News / Asia

Rare Singapore Riot Forces Soul Searching over Foreign Workers

The burnt shells of vehicles are pictured along Race Course Road following a riot near Singapore's Little India district, Dec. 9, 2013.
The burnt shells of vehicles are pictured along Race Course Road following a riot near Singapore's Little India district, Dec. 9, 2013.
Singapore's first major riot in four decades is forcing the wealthy island to confront a stubborn but vexing question: how to treat low-paid foreign workers whose muscle underpins much of the economy but whose presence increasingly riles its citizens.<br />  <br /> Images of rioters overturning police cars, throwing garbage bins and burning an ambulance in Singapore's Little India on Sunday night shocked the orderly Southeast Asian nation and stirred debate over whether foreign workers should be better integrated or see their numbers reduced.<br />  <br /> “This is just a tip of the iceberg,” said Gayathiri, 30, an engineer who lives near the scene of the riots and goes by one name. “I hope the government will take it as a wake-up call. We need foreigners to boost our economy, but not at the expense of our security,” she added, echoing a widely held sentiment.<br />  <br /> Police charged 24 Indian nationals with rioting, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years' prison and caning. They were among an estimated 400 people who rampaged after a private bus fatally struck construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33. The number of arrests could rise.<br />  <br /> The government has urged people not to jump to conclusions, but nonetheless many Singaporeans blame an overabundance of migrant workers and could use the riots to intensify a push for tighter immigration curbs - a step that could hurt the economy.<br />  <br /> The dominant People's Action Party (PAP), which has ruled Singapore for more than half a century, was already facing pressure over Singapore's high cost of living and its reliance on foreign workers on the island of nearly 5.4 million people.<br />  <br /> Founded by Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the current prime minister, the PAP is credited with transforming Singapore from a colonial outpost in the 1960s into a global financial hub with world-class infrastructure, safe streets, an efficient civil service and the world's highest concentration of millionaires.<br />  <br /> Part of that success is built on cheap foreign labor, which makes up nearly 20 percent of the population. Many Singaporeans have expressed concerns over a government proposal on Jan. 29 to raise the population to 6.9 million by 2030.<br />  <br /> Of that, up to 36 percent, or 2.5 million, would be made up of foreign workers to balance a low birth rate and sustain economic growth.<br />  <br /> <strong>Jobs the Locals Shun</strong><br />  <br /> Many of the current 1.3 million foreign workers do low-paid jobs shunned by locals, such as construction and domestic work.<br />  <br /> Jobs in the construction industry, for instance, are dominated by male workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who earn a basic monthly salary of between S$460 ($370) and S$700, according to a campaign group, Transient Workers Count Too.<br />  <br /> That compares with the average Singaporean monthly wage of about S$4,433.<br />  <br /> Employers must pay a government-imposed levy on each foreign worker they wish to hire, with a higher levy for lower-paid workers to regulate their numbers. Authorities could tighten that measure to slow the influx of foreign workers.<br />  <br /> “The latest incident may further increase pressures to reduce Singapore's dependence on foreign workers,” said Chua Hak Bin, a Singapore-based economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Construction as a segment is already seeing some of the steepest levy hikes and tightening in quotas.”<br />  <br /> Others, however, argue that policymakers should focus more on the workers' welfare and integration.<br />  <br /> Many foreign workers live in crowded dormitory compounds, some housing up to 8,000 people, on the fringes of the island.<br />  <br /> “There is no policy for promoting integration. It is a separatist policy,” said Bridget Tan, the founder and chief executive of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics in Singapore.<br />  <br /> In their scarce free time, many gather in Little India, an area of narrow streets and rows of shop-houses selling colorful fabrics, spices and groceries, a legacy of the 19th-century British colonial rulers who laid out the city in ethnic zones.<br />  <br /> Indians and Bangladeshis have congregated peacefully in large crowds in the area for years, eating, drinking, and illustrating decades of success in maintaining religious harmony in a polyglot community of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians that was convulsed by race riots in the late 1960s.<br />  <br /> Authorities banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in the area this weekend. Police stepped up patrols at foreign worker dormitories and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong set up an inquiry. However, some commentators say a deeper change of mind-set needs to take place.<br />  <br /> “We seem to operate on a model of wanting the foreign workforce for their labor and economic value, yet wishing they would disappear at all other times,” blogger Alex Au wrote.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs