The new face of Little India

SINGAPORE - Nearly two months after the Little India riot, life has changed for foreign workers who spend their days off there, as well as residents and businesses.

To the strains of a beating drum and a Hindu priest's chant, cars roll up to the front gate of the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple in Chander Road, Little India.

Resplendent in shimmering saris and handsome kurtas, guests of marine surveyor Rathnesh Prathap Rai and accountant Saaniya Rai, both 29, arrive for the couple's engagement ceremony, the first at the temple since the Dec 8 riot.

Greeting the guests are the childhood sweethearts' fathers, themselves fast friends from their kampung days.

"We've been worshipping at this temple since childhood, and later with our own families," said Mr Vijay Shankar Rai, a 55-year-old estate officer and father of Ms Rai.

"We found out our children had something for each other about 15 years ago, but told them to concentrate on their studies first," he added with a laugh.

The auspicious date for last Sunday's "Tilak" ceremony was selected in June last year, and about 150 people attended. Ms Rai was thankful that Little India is quieter these days.

"It was easier for our guests to come and go - there was a lot less hassle," she said.

It was quite a different experience for about 50 people who were at the 45-year-old temple on the night of Dec 8 for the wedding of audit officer Andrea Posha Julien, 29, and restaurant manager Shri Anand Yadav, 30.

At about 10pm, as the couple were receiving their elders' blessings, temple staff locked down the building. As the bridal party huddled within, glass was shattering outside.

There was an explosion, and acrid smoke wafted in.

"These were sounds that we'd never heard in Singapore. And it's certainly not something you'd expect to hear on your wedding night," said the bride.

The wedding party was holed up till after midnight, when auxiliary police officers came to escort them out.

The riot erupted that night after a private bus ferrying foreign workers was involved in an accident along Race Course Road that left 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu dead.

In all, 49 Home Team officers were injured and 30 vehicles damaged. Hundreds of suspects were rounded up, and 25 have cases pending in court for their alleged roles in the mayhem.

A case of too many liquor shops in the area?

Staff of the Shree Lakshminarayan temple told The Sunday Times they had noted a rise in loitering and misbehaviour in the area as more liquor shops opened in recent years.

Before the riot there were nine such shops along Chander Road alone, including the hole-in-the- wall Gall & Gall Minimarket just 10m from the temple.

"Many workers would gather and sit in the streets along our temple to drink. There were occasional fights and sometimes our devotees' shoes would go missing. Other times, intoxicated men would vomit on the footwear," said the temple's assistant secretary Dharmender Prashad, 50.

Temple leaders said they had petitioned the authorities repeatedly for the minimart to be moved.

A week after the riot, the 15-month-old Gall & Gall closed shop, and the space has been sealed and painted over.

Owner Gopal Nand said his tiny shop's takings were typically $80,000 a month before the riot and the clampdown on liquor sales and consumption. His brother-in-law's liquor shop in Kerbau Road made just $4,000 in the month after the riot.

Mr Nand, 53, said the large number of foreign workers on weekends meant there was an obvious demand for beer and liquor.

"These are people who work very hard. If you work very hard, don't you want to have a beer?" he asked. "Maybe you sit at a bar, have one or two beers. They're doing the same thing."

There are those who accept that he has a point, that the men who come to Little India on their day off ought to be allowed to have a drink if they choose.

But much has changed in the wake of the riot.

After strict initial rules that barred liquor sales and consumption, the authorities have eased up and now stores with retail or wholesale licences can sell alcohol from 6am to 8pm on weekends, the eve of public holidays and on public holidays.

Establishments with public or beer house licences can sell alcohol up to 10pm or midnight, depending on the class of their licence, during these times, provided customers drink only within the premises, as public consumption during the specified times remains off-limits.

Bus services between the foreign workers' dormitories and Little India were stopped immediately after the riot but have since resumed at half capacity.

The pickup points now have temporary barriers to keep the men orderly before they board. And the last bus leaves earlier, at 9pm instead of 11pm.

It has all had an effect on the workers, businesses, residents and other visitors to the area.

Workers return, but they are fewer than before

Before the riot, the private buses alone brought about 23,000 workers to Little India every Sunday.

The men, mostly from India and other South Asian countries, came to meet friends, remit money home, stock up on groceries, shop for bargain-priced clothes, have an Indian meal from the area's numerous food outlets, and have drinks.

The workers kept away immediately after the riot, but as the restrictions were eased and bus services resumed, they returned, but in fewer numbers.

The reduced bus service brings about 14,000 men to Little India every Sunday.

