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What Sunday night’s riot says about Singapore

Singapore’s dirty little secret: A rare uprising, in Little India, uncovers blemishes in the city-state’s cherished harmony.

SINGAPORE — It was business as usual in Singapore Monday morning. The roads had been swiftly cleared after a Sunday night riot in Little India.

A crowd of 400 people rampaged after an Indian man was hit by a bus and killed. Cars were burned, two police cruisers were turned on their side. The wreckage smoldered in the road as passers-by snapped pictures on their smart phones.

The outing was a rare one for Singapore’s riot police. The city hasn’t seen such an uprising in four decades. While in other cities street violence runs through the night, authorities brought it under control in about an hour and a half.

Impressive, perhaps. But this is reliably stable and sterile Singapore. Along with ease of doing business and lack of official corruption, it is globally recognized for keeping its residents safe.

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Mobs burning cars or throwing bottles at police are images you see in other cities, not here.

The turmoil is a sign of tensions rising over the city-state’s dependence on foreign labor, and highlights (yet again) the plight of poor South Asian workers who flood the city for low-paid jobs.

Police swiftly arrested 27 suspects, mostly foreign migrant workers. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did what all Singapore ministers do well in a crisis: He published a Facebook status update promising to come down hard on those connected with the unrest.

Online, Singaporeans have been outraged by the social disharmony. They have started to turn their ire on Little India, the city’s only pocket of enjoyable chaos and home to a large number of the city’s 1.3 million migrant workers.

John Gee, the former president of the migrant charity Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) said it would be difficult to keep a lid on the anger in the coming days: “Getting people to take a calm and reasoned approach to analyzing the whole thing is going to be hard,” he said.

The strains on Singapore have been telling in recent years. The small island nation of 5.3 million people enjoys one of the world’s highest standards of living. To sustain brisk economic growth, it needs migrant workers, particularly for the hard labor in the booming construction and shipping industries. Most recent government figures indicate that there are more than 240,000 work permit holders in the Singapore construction industry from countries such as Bangladesh, India and China.

But exploitation is rampant.

Migrant workers’ passports are held by their employers when they arrive in Singapore. They work ungodly hours for little pay — some have trouble collecting wages — and sleep in dorms of up to 30 men with one shower between them.

Social cracks have begun to appear over how the city will manage its future growth, retain its Singaporean character and curb its dependence on foreign migrant labor all in one go. It’s a difficult combination for the authorities to manage.

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In July, Singapore had its first illegal strike in 25 years when Chinese bus workers downed tools over unfair pay. In April, locals protested against a government white paper outlining plans for the city to reach 7 million people by 2030, with increased foreign workers.  

Singapore Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee said yesterday that as they set about investigating what happened in Little India, the suburb will be getting “extra attention” near the foreign worker dormitories and areas where they congregate.

Little India is in fact synonymous with “congregating.” The suburb is a melting pot of cultures and races, a showcase for modern Singapore, full of the vibrancy and energy that other parts of the city lack. In normal times, it is left largely to its own devices by the authorities, partly by design.

There are very few places in the city other than Little India where foreign workers can now gather without raising the suspicions of locals or breaking the law. Groups of more than five are illegal under Singapore’s Public Order laws.

A clampdown now beckons on the very few freedoms that foreign migrant workers do enjoy.

The pressures faced by foreign migrant workers are legion. “The stories that I hear almost on a daily basis are almost heart-wrenching, where people certainly expected to do well with [their Singapore] job, to make enough money to support their family at home, maybe build a slightly bigger house, or educate the kids well … but [also] to raise their standing in society,” one NGO worker told GlobalPost.

“They never expected they would be reduced to the kind of humiliating situation or impoverishment they found themselves in here.”

It’s unlikely that Singapore will be looking at the broader implications of Sunday’s riots just yet, but it could be that despite its sustained financial success and its top ten appearances in global rankings, it is becoming a bit more like other cities — warts and all.