Some Thoughts on Little India

Just as I was about to turn in last night, my Facebook and Twitter feeds began exploding with news of the riot in Little India.

I spent a lot of time in the Race Course Road area as a teenager. The church that my family attended was along Race Course Road itself, and for a time it had offices along Belilios Lane where I volunteered after my O levels (giving English tuition to neighbourhood kids, that sort of thing). Mustafa was a great place to buy ‘branded’ sportswear on the cheap, and still remains one of my favourite places to bring tourists. And Tekka Market was a hot favourite for lunch on a budget, not to mention the scores of briyani and naan places in shophouses nearby that were great value too.

All the weekday evenings and weekends that I spent in Little India normalised it in my mind, and it would be years before I knew there were others who shuddered at the thought of even driving into the area, or who were averse to the spicy smells emanating from the restaurants and provision shops. (I don’t quite love the taste of cumin or cardamom, but I love the aromas – it always made me smile to walk past the little shops full of sacks of dried spices on a hot day.) The foot traffic was pretty intense on weekends, to be sure, but it just seemed like a function of the area’s narrow lanes and narrower footpaths. Probably the only time it bothered me was when I was riding pillion on a friend’s motorcycle and an errant jaywalker sauntered right into our turning path; we narrowly avoided an ugly collision.

And of course, there were the crowds of foreign labourers every Sunday. They brought their bottles of beer and packets of food, stretched out on the grassy areas along Race Course Road, blasted tinny tunes out of their portable music players… and largely minded their own business. That’s what always stood out to me – that they were conscious about keeping out of others’ way. Unlike the hordes of Singaporeans and tourists in the Orchard Road underpass, I noticed that the foreign labourers would often walk in single file along a busy pavement so that they wouldn’t jostle people approaching from the opposite direction.

Of all the news accounts I’ve read of last night’s riot, there’s one detail that stands out to me by virtue of how it’s been glossed over: the riot started when the driver of a privately-operated bus reversed over a man and killed him. This doesn’t at all excuse the behaviour of the rioters, who attacked the first responders trying to extricate the victim of the accident – but I think it’s an important detail.

As part of the narrative of the incident, how it began tells me that the riot wasn’t racially motivated and wasn’t caused by alcohol consumption / inadequate security / many of the other things being said or alluded to in the news and on social media. The riot came about because members of a disenfranchised group in our society saw one of their own get run over by a bus, and reacted badly. I use ‘disenfranchised’ broadly – TWC2’s Facebook page has details of what hardships and unfairness such foreign labourers are subject to – but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine what it must feel like to be living and labouring far from home and routinely deprived of basic comforts that Singaporeans take for granted.

The resulting anger and violence got out of hand, for sure. But rather than dwell on the actions of these labourers, or pontificate on the repercussions of employing them in Singapore in the first place, I hope we’ll not be too quick to castigate them without keeping the context in mind.

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