Picture riot police, fires in the streets and overthrown cars. Southeast Asia is no stranger to mob action but this isn’t a scene of unrest in Bangkok or Manila but rather one that took place yesterday in Singapore. The city-state’s rapid response demonstrates quite how rare such an occasion is for this island nation: within an hour the protest had been contained by deploying nearly as many police as there were protestors. It was an efficient reaction from a government that tops global surveys assessing the order and security of countries but it’s no surprise that Singapore sits low in these rankings when it comes to freedom of speech and assembly.
With Singapore having not seen a major protest since the race riots of 1969, it would be easy to draw similarities between this weekend’s protest and those that erupted between the ethnic Chinese majority and Malay minority over 40 years ago. The catalyst for yesterday’s action was the death of a Bangladeshi man who was hit by a private bus in Little India, a neighbourhood where many of Singapore’s foreign labourers congregate on Sunday nights to eat, drink and socialise. The accident is reported to have led around 400 of these workers to attack the bus as well as the subsequent police enforcement that arrived in the area. Nearly 20 people were injured (including the Singaporean driver of the bus) and 27 were arrested – all of whom were of South Asian origin.
The event puts the spotlight on the sensitive issues of multiculturalism and equality in Singapore, a country that prides itself on fostering both. The city-state is now home to around one in five multiethnic marriages and the government goes to significant lengths to publicly uphold the cultural and religious activities of its Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. However, a survey conducted earlier this year revealed that only 70 per cent of Singaporean Chinese believe that it’s positive for their country to be made up of different racial groups. And just 59 per cent of the Chinese majority believe they have something to learn from other ethnicities.
While it would be clumsy to simplify yesterday’s riot as one that was simply racially motivated, the uproar drew attention to the economic inequality of different ethnic groups in Singapore. Around 1.3 million foreign labourers were registered in Singapore this summer, a huge number in relation to Singapore’s 5.3 million residents. Poorly paid and often horrifically treated, these labourers have near to no rights; they are even forbidden from marrying Singaporeans. Predominantly shipped in to facilitate the city’s building boom, it is these workers who enable the quick and affordable construction of public housing that allows over 80 per cent of Singaporeans to live in affordable homes.
So while the government may be doing its bit to ensure its citizens have easy access to a good standard of living, that may come at the cost of those who enable that quality of life. That can’t be a peaceful situation for very long.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle's Hong Kong bureau chief.