, and help make Singapore a better place for all of us. It cannot be business as usual. We can hardly afford more of the same.

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