Singapore has worked hard to get where it is now, with elaborate planning and minute detailing going into its development processes. The country goes by the yardsticks of efficiency and productivity while weighing its decisions. Objectivity carries more weight than subjectivity and the government frowns at anything that stands in the way of its agenda which is to keep the city nation as a trophy destination for international trade and investment. And, it has not allowed the “authoritarian democratic” political system with a single party (People’s Action Party) in governance for over 65 years to come in the way.
Therefore, it made sense that a two-hour-long riot in the Little India precinct on December 8, 2013, following a bus fatally running over Tamil worker Shaktivel Kumaravelu, would lead to a virtual stand-off between the Singapore government and its critics.
For the Singapore government, the window of opportunity offered by the annual Indian Journalist Visit Programme was too good to ignore and it pulled all the stops last week to showcase its “What more could we have done?” card to visiting Indian journalists — a full month after the Little India riots. Consider the background — a scathing attack in a New York Times editorial where it was stated that an incident like a bus running over Muthuvelu could not have harnessed such public wrath unless there was a high level of apathy existing in society. The establishment countered this, saying if there was any such disenchantment in a section of the society the riots would’ve spread to other parts of the island inhabited by workers from India, but no such thing happened.
Though an inquiry commission has been assigned the task of finding out the why and how of the incident, the accusing finger has been pointed at alcohol-induced hooliganism by the Tamil workers. The result: on January 20, the Singapore Parliament moved a bill — with the visiting Indian media contingent getting a ringside view of the proceedings — to give extra powers to the police to keep public order in Little India, mainly by enforcing a ban on public consumption of alcohol, which is okay if one does it elsewhere in the country. That charges of racial profiling could be the likely fallout is a risk the Singapore government has decided to take, regardless of the negative press it has already been getting from the western media. Clearly, a decision was made by the powers that be that the real constituency to address in the Little India case, apart from the Singaporeans, was India, especially those of Tamil ethnicity.
From a typical Tamil Pongal festival celebration in Little India on January 18 where Minister of state for Finance and Transport Josephine Teo dropped in for a casual interaction with those present to an elaborate interaction by Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam on January 22, no proverbial stone was left unturned for the Indian media contingent to see the efforts taken by the Singapore government to balance the odds. A good case in point being the need to balance the seemingly opposing compulsions of keeping the swelling foreign workforce under control and having the juggernaut of development rolling, which simply cannot happen without foreign labour, given the propensity of Singaporeans not to dabble in physical labour.
There is no denying that Singapore has cause to worry — About 3,00,000 foreign workers have to let off steam somewhere on their weekly off day. The Indians are unlikely to vote China Town as their favoured destination, truth be told just as the Chinese workers may not let down their hair in Little India.
Singapore is still weighing options, between coming up with more recreation facilities and, of course, drinks close to clusters of dormitories where foreign workers stay and perhaps staggering the off days so that the entire load of a single day off for all does not lead to an unmanageable number congregating in a two-sq-km area as in Little India on a Sunday. Add to that the fear and revulsion exhibited by a section of locals in residential pockets and the picture is complete.
As Shanmugam says, “Can’t wave magic wand and make them disappear on their off day.” Therefore, Singaporeans have to live with the foreign workers, who according to the statement made by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament last week: “... contribute positively to all our wellbeing…It would be wrong to make negative generalisations about the foreign workforce from this incident. Neither should we generalise about the chronic and poor treatment of these workers.”
Given its size, the city state depends hugely on other countries not only for economic sustenance but also basic food security. “There is no space to grow food grains, so we import everything from a basket of nations so as to de-risk overdependence on any one country; it’s a kind of portfolio management,” says S Iswaran, Minister in Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Home Affairs, Second Minister for Trade and Industry. From a Fabian, socialist as it set out to be in the 1950s to the capitalist model it embraced in the 70s, the journey is about to complete the loop, having perched itself atop the totem pole as the second richest country in the world with an average annual per capita income of S $ 65,000. Now, it wants to usher in social security measures. Having embraced a particular type of democracy, one would think the Singapore government can afford not to be overtly prickly about its image among the comity of nations vis-à-vis the manner in which it treats its foreign workers. But that is not the case.
It is a debate, followed by law enforcement, regarding freedom to publicly consume alcohol being curtailed in Little India where about one lakh Tamil workers congregate on weekends. Truth be told, it’s as much the peculiar demographic phase that Singapore is currently in, where a steadily ageing local population has to be supplemented with a cautious infusion of foreign immigrants that has set off the alarm bells within the government. Because, Singapore is a trophy destination not only for investment but also for a terrorist strike, with a powerful impact. The government tries to nip in the bud any possibility of racial unrest. That is precisely what the Singapore government appears to be doing.
The writer is Resident Editor, The New Indian Express, Kerala.