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Causes of the Little India Riots

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Published: Tue, 21 Nov 2017

Introduction

In December 2013, an alarming incident hit Singapore and shocked the entire world. Newspaper, reports on it spread across the globe. This incident is no other than the Little India’s Riot. The severity of this issue had sent different messages to the different communities in Singapore. For instance, the government realized the need to look into the issue of migrant workers, Singaporeans preconceived stereotype of these migrant workers worsen and migrant workers possibly losing a place where they can get to enjoy the sense homeliness that they missed dearly.

Hence as a result of this highly discussed incident in Little India, I have decided to take a closer look at Little India and the tension that was built up among the residents and the migrant workers there. Prior to this incident, based on a research by T.C. Chang (2000), most of the initial displeasures came from the non-Indian community living in Little India. (Chang, 2000) However, the result of the riot had sparked off increasing concerns from the Indian residents as well. The riot did not occur due to the tension built up but it certainly did amplify the concerns residents have on the migrant workers and their existence. In this paper, we will look at the history of Little India and the present situation, followed by the reasons for the migrant workers’ gatherings and finally the cause of these tension built up to provide a better picture on how the co-presence of migrant workers and residents created tension. However, prior to that, I would like to introduce certain geographical terms that will be used throughout this paper which are mainly, space, place and identity.

Space in geography is often used in doing spatial analysis. There are many definitions of space available in the different literatures. However, in the context of this paper, we will be looking at Cognitive Space. Cognitive Space is often used when space is shaped by human’s values and thinking. It is bounded by settings which comprises the identities and relations people have with it. Hence, neither space nor place can exist without one another. (Agnew, 2011; Furland, 2008; Mazúr & Urbánek, 1983; Horodniceanu, n.d) According to Edward Relph’s book titled Place and Placelessness (1980), he defined place as “fusions of human and nature order and are the significant centers of our immediate experiences of the world”(p. 141). In order words, place is somewhere where an individual or group has a strong sense of attachment to, creating a sense of identity with the place. (Monnet, 2011; Hauge, 2007; Tuan, 2001; Seamon, 1996; Relph, 1980) In short, space, place and identity are often interlinked and one could not exist without another. Having said that, with a brief introduction to these key terms, we will move on to take a closer look at the issue mentioned.

History of Little India

Little India is not quite like how it is termed. It was never a designated ethnic enclave, dominated by one particular community, unlike Chinatown. However, under the development of Singapore and the cattle trading industry in the mid-1800s in Little India, it had attracted many Indian traders and laborers coming into Little India and eventually settling down there. The increasing growth of the Indian population during the 19th and 20th century led to the numerous cultural and religious landmarks such as Hindu temples that can still be observed today. By then, Little India was dominated by the Tamil-speaking south Indians. The commercial and retail activities catered specifically to this specific community grew rapidly. Even though it was predominantly occupied by the Indians, there were Chinese and Eurasians inhabitants as well. Hence, Little India is considered have a multi-ethnicity population and not just the Indian community. The diversity of population is showcased through the wide array of worship places in the area catering to the different communities and religions which can be found as architectural landmarks in Little India today. (Chang, 2000; URA, 1995; Wong, n.d)

Present situation

Fast forward to today’s context, it is undeniable there has been an increasing trend in the number of migrant workers coming into Singapore seeking for job opportunities. Based on the statistics obtained from the Ministry of Manpower Singapore, the number of work permits issued for the construction industry increased from 180,000 as of December 2007 to 306,500 in June 2013 (Ministry of Manpower, 2013). The number of foreign workers working in the construction industry had increased by close to 40% as of the figure in 2007. You might be wondering why the emphasis on migrant workers in the construction industry. This is because large percentage of them came from South Asian and shared a similar culture of the Indians. As such, Little India became a place where they gather during the weekends, converting public and private spaces in their own diaspora third spaces. (Yew, 2014) Their presence had also caused an undeniable change in the landscape of Little India. For instance, Bengali is now the second mostly widely seen and spoken language in Little India. There are also increasing numbers of Bengali restaurants selling Bengali cuisines and even retail shops selling Bengali products set up along the streets of Little India. The characteristics of a street in South Asian can be seen transported into the streets of Little India, replacing many of Little India’s very own characteristics. (Yew, 2014) This process of place-making is also known as personalization. It refers to putting a distinctive mark on a place and it can be in the form of physical changes or attitudinal changes. In this case, we can see that the influence of these migrant workers had created both tangible and intangible forms of personalization on Little India. (Garcia, 2012) The touch of personalisation further entice them into visiting Little India as based on the article “Home away from Home” by The Straits Times (2013), Little India provides them with the sense of homeliness, which they had left behind to seek job opportunities in Singapore. It is also estimated that the numbers of migrant workers going to Little India on Sundays can hit more than 30,000.

