Singapore’s riding the tiger

Rioters hurl stones over an upturned police vehicle in Singapore’s Little India district last week
Rioters hurl stones over an upturned police vehicle in Singapore’s Little India district last week. It was the city-state’s worst outbreak of violence in more than 40 years. AFP

Singapore’s riding the tiger

Last week, an event occurred in Singapore that had been on the cards for years, if not decades, and the wonder was that it had not happened sooner.

Like the Arab Spring, the masses toppling the Berlin Wall, the marches for gay rights and myriad other public eruptions, it seemed like everyone said to themselves: Yeah, that’s been a-coming awhile.

It came on Sunday, December 8, and it was not just a racial riot, not just disadvantaged Indians venting their despair. No, it was the first sign that Singapore’s demographic pressure cooker had started to blow its lid.

Those who know the conditions under which more than a quarter of the city state’s population live and work were less shocked that the riot occurred than that it did not spread and cause greater carnage.

For he who rides a tiger cannot dismount. And in contracting more than one million South Asians to do its dirty work – all the harsh, grotty jobs that effete Singaporeans will not do – the island republic mounted a very fearful tiger.

It cannot now get off without effectively committing economic suicide.

As the local academic Mukul Asher once told me: “Singapore has been able to use these foreign workers and their low wages and conditions to maintain its competitiveness and high growth rates.”

The trashed stores, overturned police cars and torched buses in its Little India district, however, exposed the danger of this exploitative policy.

But instead of dwelling on forensic analysis, let’s try to personalise the plight of those who, wrongly, but understandably, ran amok last week.

After I’d interviewed Asher for a story about Singapore’s poor, a colleague from the Straits Times directed me to districts where the down and out live.

The areas were a real eye-opener and would not have been out of place in the seedier parts of Pathein or Phnom Penh.

Walking around, I met some Bangladeshi workers who had come out to shop and meet friends – it was a Sunday, their one day off each week.

We chatted and then went to Serangoon Road for something to eat. No one drank any booze; in fact, I don’t recall seeing anyone drinking, let alone getting drunk – the spurious official reason for last Sunday’s riot.

When it grew dark, they took me to Kaki Bukit in eastern Singapore, where there are vast sheds housing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers.

One of them loaned me his key card to go through the turnstile and we climbed the bare stairs to the third floor where we entered a long, narrow dormitory with rows of bunks stacked to the ceiling.

My first thought was of a concentration camp. My second was of the doss house in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier with its stifling dank air and suffocating stench of boiled cabbage and sweaty socks.

The workers crowded round and told me about the irregular water supply, the endemic bedbugs, the lack of air-con and many other gripes.

There were 3,200 of them staying at this Kaki Bukit site, most from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

They get up at 5.30am, go to work at seven and normally do two hours overtime, meaning they finish at 7.30pm and get back to their bunks at 8.30. They do this six days a week and get about US$20 a day for it.

Last December, 200 of their colleagues, mostly construction workers and bus drivers, staged Singapore’s first strike in three decades to protest poor pay and unhygienic dorms.

Calling the stoppage “a threat to public order” the government sent in the riot squad and the workers were variously jailed, fined and deported.

Belatedly, their employers agreed to fumigate the bedbug-infested dorms and investigate unpaid back wages and other grievances.

Reporting this, I concluded: “The message is clear. The workers are not all right, Jack. Quite the opposite, they are angry and ready to rumble.”

Last Sunday they started to rumble.

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