Well, much of what could have been said about this issue has already been said, given that my opportunity to write about this affair comes only now, a good 4 days after the Little India riot. So this post won’t touch on the actions of what happened that day, rather I shall suggest a cause of why the riot may have happened instead.
Firstly, it is heartening to note that many Singaporeans are refraining from racist comments, and have rather correctly identified that it is a small minority of our foreign workers in Singapore who rioted, and that they do notrepresent the majority, nor does the incident indicate the start an impending revolt by these blue collar workers from afar. The government knows this, most Singaporeans know this, and you and I know this.
But in our haste to assert that this is simply an “isolated” incident, a word thrown about countless times by our political leaders, the blame for the riot seems to have fallen mainly on the rioters’ supposed high levels of intoxication. There is no doubt they were intoxicated, but is that the only answer? Could alcohol alone have provoked such violent behaviour and actions? It seems highly unlikely. It seems far more likely that the alcohol merely served to fuel the kindlings of anger and dissatisfaction held by these foreign workers, a mixture that the tragic death of Sakthivel Kumaravelu sparked off on Sunday, causing the riot.
It is no secret that foreign workers in our country are badly mistreated. For all our recognition of their invaluable contribution to building up the infrastructure in our nation, we are deliberately looking past the horrendous conditions they work and live in.
It was reported in the Straits Times that for 6 days of work, 10-12 hours of back-breaking work,rain or shine, a day, the average construction worker is paid $700 a month. Divide it accordingly and you get a pay rate of about $2.5/hour. This sum is so pathetically small I do not even think a comparison table is needed. And even despite them only earning this measly sum, workers have known to have not been paid by their employers. Workers who get injured in the course of their work, due to negligence by their employers, are quickly repatriated with nary a sum of compensation. Imagine you are a worker witnessing and suffering all these, would it not add to a sense of discrimination and anger?
Their living conditions too are far from satisfactory. In response to the general population’s disapproval of foreign workers being housed near to them, the government has conveniently housed many of them in the far-flung corner of Lim Chu Kang, where they currently reside with our resting ancestors. Certainly, you wouldn’t call a house which opens out to a sea of tombstones “pleasantly locataed”. This is not to mention their cramped conditions and poorly mantained amenities, many of which have been chronicled in the past, and yet, conveniently left there as well.
Foreign workers are not robots, so it is a given that they too need an avenue to rest and relax after a hard week’s work. And yet, where in Singapore do we provide activities or even just spaces for them to do so? I previously interned at Punggol East Constituency, where at a Grassroots meeting with local leaders, it was brought up that a ‘problem’ was witnessed where foreign workers were “sitting in the void decks and relaxing during lunch hours.” The solution came up that the police should moniter the situation, and ban these workers from doing so. From the fact that our leaders are intentionally driving them out of supposed public areas, with them doing nothing but taking a lunch break and a nap, I feel it reflects a xenophobic attitude held by the administration, one that they desperately try to hide. These workers were not committing crimes, and if you do not let them rest in public spaces, where are they supposed to go? Do their dormitories provide any form of entertainment? Judging from their pay scales, I highly doubt these same companies would bother paying extra for entertainment outlets. Such limitation of entertainment options is bound to cause dissatisfaction. Hell, it’s like not letting me bookout week after week, and if I do, only allowing me to go a small corner in the entire Singapore for that precious few hours.
These situations are neither reported nor discussed in the magnitude it should be. These are, after all workers in our country being deliberately underpaid and mistreated, with limited avenues to seek restitution. Does the fact that they are not locals make it forgivable? It is highly likely that such unfair and discriminatory living conditions has caused a simmering of anger amongst their population. I mean, it’s not like they don’t know what’s happening to them.
And those who say this is merely a one-off, may I remind you of the bus strike by Chinese foreign workers just a few months back? I look at these events as symptoms of a rising dissatisfaction amongst these workers about their living and work conditions. Without proper avenues to voice out, and taking into account that they are probably not well-versed in the “Singaporean way”, wouldn’t they take to extreme measures like striking or rioting? And what the hell is the ‘Singaporean way’ anyway? Complaining incessantly but still allowing the government to do whatever they want?
The answer, I believe, is not a blanket ban on alcohol in Little India, neither is it striking it off as another ‘isolated incident’ and assuring ourselves that it wouldn’t happen again. The answer is that we stop being passive about their mistreatment, and actually call on the government to improve their conditions, or stop hiring them altogether.
The riot, for all its havok, has created a ripe opportunity to raise these issues, and can provide the government a catalyst to start actively investing in SMEs to bring in high-tech, high-productivity working methods and tools that reduce dependency on these foreign workers. It is our addiction to the lowest denominator that has brought in this flood of foreign workers which the population neither wants, nor the government is able to treat properly. Let them go home, I say, and bring in the technology-driven productivity befitting of a first-world nation like us.
For starters, the government can stop awarding contracts based purely on cost, and take into account whether a firm is innovating and using productive methods to do the job. This can incentivise local firms to innovate and increase productivity. They can also reduce the amount of work permits given, and instead increase the number of years these workers are allowed to work locally, thus making more sense for firms to invest in training these workers since they wouldn’t just run off with the knowledge given.
There are many things we and the government can do, allowing us as one Singapore to rise from the ashes of the riot to bring about better conditions and better working methods locally. Blaming alcohol is not one of them.