'We come here to earn money, not riot'

'We come here to earn money, not riot'
Left to right: Indian construction workers Palanyappan Sakthivel, 34, and Natarajan Muruganandam, 26, talks to Supper Club about his observations being at Little India on Dec 8 last year.

Insight meets Mr Palaniyappan Sakthivel, 34, and Mr Natarajan Muruganandam, 26, at a meeting room at their Jalan Papan dormitory deep in the heart of an industrial zone off Jurong Port Road.

They are among 5,000 foreign workers who count Terusan Lodge I as their temporary home while they earn a living here.

Both workers are from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and visited Little India on Dec 8 last year - just like Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu (no relation), whose death after falling in the path of a bus that night sparked a riot.

The interview with the duo, who are fellow construction workers at Singapore company TTJ Design, is at 10.30pm on a warm Wednesday night.

As our driver turns onto the unevenly paved road at 5A Jalan Papan, we see workers walking around freely, having their meals at a canteen or running errands at a convenience store.

Both of us get curious looks. The dormitory's night supervisor, Mr Charles Allimuthu, ushers us into a clinically corporate meeting room, with a white board, sofa, a meeting table and six roller chairs, their yellowing plastic covers still attached.

Mr Palaniyappan, who is helping build Mediapolis@one-north in Buona Vista that will house MediaCorp and other firms, and Mr Muruganandam, who is working on the Thomson MRT Line, arrive at 10.45pm, having washed up after a day's work.

Tucking into the supper we took along, they speak to Insight - in English - about the Little India riot and the changes they have observed since, only occasionally deferring to Mr Allimuthu, who is present to help with the translation.

Dec 8, 2013, was on the weekend after payday, and the two men were in Little India to remit money home.

Mr Palaniyappan, who has worked in Singapore for 10 years on projects such as Supertrees at Gardens by the Bay, is a father of three - two girls, aged seven and five, and a boy aged three. He earns up to $1,200 a month, including overtime, and sends about $800 home.

Mr Natarajan came in 2012. His wife is expecting their first child, due in three weeks. He earns up to $900 a month, including overtime, of which he remits $700.

Besides remitting money, they also met up with friends from their villages. Just as they were about to set off to their dormitory, violence broke out.

What happened?

Palaniyappan Sakthivel (S): I transferred money at Western Union, and bought some vegetables, cooking items.

When I was walking (towards Race Course Road), many men came towards me and said: "Inside got problem, don't go there."

A policeman said that one person died and there was very big crowd. He said I was not allowed inside, so I walked to the nearby Rex Cinema to go to the train station. It was only after I came back and listened to the radio news, that I knew (there was) a very big problem.

Natarajan Muruganandam (N): I was crossing the road (from Tekka Centre) to take the bus, and I heard stones and bottles being thrown.

A policeman told me to take public transport, because there was no more bus to Jalan Papan.

So I went to Little India MRT. When I was waiting, I heard a big crackling sound, like an explosion.

And then, after you came back to the dormitory?

N: The policemen were here at midnight. When I woke up at 6am they were still here. At that time, we were not allowed outside the dorm.

S: The next day, they asked us to stay inside the dorm, cannot go out. The policemen wanted to investigate. They stopped the workers (from) going out and interviewed all the workers in the dormitory. (About 3,000 people were there at the time.)

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