Little India Riots: Time to stop our anger, bias towards the ‘other’




"Singapore for Singaporeans" is by now a familiar slogan for those who followed the passionate White Paper on Population protest at Hong Lim Park.

As an ethnic minority, born and bred in Singapore, I wondered, just who is a Singaporean?

And as articles and opinions about the Little India riot appeared online, I now wonder what the Singapore way is.

Towards the end of 2008, I made an amateur documentary for a college project about the attitudes towards migrant workers in Singapore. It was inspired by the reaction from residents in Serangoon Gardens who opposed the proposal to convert a vacant school into a workers' dormitory in the quiet estate.

Admittedly, I was motivated to investigate the marginalisation of our migrant workers based on my own biased assumptions and speculation, but I swore to myself I noticed a deep-seated resentment for the "other" in my fellow countrymen. I simply had to uncover a hidden element of racism in the core of our Singapore society. Five years on, and after the events that unfolded in Little India, I can't help but think Singaporeans have played a passive role in the self-destruction of our clean reputation. Reports of the riot had inevitably found its way to news sites in neighbouring Malaysia and Australia and even as far as the United Kingdom.

What caught my attention was the Forbes coverage of the incident, which suggested that our cosmopolitan island was experiencing racial tensions at its worst, and Miss Nicole Seah's (a Singapore politician) immediate call for caution in reacting to the incident. At the time the Forbes article was published, there wasn't any evidence to suggest the riot was due to racial tensions. And Miss Seah's surprising plea for Singaporeans to maintain calm led me to believe she foresaw a reaction that was expected, even if not an appropriate one. The reactions of many Singaporeans online weren't any better than the actions of those responsible for the riot.

Many Singaporeans have been lucky never to have dealt with such chaos in our own backyard, but when the incident occurred in an area dominated by an ethnic minority, from overseas no less, I feared the worst. And true enough, many comments suggest a bias towards the "other". Some were blatantly racist while others merely attempted to justify the racism with anecdotal evidence.

Anti-foreigner sentiments have been brewing for a while and many Singaporeans have demanded the tightening of immigration policies. The feeling now is that this incident serves as a wake-up call for the Government.

But have migrant workers become collateral damage in our aggressive stance towards an open-door immigration policy?

We are indeed upset, but what are we upset about? Who are we upset with? The underprivileged South Asians who find an opportunity in taking up the low-paying jobs? Or the Filipinas who leave their own families to take care of someone else's as domestic servants? Do we begrudge the Europeans in high-ranking positions because they bring the talent we lack?

In our current state of emotional unrest, I fear that we will end up retorting rather than offering solutions. Perhaps we are so exhausted from all that has happened the past year or so that we vent our frustrations on innocent folk. Perhaps it is this fear that led Miss Seah to urge caution.

Our heroes of yesterday, our forefathers, came here as immigrants themselves. They saw an opportunity for a better life and worked towards a common goal, a prosperous Singapore.

The next time you feel compelled to voice your anger against the "other", ask yourself if the men and women who built this country would be proud to see how we are undoing their legacy.

Have migrant workers become collateral damage in our aggressive stance towards an open-door immigration policy?

- Mr Ram Rengachar

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