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December 16, 2013

Calm Returns to Singapore’s Little India After Rare Riot

by Lien Hoang

One week after rioters tipped police cars and torched an ambulance in Singapore, citizens sought to reclaim the city-state’s peaceful reputation using a colorful tool: marigolds.
 
Activists handed out the yellow flowers Sunday night while walking through Little India, where the death of a foreigner crushed by a bus the previous Sunday sparked Singapore’s first riot in decades.
 
“Brother, let me give you a flower for peace,” Vincent Wijeysingha, a former opposition politician, told a passing stranger as he reached out his arm.
 
The marigold campaign comes as Singaporeans criticize media reports that the riot exposed unacknowledged racial divides. The man who died on Dec. 8, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, was a laborer from India. So were most of the 400 rioters, including more than 30 who now face criminal charges that could end in prison terms and caning.
 
As an air of calm – and a ban on alcohol, which a Singapore government official said may have contributed to the riot  – fell over Little India this weekend, some called the unrest an anomaly based on circumstance. It did not signal systemic faults or underlying tensions in society, they said.
 
“In Singapore, you don’t do these things,” said Bilveer Singh, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. He blamed the media for calling the incident a “race riot,” because it did not pit one race against another. Rather, he believed the violent cocktail likely had three ingredients: alcohol, seeing the death of a compatriot, and population density.
 
​​Little India is infamously clogged on Sundays, when South Asian workers use their day off to eat and drink with friends there. Not so on this first weekend after the riot. The 48-hour alcohol ban left many businesses shuttered, while others stayed away out of fear or lack of transit as private bus service was suspended.
 
Srividhya Kannaiyam said her convenience store on Race Course Road, where Kumaravelu died, typically collects $2,000 every Sunday. Under the ban, it made $50.
 
“We’re usually really busy and packed, but today I’m very free,” she said, standing in front of a liquor wall covered with tape. “The past week has been fully dead. We are facing so much loss.”
 
The Dec. 8 clashes shocked observers because tightly-controlled Singapore keeps a lid on civic unrest. Indeed, the police’s agility in quelling the riot without casualties was proof of the state’s authority. But the news also surprised people into questioning whether this society of 5.3 million, including 1.3 million foreign workers, is really so harmonious.
 
“If the riot reveals any deeper divisions – and most reasonable Singaporeans know that it does – those divisions are probably ones of nationality and class, not race,” Cherian George, a popular academic, wrote in a blog post last week.
 
George argued that the real precedent for the recent turmoil was not Singapore’s race riots in the 1960s, but the Chinese bus drivers’ wildcat strike in 2012. People are debating whether Dec. 8 opened a relief valve for foreign workers with limited rights, which affects their pay, holidays, treatment by employers, and access to public services.
 
But Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Saturday the riot was spontaneous and did not reflect foreign resentment.
 
“There is no tension, there is no sense of grievances or hardship or injustice,” he said.
 
Some say that, even if race and citizenship were not catalysts, the incident can be a teachable moment as Singapore grapples with a diverse populace. Last year, talk of increasing immigration to buttress an ageing population sent citizens to the streets with signs reading, “Singapore for Singaporeans.” It is unclear whether citizens begrudge foreigners who take high-paying jobs here, or look down on low-paid foreign workers who do not live up to local culture. Racist responses to the Little India riot appeared on social media and online comments sections last week. That would suggest unresolved hostilities, though others were also quick to decry the racism as unrepresentative of Singapore.
 
Some have tried to combat the friction and instability, not just with the marigold campaign, but by sharing ice cream with migrant workers and signing placards pushing solidarity.
 
Arumugam Kaliyamoorthy, a construction worker from India, said he gets along with all ethnicities, including his Chinese boss, who celebrates Indian holidays with him and his crew. This Sunday, Kaliyamoorthy  was in Little India, which he said he visits often to wire money home or drink with friends.
 
“Everybody’s cooperating,” said Kaliyamoorthy, his pants still stained with paint and dust from the job site he’d just left. “People are friendly in this country.”