Little India riots: One year on

Little India riots: One year on
Soon after the Little India riot, a local initiative was created to reach out to foreign workers, teach them English and help them integrate. One year on, volunteer teachers and their foreign workers who are their students will be holding a Friendship Day where they will be having a picnic and inviting workers from other dorms to join in.

Bridging the gap

About 11 months ago, the distance from Ms Jena Peh's Redhill home to Tuas was a daunting trek.

The 45-year-old financial adviser for an insurance firm had signed up as a volunteer for Happy Happy English, a programme to help foreign workers learn and improve their spoken English.

The classes, held on Saturdays, are conducted in the dormitories where the workers live.

"It does take a bit of courage to step into the dormitory," said Ms Peh, who is accompanied by other volunteers and surrounded by mostly foreign men in an unfamiliar environment.

But now, the facilitator looks forward to seeing familiar faces each week, helping the teacher to facilitate the classes and playing games with the workers - many of whom have become her friends.

"Because of the relationships, the feeling of the long distance has become shorter," she said. 

Happy Happy English is the brainchild of Dr Paul Choo, a retired doctor who founded Shenton Medical Group.

Disturbed by the Little India riot a year ago, Dr Choo wanted to find a way to bridge the communication gap between Singaporeans and foreign workers, and address prejudices on both sides.

What better way than to teach conversational English to foreign workers through entertaining, educational and interactive ways, such as games?

Many of them, especially India workers, already speak English.

Dr Choo said the aim is to let them understand the way we speak and to build their confidence in speaking English to us, so that both sides can communicate better.

The first classes started in Tuas about a month after the riot. The programme later expanded to Toh Guan and Mandai.

About 150 foreign workers have voluntarily gone through the free programme, which has about 150 volunteers - from working professionals and retirees to university students - on the database, Dr Choo said.

The volunteers know about the programme through word of mouth and networking sessions. Not all volunteers are teachers.

The classes usually last for about 12 weeks, with a week's break in between. Each session lasts for two hours, from 8pm to 10pm.

Ms Tay Shi Hui, 26, who works in an IT company and volunteers as a teacher in a dormitory in Mandai, said that until she started volunteering in the programme, she had been indifferent to the workers.

Now when she walks by a construction site, she would find herself peering discreetly to see if she can find familiar faces from her class, so that she can say hi.

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