Last Sunday afternoon general worker Velu Arumugam, 31, was enjoying a Kingfisher beer at the Spice Box restaurant at the junction of Race Course Road and Kerbau Road with his two brothers and an uncle.

The men from Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, have been in Singapore for between six months and five years and they live and work in different parts of the island.

They gather once a week in Little India to share news about themselves and their family back home. Their weekly meetings are shorter now.

They still meet every Sunday but do so in the afternoons instead of at night. Previously they would meet at 7pm and all could come, but now not all of them may be present if one or more has to work till 5pm.

"Last time we come, eat, drink at 7pm," said Mr Velu. "Now, 7pm we go already."

The Land Transport Authority has not ruled out adjusting the last bus timing as part of its ongoing review of bus services to the area.

Many workers have stopped coming to Little India as frequently as before, preferring to remain at their dorms or go elsewhere, both to avoid trouble and because of the reduced bus hours.

Construction worker Arumugam Kuthapumal, 38, who has been in Singapore for 12 years, thinks that the crowd has thinned because some are still scared of getting into trouble.

Restrictions on alcohol means some just have a drink near their dorms now, added the Indian national.

Bangladeshi construction worker Mohammad Imran, 32, who has worked here for two years, said: "Some of us come at 5.30pm after work, but have to go back earlier. We cannot enjoy for a very long time, cannot meet all our friends. Now we have to faster come, faster go."

Many others, like Indian construction worker Letchuman Veloo, 50, who has worked here for 12 years, still make the Sunday trip for groceries and essentials because it is cheaper than shopping at his Jalan Kayu dormitory.

But he does not linger - he manages to catch up with just two or three friends, compared to a dozen or more before the riot.

"They don't want to come," he said, explaining that his friends find it not worthwhile to travel such a long way to spend less time in Little India than before.

Some businesses take a big hit

For businesses in the area, the big question is, how long will the slump in foreign worker visitors last?

The authorities can be expected to continue keeping a close watch on the area, and the stepped up patrols by auxiliary police officers are one sign of that.

And when Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin told Parliament on Jan 20 that the Government intends to build more recreation centres for foreign workers, businessmen in Little India saw a sign that things may have changed for the long term and the Sunday crowd is unlikely to return in numbers as large as before.

Some Chander Road restaurants which cater to those on a budget say their business has collapsed, with takings around half of what they were.

Aravind's Curry, a restaurant that serves no alcohol, claims its business has gone down sharply. Manager Rajagopal Santhankrishnan, 42, said that on Sunday evenings before the riot he used to sell about 70 sets of kothu prata, a South Indian delicacy of prata, egg and spice made by repeated folding and pounding over a hot griddle. These days, he prepares only 10 sets, and even then, he is not confident they will sell out.

He said his restaurant has had to defer payment to some suppliers, but it is not as badly off as other restaurants nearby, who are now struggling to pay their workers.

"Come again in June and see how many restaurants are still here," he said, with foreboding.

The situation is markedly different one street away, along Race Course Road, where more upmarket restaurants said their business is back to normal.

Restaurant owners there noted that the area has seen a high turnover of restaurants over the years, and not every establishment that shuts down in future can blame the post-riot measures.

"Business started to settle down by end December, early January, and is now back to normal," said Muthu's Curry marketing director Veshali Visvanaath. "People have forgotten about the riot. Sometimes they'll just casually ask us about the situation, but when they look around outside they realise it's okay."

Others, like the popular Banana Leaf Apolo, were hardly affected, given that their clientele is mainly the tourist crowd. "We never had a lull period, to be honest. We're always crowded," said the restaurant's spokesman.

Better order while boarding buses

The Dec 8 riot erupted in the area where about 250 buses used to drop off and pick up foreign workers. One of those buses was involved in the night's fatal accident.

With the current restrictions on private bus operations, there were 135 buses there last Sunday, and much has changed.

Come nightfall, the workers return to Hampshire Road and Tekka Lane, where bright yellow barricades now keep the workers in line and help avoid previously common scenes of men rushing to board.

"It's easier to find the right bus now. There's better discipline. Before, many problems, very messy," said Bangladeshi construction worker Muhammad Waliullah, 41, who stays in a dormitory in Tuas and has been working in Singapore for eight years.

He said that in the past the men would be walking all over the road, in front of buses, and there were no proper queues. It was hard to find the right bus too.

The two bus associations that oversee the bus services - the Singapore School Transport Association in Tekka Lane and the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners' Association along Hampshire Road - have also doubled the number of traffic marshals to about 10 at each area.

