Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Singapore’s Little India riot

Every Sunday as evening falls, tens of thousands of foreign-born transient workers from southern India and Bangladesh gather on the sidewalks and open fields of this city’s ethnic Indian neighborhood. For most, it is their one day off from the construction site or other job location, their one night out to eat, drink, and socialise with friends.

Low-paid migrant workers toil amid the seemingly incompatible demands of class-conscious Singaporeans, who don’t want to perform the dirty and sometimes dangerous manual labor involved in building the physical infrastructure underlying the island-nation’s economic miracle, but who simultaneously worry about the presence of too many guest workers living in their midst and clogging up sidewalks, trains and buses.
One Sunday night, after a 33-year-old Indian national in Little India was struck by a private-hire bus and killed, emotions and resentments exploded into what would become the first major riot in Singapore for more than 40 years. Some 400 people joined the spontaneous revolt, and when it was over, the angry mob had overturned police cars and other vehicles that burst into flames, smashed the windshield of the bus involved in the accident, and violently charged police and rescuers.

Some sense a long-simmering and growing frustration among low-paid, low-status workers. Last year saw Singapore’s biggest outbreak of unrest among imported labor in recent memory, when some 170 bus drivers from mainland China went on strike illegally – in part to protest getting lower pay than their Singaporean and Malaysian peers.

There are nearly one million low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, making up some 20 percent of the country’s population, according to the non-profit group Transient Workers Count Too. They contend with long working days or no days off, live in dormitories or substandard housing, can be cheated on pay, and suffer from social discrimination. 

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