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Published: Tuesday December 10, 2013 MYT 7:24:00 PM
Updated: Tuesday December 10, 2013 MYT 7:43:47 PM

Singapore riot: Disturbing questions

Riot police stand guard at the height of the rioting by foreign workers in Little India on Dec 8, 2013

Riot police stand guard at the height of the rioting by foreign workers in Little India on Dec 8, 2013

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans who witnessed or watched videos of the wanton lawlessness in Little India on Sunday would have been deeply shaken by the spiralling contagion, intensity and seeming mindlessness of the mob.

How could the single death of an Indian national due to a tragic accident spark such a rampage when the victim could hardly have been known to many of the South Asian workers who had randomly gathered at the scene?

Barbaric rage was directed at police officers and civil defence personnel who were there to render assistance.

Yet, they were pelted with harmful objects even as they attempted to extricate the accident victim's body.

Whatever the feelings and underlying grievances of the mob, there was no call to harm others striving to do their duty, or to burn vehicles.

Whatever the street culture and attitudes towards authority in their country of origin, such madness has no place whatsoever in Singapore.

In curbing mobs, police face a dilemma in applying the classic theory of the crowd that attributes the influence of agitators and the grip of mutual excitation to why ordinary individuals lose control of their behaviour.

But an iron-fisted approach can worsen an emerging situation, as held by the contemporary theory of how the social identity of people can change (for example when indiscriminate force is used against them) and unite them in further violence.

As the anatomy of the riot is dissected by the Committee of Inquiry that is to be set up to probe its causes, a range of public views will likely form about the incident and its handling. 

Whatever one's leaning, it would be prudent for judgments to reflect a sense of proportion. First, such incidents are rare and public order is well maintained. It has been decades since the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955, remembered for the chaos caused by striking bus workers and Chinese middle-school students. 

Second, millions of migrant workers have contributed to the economy since the 1980s and the 400 who rioted in Little India represent only a fraction of the largely law-abiding transient workforce here - work permit holders in construction alone now number over 300,000. 

Though hopelessly outnumbered, there were also peacemakers in the unruly crowd, as shown by at least one video of a brave individual restraining others from violence.

Hence, it would be wrong to adversely typecast all foreign workers as the result of this incident, despite its undoubted gravity. Also important is the need to keep a finger on the pulse of migrant worker communities to better understand the issues they face. 

One way is to harness informal community leaders and mediators to educate and engage the constantly shifting pool of workers who throng not just Little India but also other spots on weekends. - The Straits Times/ANN


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