Night on Fire

As a Singaporean, it saddened me greatly when I received news about the Little India riot in Singapore late last night. My phone was beeping non stop with updates from friends both from Singapore and Australia. Since I couldn't sleep even if I mute my phone, with thoughts running aplenty in the mind, I got out of bed and stayed up until 0200 hours in the morning reading updates on the internet.

Since I run a migration related journal, I receive emails regularly about emigration discussions or questions. I got to know people who can't wait to get out and people who can't convince themselves to get out. The 4 main pillars provided by the latter group, more commonly known as the pull factors of Singapore, are a good economy, no natural disasters, political stability and security. Among the big 4, security is perhaps widely regarded as the most important of all, enough for a Singaporean to be reluctant to leave. On the other side, Singaporeans I met in Australia often go, "Though it's not as safe as Singapore here, it is..." when they shared about what attracts them to Australia.

Last night, Singapore's proud record of being riot-free for 44 years was smashed in Little India. Hundreds of foreign workers were involved in the riot. The press reported a bus accident involving a foreign worker was the spark to the riot. Singaporeans were quick to pick out accidents happened all the time and it was unlikely to be the precursor to a unprecedented riot since 1969. From the internet vibe, most Singaporeans attributed the chronic exploitation and pent-up oppression of these foreign workers as a logical explanation. Truth seekers and conspiracy theorists expectedly went deeper to unveil the nuggets that would never make it to the mainstream media. The plot thickened.

The truth didn't matter to me, not that we would ever know the truth anyway, in today's climate. Many of us are not even born when the last riot took place in Singapore. Little did we know, the precursor (according to the sources online) of the 1969 racial riots was traced to an incident in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The disturbances had nothing to do with Singapore but was enough to create a spillover of the violence involved into Singapore. Thus, anything can be a precursor to the Little India riot last night, both impossible and pointless to pin point.

To illustrate my point, if you read into the infamous Riverport Riot, also termed as the "Rocket Queen Riot" understand riots a little more, where passionate fans of the then hottest rock band in the world Gun N' Roses were incited to a riot when lead singer Axl Rose walked off the stage and ended the concert prematurely. 2 young men were trampled to death in the chaos. The angry mob took it to the streets, destroyed and torched public and private properties, leaving many more injured. If you interview anyone attending the concert before, no one would be found attending the concert of their favourite band with an intention of rioting. But they did.

The authorities of Singapore have to understand while a burst of violence is extremely rare in Singapore, the behavior and mob mentality that occurs at riots isn't. Social scientist may explain this phenomenon as a form of deinvidividuation which occurs when people tend to lose self-awareness when they are part of a large crowd and engage in possible violent behavior such as overturning a police vehicle and smashing the ambulance as we witnessed last night in Little India. Soccer fans who attended fiery matches of the Lions against their Malaysian counterparts in the Malaysia Cup heydays in a full stadium would resonate well with this. Back then, both full grown adults and young children like us would hurl vulgarities in unison and abuse the referee when a decision was wrongly given against us. None of those actions were part of our normal behavior when we were alone as individuals. Deinvidividuation, combined with other factors such as the influence of alcohol, resentment or indignation probably led to somebody in the crowd throwing the first stone towards the authorities. Then someone else threw a bottle. Then individuals began to use the crowd as a cover for their actions because they felt less likely to be apprehended and made to face consequences. This is known as the Emergent Norm Theory. From my observations of the riot proceedings in the videos posted online, there were clear signs of these mob mentality. In my opinion, the riot wasn't about revenge, oppression or exploitation.

Whatever the reason, it didn't matter. What really matter to me was that the bastion of security that many of us hold so close to our heart was broken. If  you observe the chain reactions from Singaporeans, they were in state of shock, disbelief and even delusion. That soon gave way to finger pointing and wild flaming of the authorities and mob involved in the riot. The reactions are vital signs for the government and urgently require decisive action to address the deeper issues within. For the mistrust and resentment between Singaporeans and foreigners planted by this incident can lead to another riot potential more violent and damaging than the Racial Riot in 1969. On top of that, the authorities have to step out of their anti-riot readiness. They have forgotten the golden rule last night: No crowd, no riot. By next weekend when the foreign worker gathers again, hopefully the authorities will be prepared with the crowd dispersing measures.

May peace quietly slips back into the soul of Singapore.


  1. I was going to say to Singaporeans - Welcome to the first world. We are now on the same stage as USA, UK, France, Australia, etc... :)

    Of course this is all tongue in cheek.

    I remembered reading an article years back when I was still in singapore (in a car forum) where someone witness how a group of 12 or 15 intoxicated Thai workers in a HDB coffee shop reacted to fight within their own group and when the police came to arrest 2 of the guys, the whole group turned on the police.

    End up they had to retreat, call for backup and a group of about 30 police came to arrest a few more. Meanwhile, the group of Thai workers continued their dinner and drinks...

    With more immigrants coming in from different countries and more friction (not just between foreigners and local, but between the different nationalities and different cultures and all), I told my friends in as early as 2003, that I will see in my lifetime, at least 1 sizable riot, and the voting in of an opposition party.

    Well, 1 prediction came true last night.. Not sure about the other... lol..

    1. The other wouldn't happen, because Singaporeans' logic is like this: If vote in the opposition people not happy kee siao start an even bigger riot, how? Or this: If vote in the opposition they know how to control riots like this or not? Only PAP can control and subdue within 1 hour with no shots fired - opposition has got no such experience, how?

  2. I thought someone was joking when they told me there was a riot in Singapore.

    Firstly it was Singapore. Secondly it was Sunday night.

    Where got time for Singaporeans to riot???

    Then I realised it was foreigner workers who was involved in the fight. I am also surprised that the police has allowed it to become a riot causing property damages and injuries. If they at least fire warning shots into the air earlier then they would have stopped the incident much earlier. Perhaps no one on the grounds has the balls to order it?

    Furthermore how did PM LHL respond to this?

    Not by the news media, radio TV etc

    But by FACEBOOK????????????????

    the first riot in 30 -40 odd years and LHL posted a msg on fb as a first response?

    I know he is trying to be seen as tech savvy but still this is ridiculous.

    This a reminder to all in SG not to take security for granted. Someone could have been getting killed in a riot and the police did not fire a single shot evening for warning.

    I recalled being taught riot control in my NSF days (ROD* loh!) and I was surprised what powers we can hold if there is rioting in Singapore, since the instructor lectured us on it on the rules of engagement under the banyan tree.....

    * not ORD

    I took it very seriously then since my parents used to talk about the fear when the racial riots happened in the 1950-60s; they never forgot (or forgave) what happened.