When The Sunday Times observed the area last Sunday, everything appeared orderly until about 10 minutes from 9pm, the strict cut-off time for the last bus to leave.

As workers scrambled to get on, the queues at the Tekka Lane side spilled beyond the barricades and onto the sidewalks. An argument broke out when a worker tried to jump the line.

Stragglers were turned away after 9pm and told to use public transport. The barricades were swiftly removed by 9.30pm.

Residents welcome the changes

If there is one man who is cheering the changes in Little India over the past eight weeks, it is Mr Martin Pereira, a 44-year-old air traffic controller and chairman of the Tekka Residents' Committee.

For the past five years he has represented 900 households in the area's nine HDB blocks and about 4,000 residents.

Besides asking for liquor businesses to be moved away, he has asked the area's Members of Parliament to make common spaces like void decks and playgrounds off-limits to foreign workers.

He has been unhappy about the alcohol problem, and said half of the nine liquor shops in Chander Road alone opened within the last year. They include Gall & Gall, which is now closed.

Mr Pereira said the liquor sellers did not seem to care about how their trade affected residents.

"Some business owners think that once they sell you the liquor, what you do with it is your problem: where you sit, where you litter, if you cause trouble because you bought too many cans and you are intoxicated, that's a police problem, that's the town council's problem, and that's the residents' problem," he said.

He said residents were "absolutely ecstatic" on the Sunday immediately after the riot when alcohol was completely banned, because for once, they did not have to deal with intoxicated men at their void decks.

"The businesses who don't have liquor licences are pretty optimistic that if these measures are legislated, it will make Tekka a more friendly place. And residents here are definitely for it, because nobody wants to see a repeat of this incident."

But there are also residents who accept that a place like Little India has to be a magnet for foreign workers from the sub-continent on their days off, because this is their main reminder of home.

And some feel this should continue to be so on weekends.

"We let them have the place to unwind and meet with friends since they are so far away from home. They make Little India vibrant and colourful," said clerk Stella Seetoh, 50, who has lived in Kerbau Road for 30 years.

Opposition politician Pritam Singh, an MP for Aljunied GRC, thinks the Government has jumped the gun with its post-riot measures in Little India.

"Alcohol consumption in public is not unique to the Little India area. Singaporeans who live in HDB flats near Beach Road and private housing near the Clarke Quay area in particular have also experienced members of public, locals and foreigners, drinking and loitering around their neighbourhoods well into the night and in some cases disturbing the peace, for many years already," he said.

"The timing of the imposition of a conditional ban on alcohol consumption in Little India only, without ascertaining the role of alcohol in the riot, has led some Singaporeans, not just members of South Asian community, to perceive the Government as engaging in racial profiling."

That is a suggestion government leaders have rejected. Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean has told Parliament that temporary laws to help maintain security in Little India are "neutral with regard to whether it's a foreign worker, foreigner or Singaporean".

Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has said that the relevant Bill before Parliament is restricted to Little India because that is where the riot happened.

"To classify this as discriminatory, I think, is ignoring the facts," he said.

The Little India area is part of Moulmein-Kallang GRC and in MP Denise Phua's ward. She has heard the residents' complaints about the crowds of foreign workers on Sundays for a long time now.

"Many congregate in their favourite spots in the public void decks. Some litter and some get drunk in public places or sleep in the corridors and staircase landings," she told The Sunday Times.

"Some take over common spaces like the playground, equipment area for elderly and the void decks. These are concerns especially for families with elderly members and children, and wives and daughters."

Ms Phua said the "dis-amenity issues" have been a source of frustration and irritation for residents for some years now. And the proliferation of shops selling liquor have been a big concern.

She believes that to resolve the issue, appealing alternatives are necessary.

"Alternate places for their recreational and other needs have to be found - not just inferior replacement of selling groceries at a dorm table but places where they can do what they need to do, remit money, stay in touch with their home town with free Wi-Fi services, meet up socially with friends in Singapore, and have a beer," she said.

A Little India that is better designed to cater to the needs of the community's various stakeholders would be ideal, she said, hoping that residents' privacy and security concerns will be addressed and respected.

"Measures should be stricter for residential areas and there can be less restrictions for businesses and cultural hubs that are located farther away from residential zones," she explained.

Other observers said the masses of workers who packed Little India's narrow five-foot ways had left their imprint on the neighbourhood.

"They brought increased demands for goods and services in Little India. And since they were in large numbers on weekends there they did seem to also bring to the space some aspects of how they lived back home," said senior research fellow Mathew Mathews of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

He believes stepped-up restrictions and regulations will put a dampener on the mass congregation of workers on Sundays.

