Racial riot in S'pore? Really?

Racial riot in S'pore? Really?

LONDON'S Financial Times headlined its online story "Riot tarnishes Singapore's image as place of ethnic harmony".

A Forbes Asia blog claimed that the incident "highlights ongoing tensions between the ethnic groups that call Singapore home".

Al Jazeera did not go that far, but hinted at it by presenting data on Singapore's ethnic mix. And a reporter with a leading global news broadcaster prefaced her request for an interview with me by referring to "racial riots".

The instinct of some foreign media to frame the Little India Riot as race-related may reveal more about their own prejudices than about the reality of what happened on Sunday evening.

It is, of course, true that ethnic minorities here occasionally face subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, but it would be a stretch to assume that the riot had much to do with that.

The existence of racism doesn't mean that the racial lens is always the right one through which to view events.

If the riot reveals any deeper divisions - and most reasonable Singaporeans know that it does - those divisions are probably ones of nationality and class, not race. Not that this would be a less serious social ill; but it is important to get the diagnosis right if we are to treat it effectively.

A racial explanation of the riot implies that if it had been a crowd of mainland Chinese construction workers who saw one of their countrymen killed by a bus driven by a Chinese Singaporean, and if Chinese Singaporean police and civil- defence personnel had arrived at the scene, the absence of the race factor from the equation would have resulted in a peaceful resolution of the situation.

One just needs to consider the daily incidence of uprisings among Chinese workers in China to be disabused of such a fiction. But the misunderstanding is not surprising. After all, if an editor on the other side of the world receives news from majority- Chinese Singapore of a riot breaking out in "Little India" involving only South Asians - what else would he think?

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