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Date [ 2013-12-12, 08:30 ]

This outbreak caught Singapore by surprise.


(Kuala Lumpur=Koreanpress) by Ramani Rathir = Sunday, December 8, 2013, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, who rarely made visits outside his construction site, decided to visit Singapore’s Little India. This Serangoon Road area was where the South Indians gathered on weekends.

On that fatal Sunday, the migrant worker would never realize, not only would he not return to his workplace, but also be the cause of a riot, the likes of which Singapore had not seen in the last 40 years.  Not since the May 13 Riots!

The Singapore Police Force issued a statement that informed riots broke out shortly after a fatal road accident between a private bus and a pedestrian at 9:23 pm at the junction of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road.

The victim was identified as Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a 33-year-old construction worker from Tamil Nadu, India, and who succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at the scene.

His roommate, Kumar said,”He was a very good man who was rather quiet and did not talk much. We used to spend Saturday evenings sitting outside our dorm and have drinks and food.” When the accident happened, angry mobs of passersby began to attack the bus involved, and when emergency vehicles, such as ambulances later drew up, were also attacked. So too some private cars.

It was estimated about 400 South Asian nationals were involved in the riot which lasted for around two hours. The situation was only brought under control before midnight. Officers from the Special Operations Command (SOC) and a Gurkha Contingent were deployed.

An estimated 300 police officers were dispatched to deal with the riots. A witness reported that rioters at the scene were intoxicated with alcohol and threw beer bottles. By 11.45pm, all rioters had dispersed to the surrounding areas.

The Aftermath

Twenty-five emergency vehicles were damaged in the riots, alongside five that were set on fire.  Video footage uploaded on the internet show rioters pushing police cars on their sides and setting an ambulance on fire. Thirty-nine police, 4 civil defense and auxiliary officers were injured.

Police investigations revealed the next day, of those arrested, 24 were Indian nationals, two Bangladeshi nationals and one, a Singaporean Permanent Resident.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the two Bangladeshis and the Singaporean were not involved in the incident. On December 11, 2013, three more Indian nationals were similarly charged in court for their involvement in the riot.

The Truth?

New details that have emerged from police investigations show that Sakthivel was drunk and causing trouble when he boarded the bus that later ran him down.

Local media report that the bus was full but the worker climbed on anyway and soon began to cause trouble. The bus was at this time ferrying workers from Tekka Lane back to their Avery Lodge dormitory in Jalan Papan.

At one point, Sakthivel pulled his pants down and caused the bus driver to ask his female timekeeper assistant to request that Sakthivel alight. However she was assaulted after which the bus driver closed the bus doors.

Police investigations state Sakthivel walked or ran after the bus in "an unsteady manner" He then stumbled, tripped and fell onto the path of the rear tyre of the bus and was run over. This happened as the bus turned into Race Course Road. At this point, the crowd outside the bus began attacking the bus driver and timekeeper with bottles, stones and dustbins by throwing them at the bus.

The Singapore authorities have commissioned a committee of inquiry to study the reasons for the riot and its handling, as well as to review the government's management of areas where foreign workers congregate.

The 55-year-old Singaporean bus driver who caused the fatal accident was arrested for causing death through a negligent act. The subsequent 27 arrests were classified by the Singapore police under rioting with dangerous weapons.
The PM Speaks

Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, stated that the police will "spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law". Later, he told Singaporeans to refrain from negative comments against migrant workers. The Transport Minister, Lui Tuck Yew, who is also a member of parliament for that district, wrote on Facebook that he would consider limiting the sale of liquor within Little India. A temporary ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol in Little India has been set from the December14–15 weekend.

The incident has also raised debate online by Singaporeans on the issues of overcrowding and the increasing numbers of migrant workers in Singapore. It also highlighted ongoing ethnic tensions within Singapore, rising income inequality, the country's heavy reliance on foreign labour and the working conditions of migrant workers. The Singapore authorities have called for calm and warned against speculations.

However this could be too late. AFP reported that social media websites have already unleashed racialist bile against the Indian rioters. Singaporeans are mostly of ethnic Chinese descent and this is reflected on Facebook pages of Yahoo! Singapore. Tan Beng Ming wrote: “Jail them, cane them and send them packing! For good measure, send their compatriots back too!” Another named Koh Koh declared: “Only foreigners will start a riot, it is their norm.”

But Russel Heng, president of a group called Transient Workers Count Too, condemned the xenophobia of some Singaporeans. “I find the online xenophobic comments targeting foreign workers offensive,” he wrote in the Straits Times. “If a majority of Singaporeans are reasonable fair-minded people, then I would urge every single one of us to rebuke, rebut or ignore the nasty xenophobes among us.”

Damage Control

This is now vitally important. For besides having its own citizens take a fair view of the whole incident, the international community needs to be appeased. International Business News (IBN) hit with a broad headline: ‘Riot In Little India: Underpaid Migrant Workers Form The Foundation Of Singapore’s Wealth And Power.’

IBN states that the opposition, the National Solidarity Party (NSP) has urged the Government to get to the root of the migrant workers’ concerns, warning that, otherwise,  "the stressors and underlying factors which had caused the incident will only manifest itself in another, perhaps uglier way."

PM Lee wrote on his social media, “Whatever events may have sparked the rioting, there is no excuse for such violent, destructive and criminal behaviour. We will spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law.”

It is ironic that on the same day of the riots the government adopted a new resolution, the first since 1988, about its social aims. One of its eight-point strategies was the  resolve to strengthen the Singaporean identity in which people of different races, "live harmoniously together, embrace one another as fellow citizens and work together for a better Singapore."

More directly some Singaporeans have started the healing process. The Straits Times reported that several groups have rallied to offer condolences and raise funds for Sakthivel's next of kin, his 53-year old mother Rajalakshmi and younger brother Ramesh, 25, who has a brain injury.

All cash collected would be channeled through the non-governmental organisation Migrant Workers Centre (MWC), which is in touch with Sakthivel's family in India. It has received some half a dozen similar donation offers so far.

Media artist Suresh Vanaz has raised SGD 1,800 since Monday through social media appeals. He plans to chip in another SGD 1,200 from his own pocket for the family.

Singaporeans Tai Wong and Kyle Sim have set a target to raise SGD 50,000 for the family. Meanwhile two Singaporean students at the University of Liverpool in Britain have set up a 24-day crowd-funding campaign on an online platform Indiegogo to collect funds.

Some foreign workers are apprehensive of a backlash. But Singapore's Law and Foreign Minister K Shanmugam has assured foreign workers that nothing will happen to them as long as they abide by the law.

At last count, a total of 27 people will be charged in court. Meanwhile, the man who started it all has been buried in his village Chattiram, some 400 km from Chennai.


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