Associate Professor Chang Tou Chuang from the National University of Singapore's Department of Geography said: "The migrant community shaped the enclave's dynamics on weekends and their sizeable numbers contributed to Little India's economic and social cultural vibrancy."

But he acknowledged that unlike tourists and others who drop in, the people who live and work in Little India would have a different perspective.

"If you were there week in and week out, Sunday was not a day you enjoyed because of the volume of migrant workers milling about," he said.

The post-riot measures, therefore, work in favour of this group. "The social vibrancy of the neighbourhood will be dimmed but this will be a welcome change for residents who will enjoy Little India's new identity - one that is not overwhelmed by tens of thousands of workers on weekends," he said.


Bus timekeeper Wong Geck Woon, 38, still shudders when she recalls the night the riot broke out.

She returned to Little India about three weeks ago to help with police investigations. "My hands were shivering when they took me back there," she said at her Potong Pasir flat.

As a timekeeper with the Singapore School Transport Association, she was in charge of the movement of buses taking foreign workers back to their dormitories.

On Dec 8, she was attacked after a bus ran over and killed a worker along Race Course Road. Men threw glass objects and stones at her, leaving cuts and bruises on her face and limbs, and a minor fracture on her right hand.

"I had nightmares for a whole week after that," she said. The permanent resident from Malaysia has a scar over her left eye, from the six stitches she had to have.

"The event just replayed itself. I kept thinking, why did this happen to me?"

She has since been taking care of her four-year-old daughter and helping a friend with her flea market business.

She has no intention of returning to work any time soon. "My husband is worried about me. My boss also asked me to rest because the case is not closed," she said.


On the morning of Dec 8, a group of workers were playing cricket on a field, as they usually did on Sundays.

Later that night, they were asleep in their dorms when the riot erupted close to where they play.

Although shocked by the incident, they ventured back the following Sunday, unlike thousands of workers who stayed away from Little India.

"Why should we be scared?" asked worker Manoharan, 25, who is from India. "We don't disturb people; people don't disturb us."

About 50 workers play cricket friendlies on the knobbly field each Sunday as others stand around watching or waiting to play.

Technician Poorasamy Bharath, 29, said: "Every week we are working and working. Cricket gives me energy. If I don't play, I feel tired."

Most of the workers grew up playing cricket in India and were pleased to have a playing field in Little India, where they can buy groceries as well.

Mr Manoharan, like others, supported the steps to reduce alcohol consumption in the area.

He said: "If workers cannot spend money on drinks, maybe they will save and send more home."


Every Monday morning for the past two years, framemaker Syed Yoosuf Shah would have to clean up spilt beer and bottles of liquor littering the five-foot way outside his Kerbau Road shop.

Just a stone's throw from the scene of the Dec 8 riot, the area near his shop would be packed every Sunday with foreign workers, who often left a mess behind.

"We would even have to mop up vomit," said the owner of Y Shahul Hameed Glass and Frame Makers.

Some mornings, he would rouse drunken workers who had fallen asleep outside his shop. "They would wake up dazed, thinking it was still night," he said. "We'd tell them to hurry and go to work. Some might have missed the last train so they ended up falling asleep on the streets."

Mr Syed Yoosuf, 42, who has lived and worked in Little India all his life, said the situation got out of hand about two years ago "when even sundry shops began to sell liquor".

He hopes the calmer situation today will result in more customers for his shop, which sells portraits of deities.

"Women and families who were scared off by the masses of men, will now find it safer to shop here on weekends."


When foreign workers kept away from Little India in the weeks after the Dec 8 riot, Ms Nisa Mohamed Maideen enjoyed the peace and quiet in her neighbourhood.

"It felt like I had Race Course Road all to myself," said the 23-year-old accountant who has lived with her family in Buffalo Road since 1996.

For years, Sundays meant navigating through hordes of workers who descended on the area to spend their day off.

Most avoided the place after it was made an alcohol-free zone in the initial weeks after the riot. But they have recently returned - though not in the same numbers as before.

"They don't do anything to me and they definitely don't drink in the open any more, but I still can't help feeling insecure," she said, referring to workers who gather near her block.

Ms Nisa, who witnessed the violence during the riot, said she is not xenophobic but hopes the clampdown on the sale and consumption of alcohol, as well as the increased police presence, will continue.

"I don't mind the workers. I just want to feel safe like any other resident in Singapore and be able to take a walk in my own neighbourhood," she said.


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