Singapore: Festering Wounds in Little India

| by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

( February 28, 2014, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In a turbulent region, characterized by xenophobia, the Republic of Singapore was considered to be an oasis of stability and orderly progress.

The Republic’s rapid economic strides made it an object of envy and admiration. But this image suffered serious setback following the unprecedented violent clashes in “Little India” between Indian migrants and security forces in December 2013. The spark was provided by the killing of an Indian worker by a bus. Angry spectators took the law into their own hands, went on a rampage and destroyed public property. The police soon arrived on the scene and brought the situation under control.

The immediate response of the Singapore Government was to detain large number of Indian workers who had congregated in Little India to spend the Sunday evening. 53 migrant workers were to be deported and 28 workers will face prosecution and, if convicted, will have to undergo imprisonment, in addition to caning, which is universally considered to be inhuman and barbarous.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long downplayed the seriousness of the incident and characterized it as an “isolated incident caused by an unruly mob”. But perceptive observers of Singapore scene are of the view that frustration, disenchantment and anger have been developing among migrant workers. A closer look at Singapore’s political evolution from 1963, when Singapore got its independence with the formation of Malaysia, provides illustrations of ethnic discontent among all three major ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians.

In order to understand the problem in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight certain unique characteristics of Singapore. Since the founding of modern Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819, Singapore was made a free port and it attracted migrants from China, India and Malay world. What is more, from the beginning, the Chinese outnumbered indigenous Malays and immigrant Indians. The population of Singapore today is estimated to be 5.26 million, of which the Chinese constitute 74 per cent, Malays 13 per cent and Indians 9 per cent. Of the total population of 5.26 million, 3.27 million are Singapore citizens, half a million are permanent residents and 1.46 million are foreigners. In Singapore one does not notice abject poverty, but there is increasing disparity between the filthy rich and the relatively impoverished many. The local people resent the presence of foreign workers who contribute to overcrowding in public transport and have hiked the cost of living. Singapore citizens of Indian origin are one of the worst affected. According to informed sources, the per capita income of a Singapore citizen of Indian origin is less than the national average. Complicating the situation, there is also a big divide between the highly qualified affluent expatriate Indians and local Indians. They do not interact with one another. Stay in any good hotel, invariably the girl who cleans the room and the toilet will be a local Tamil girl.

Singapore’s demography has undergone rapid transformation during last thirty years. Economic progress had been steady and this development has been fuelled by migrant workers. Singapore citizens are not available or are unwilling to work in sectors ranging from construction to domestic chores. According to the White Paper on population published in January 2013, the population of Singapore in 2020 will be 6.9 million, of which citizens will account for 3.8 million, permanent residents 0.6 million and migrant workers 2.5 million. There is an intense debate taking place among intelligentsia in Singapore as to what is the appropriate balance between growth and quality of life. Many Singapore citizens want quality of life to be maintained whereas the Government subscribes to the view that rapid economic growth alone can provide for a good standard of living.

The migrant workers suffer serious disadvantages. According to Human Rights Watch, “Foreign workers in Singapore, both men and women, are subject to labour abuses and exploitation through debts owed to recruitment agents, non-payment of wages, restrictions on movement, confiscation of passports, and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse”. What is more, Singapore is an authoritarian state, laws provide for detention without trial, parliament has become a rubber stamp for government legislation, press is controlled and dissent frowned upon. It is all the more tragic because, in the formative years of the Peoples Action Party (PAP) Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues were passionate advocates of Democratic Socialism.

The first expression of discontent in post-independent Singapore came from Malay community and communal riots took place in July and September 1964. It was a direct outcome of the Malay fear that the policies and programmes of the PAP government will adversely affect the pre-eminent position of the Malays in Malaysia. The Malays in Singapore felt that after the formation of Malaysia they would also be entitled to special rights and privileges as their counterparts in the mainland. Lee Kuan Yew not only rejected their demands, he was also unwilling to negotiate with the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) as the representative organization of Singapore Malays. Emotions were whipped up by both sides and a tense atmosphere ensued. The mischief makers exploited the procession which took place on the Prophet’s birth day and started the riots. Violence spread far and wide. After an uneasy peace for about six weeks, riots occurred again in early September 1964.

The Chinese migrant workers expressed their discontent in November 1962. This involved Chinese drivers employed in the public transport company SMRT. The Chinese workers were indignant because for the same work Singapore and Malaysian workers were getting more remuneration. On November 26, 2012, 171 workers spontaneously refused to report for work. The Government came down with a heavy hand. Few of them were detained and few others were deported to China.

Little India is located in the heart of Singapore. It has a number of shops, hotels, bars, temples, churches and mosques. After working hard for six days in a week, the Indian migrant workers congregate in Little India to meet their friends and unwind themselves. And on that fateful Sunday in December Kumaravel Shaktivel, after getting inebriated, met a tragic end. The pent up emotions of the assembled Indians burst into the open and they ran amok in Little India. The violence is an outward expression of the accumulated grievances of the migrant community in Singapore.

Singapore is in the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to register continued economic progress, and, for attaining that goal, migrant labour is an essential pre-requisite. But if there is no mechanism to look into and solve the problems of the migrant labour amicably, it is very likely that simmering discontent may erupt once again, tarnishing the fair image of the country.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras)