In Singapore’s Shadows

From the late 1960s until last Sunday night, the closest Singapore has ever come to a race riot was in June this year when McDonald’s offered locals a Hello Kitty soft toy in blackface, with an order of burger and fries.

Bad idea.

The inner Singaporean was uncorked. Chaos reigned under the Golden Arches across this uptight island usually so obsessed with its international image. Spoilt kids screamed at parents, who sharpened elbows and boots, and jumped queues for tickets that got faster access to the Kitty litter. This being Singapore, a roaring secondary scalpers’ market emerged online for both tickets and Kittys. It’s perhaps instructive to note that the World Bank ranks Singaporeans as the globe’s third-wealthiest people, after Qatar and Luxembourg.

Images of The Ugly Singaporean, and there were many, were inevitably captured on phones, and quickly despatched to YouTube posterity: One grumpy dad railed at no-one in particular when a compatriot reached Hello Kitty utopia before he did. “Is this a human being?” he raged. “Is he a Singaporean? Is he educated? Does he deserve a ticket?”

McDonald’s should’ve known better, because it was involved in the previous pseudo-riot experienced by Singapore in 2000, also involving Hello Kitty. The Japanese-owned feline phenomenon was this time allured with wedding clobber. Stores were swamped and their plate-glass windows smashed, as were faces, by parental fists flailing in millennial mayhem.

Perhaps McDonald’s and Sanrio, Hello Kitty’s corporate owner, should consider rolling out a Mandela version of the cat, to get the global love flowing.

Not that there’s much chance of that happening in Singapore. Local strongman Lee Kuan Yew was among the many mourners lavishing treacle on Mandela’s legacy after Madiba’s recent death, doubtless not reflecting on the fact that Lee was responsible for the plight of Chia Thye Poh, a dissident who has been dubbed Asia’s Mandela. Chia was a political rival of Lee’s in the 1960s. Fingered by Lee as a communist, Chia was stripped of his citizenship and detained, without trial, by Lee’s government for 32 years – five years longer than Mandela endured.

There was little of Mandela’s famed forgiveness in evidence on Singapore’s Racecourse Road during last Sunday night’s very real riot, when workers from the subcontinent went on a rampage after one of their number was struck by a bus and died.

Earlier that day, the Lee family fief, the People’s Action Party (PAP), had been holding its annual convention, marking 54 years of uninterrupted power. The PAP passed an eight-point mission statement for Singaporeans. One of its points: the PAP would foster a Singaporean identity that allows different races, religions and backgrounds to “live harmoniously together, embrace one another as fellow citizens and work together for a better Singapore”.

The PAP passed its plan on Sunday, which happens to be the one day of the week that the million-odd low-wage foreign workers in Singapore – people such as 33-year-old Indian labourer Sakthivel Kumaravelu, who make up about 20 per cent of the island nation’s population – have as time off.

A few hours after the state-controlled Straits Times made public the PAP edicts, Singapore’s Little India was aflame; Sakthivel Kumaravelu had been killed while enjoying his holiday with friends, struck by a bus driven by a Singaporean.

The national Kumbaya moment hadn’t lasted long. Singapore’s police force describes what happened next. “A riot broke out involving a crowd of about 400 subjects where the subjects damaged several vehicles including 16 police vehicles. About 300 Police Officers, including those from the Special Operations Command and the Gurkha Contingent, responded to the scene. The accident victim, a 33-year-old Indian national, succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at scene…. 22 Police Officers and 5 Auxilliary [sic] Police Officers have sought treatment at the hospital. The officers sustained injuries and lacerations. The driver of the private bus, a 55-year-old Singaporean, was conveyed conscious to the hospital. 27 subjects, aged 23 to 45, have been arrested in connection with the rioting incident. Out of the 27 subjects, 24 are Indian nationals, two are Bangladeshi nationals and one is a Singaporean Permanent Resident.”

Kumaravelu’s tragic demise wasn’t exactly mourned by Singaporeans. Indeed, his passing seemed almost a footnote to the story. It took a fair amount of digging into local news reports to determine what, in fact, had prompted the riot, the thrust of the attention being more on the rioters. On Singapore’s Channel News Asia, which likes to think of itself as Asia’s CNN, the anchor mentioned his death only in passing.

The riot set off the island’s barely concealed racial torchpaper, most conspicuously in the online comments section of the quasi-official Straits Times. “Cane these hooligans and let them rot in jail”, posted one reader. Posted another; “a lot of Indian and Bangla foreign workers arrested. Good … hang them all. The rest who watched and did nothing, send to Saudi Arabia as slaves … Problem solved!”

Noted yet another: “foreign trash are working over time … pappy [Singapore slang for the ruling PAP] ask us to be what, inclusive and more tolerant? Think these 2 words should stuff up into the spokesperson’s body where the sun don’t shine. That what you get when ICA [Singapore immigration] approve the work permits like toilet papers, in rolls. They allow the companies to employed CHEAP foreigners, so this is what you get.”



A police car flipped on it side and set on fire by rioters in Singapore’s Little India district.

When other posters pleaded for calm and rational discussion, they were swiftly condemned by the baying online mob. “Oh, I should be more caring, so one wrong word and they riot????? So why don’t you spend your time going down there now to comfort these trash or start a campaign IN PERSON to champion for these trash?”

For Singaporeans, race is a discussion that’s ordinarily out of bounds, a forbidden topic lying beyond what are commonly known as ‘OB markers’. The term derives from golf, a passion of the Singaporean elite – the so-called “cosmopolitan” regime insiders who lord it over less-advantaged heartlanders. The vast bulk of the Singaporean population, heartlanders have been agitated in recent years by the arrival in significant numbers of armies of foreign workers, people like the late Sakthivel Kumaravelu, to cheaply do the jobs most Singaporeans won’t.

OB markers aren’t so much formally codified by the state – though the former editor of the Straits Times once had a go, after his retirement. Rather, they have become understood by self-censoring Singaporeans, the boundaries usually determined after someone strays across a line and gets whacked back into suffocation by the PAP government – typically by public admonishment, the threat of punishment and, on occasion, lawsuits and detention.

For many Singaporeans, baiting foreigners is fair game, until someone important says it’s not. The anonymous trash-talking in social media about unfortunates, such as Sakthivel Kumaravelu allows Singaporeans to air irrational, even pent-up, racial grievances and still appear to stay inside OB markers.

OB markers mostly seem to surface around election time. What would pass for reasonable political debate in most countries tends in Singapore to be curtailed by OB markers; criticising the ruling party and the wealthy Lee regime is a good way to cop a crippling libel suit. Corruption and state wastage is another OB marker, as is discussion of the huge salaries politicians pay themselves, and the business activities of the ruling Lee family too. In recent years, examination of the nationally public business activities of the state sovereign fund Temasek Holdings, (run by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching), has become out of bounds.

OB markers also extend to foreign media. In reporting the story of Sunday’s riot, Forbes Magazine, which publishes Lee Kuan Yew as a contributor, was quick to point out that the weekend’s disturbances didn’t represent a race riot. Forbes is published in Singapore.

Race and its close relation, religion, are societal dynamite in Singapore, and in neighbouring Malaysia, which the island was once part of. The race riots of 1964 and 1969, in which mostly Buddhist Chinese and Muslim Malays attacked and killed each other – the ugliness held out by authorities as a dystopia no-one wants – strongly define the social character of modern Singapore.

But resentments simmer. Immigration over generations has made the indigenous Malay Muslim community a minority on their own soil — they now form only 12 to 13 per cent of the population and are the least economically advantaged of Singapore’s communities. Around 10 per cent of Singaporeans are of Indian, mostly Tamil, descent. The island’s authority and wealth lie overwhelmingly with the majority 74 per cent ethnic Chinese majority.

These racial ratios are rarely replicated in the strata of society. Malays are over-represented in the lower levels of the civil service and under-represented in government, business and the military, while Indians tend toward the professions and family businesses. Ethnic Chinese, led by the Lees, are the first among equals dictating the national political and corporate agenda, while nodding to an often-laboured national inclusiveness as Singaporeans.

Rising wealth and the recent construction boom has seen an influx of foreign workers onto the glistening island. They are well-visible being moved from building site to building site, rather like cattle, unsecured in the backs of trucks. Hailing from the impoverished backblocks of Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and India, many of these people do dirty and dangerous jobs in construction and manufacturing. They muck out drains and public toilets, and keep Singapore’s public spaces famously immaculate. Women from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka clean homes, hotels and offices for wages they are a fraction of what Singaporeans receive. Singapore doesn’t have an official minimum wage. The presence of cheap foreign labour in local households liberates Singaporeans from tiresome domestic chores, free to work and become even wealthier.

No matter that the average Singaporean wouldn’t even faintly countenance doing such work, the presence in numbers of unskilled foreign labour in Singapore sets off urban grumbles about jobs, cultural erosion and crime. The xenophobia hasn’t quite descended to the extremes of foreigners being blamed for freeway gridlock, as happened in Australia during the recent election campaign, but if Singapore’s flaming internet forums are any guide, that’s not far off.

The hate being spewed online prompted PM Lee to respond. Describing the rioters as an ‘unruly mob’, he urged Singaporeans to show restraint. “We must not let this bad incident tarnish our views of foreigner workers here,” said a post on his official Facebook page. “Nor should we condone hateful or xenophobic comments, especially online.” In Sunday night’s aftermath, as the government charged 24 Indian workers for rioting and banned alcohol sales in Little India next weekend, it said it found no evidence that foreign workers in Singapore were unhappy with their employers or the authorities.

The Singaporean charity, Transient Workers Count Too, says there are about a million low-wage migrant workers in Singapore, a good few of them off the books. Official Singapore-government statistics show that there are almost 1.3 million foreign workers servicing the Singapore boom, compared to 3.3 million Singapore citizens.

Transient Workers Count Too is a small but passionate voice trying to cut through a controlling Singaporean regime traditionally suspicious of NGO’S. “Migrant workers contribute immensely to Singapore society and our economy,” they say, “yet they often suffer unconscionable exploitation.”

It describes migrants’ working conditions, which Singaporeans wouldn’t tolerate. They include long shifts with few breaks, dismal accommodation and missed paydays.

But what’s not evident in official statistics or ministerial rhetoric is the grief many foreign workers have suffered working in Singapore, a supposed employment El Dorado where instead they can find themselves vilified and dehumanised by hosts who are deaf to their reasonable concerns. There are the upfront loan repayments to sponsors and employment-agency sharks back home, the intimidation and harassment of their families for money, the pent-up frustrations of the culturally displaced poor, some of whom hail from democracies where striking and public protest are lawful and commonplace, and who don’t quite get the notion of OB markers.

It all amounts to indentured labour, and sure, such matters can fall outside Singapore’s official control – that is, if the country much cared beyond its perennial need to meet a construction deadline.