Reasons

This increasing trend had caused tension to build up between them and the residents creating an insider-outsider dichotomy in Little India. (Chang, 2000) An insider refers to someone that has a sense of social belonging and is adapted to fit the space while an outsider, is someone who does not feel belonged and feels culturally out of place. According the Edward Relph (1980), there are different forms of insideness and outsideness. In the context of Little India, the residents themselves take up the identity as existential insiders. It is only possible for people who live in that place and had developed a strong sense of belonging and identity with it. The migrant workers on the other hand are incidental outsiders whereby the place was just a setting where they have their activities at. (Relph, 1980) As a result of the co-existence of these two communities in one place, one as an insider and the other as an outsider, a dichotomy will follow because of the different importance the place plays for them.

Residents, as insiders, will value the place much more than the migrant workers as the place provides them with a sense of belonging, attachment and identity and played an important role in their daily lives as it is the place where they live and play. The migrant workers on the other hand may only refer Little India as a place for them to gather over the weekends as it provides them the sense of homeliness. (Chan et al., 2013) Therefore, because of different importance Little India plays for the different community, certain behaviors or actions carried out by the “outsiders” in it may be deemed as unacceptable by the “insiders”. The unacceptance of the actions hence creates a tension build up between the two.

In addition, the sense of insideness and belonging the residents had of Little India also portrayed an implicit sense that they entitled more rights to the space compared to the “outsiders” and that these public spaces should not be “owned” by the “outsiders” during the weekends. However, no one actually legally owns these public spaces. (Yew, 2014) Hence, as a result of these prejudice ownership of rights of the residents and the tension built up overtime, these common spaces where these migrant workers tend to frequent in large numbers were constructed into social problems as their attempts in reclaiming of public spaces. (Yew, 2014; Chang, 2014; Berlenger et al. 2012; Garcia, 2012)

The increasing trend of tension build up could be seen from the increasing numbers of reports on the complaints residents had lodged on the migrant workers because of their misconduct. Most of the residents interviewed voiced that the presence of these migrant workers was a major issue that should be looked at. Many complained of their rowdiness under void decks, loitering and even claimed to feel unsafe. This is especially so after the recent riot that occurred in Little India in December 2013. (Yahoo, 2013; Lee, 2013; Gan, 2011; Chang, 2014)

However, I feel that besides the insider-outsider dichotomy inside Little India between the residents and migrant workers, the concept of “othering”, the marginalization of migrant workers in Singapore is highly applicable to the reason for tension build up as well. (Rubdy & Mckay, 2013; Vincent et al., 2006) Migrant workers coming into Singapore has always been seen as an “other” on Singapore landscapes and were marginalized by society. The preconceived stereotype the general public had of the migrant workers often associate it with the 3’Ds which are dirty, difficult and dangerous. (Yew, 2014; Rubdy & Mckay, 2013; Vincent et al., 2006) Hence, because of the jobs they are involved in, mostly construction, they are often seen as the “foreign, lowly and othered pariahs in society” (Rosanow, n.d). These perceptions could be due to the lack of exposure to these workers or even hearsay. Even though there were efforts made by the government, it is still not possible to erase the fundamental relationship between Singaporeans and the migrant workers that had built up for a long time. Hence, due to the preconceived stereotypes the general public had of migrant workers and the increasing numbers of migrant workers, it amplified the anxieties of alterity residents had of the migrant workers in Little India. This increasing sense of alterity is also one of the possible causes of insider-outsider dichotomy in the area, thus creating tension due to unacceptability. Hence, we can say that the issue of marginalization of foreign workers in general among Singaporeans had played a part in contributing to the formation of the insider-outsider dichotomy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the increasing number of migrant workers coming into Singapore had created tension between the locals and them. Tension built up could be due to the preconceived idea people have of these workers and hence rejecting them placing their footsteps on Singapore’s landscape or becoming part of their “space”. This rejection can be seen through the insider-outsider dichotomy as mentioned above. These signs of tension between residents and migrant workers are not only observed in Little India. Places such as Lucky Plaza in Orchard Road and Golden Mile are areas that face similar issues like those in Little India where there is a constant build-up of tension because of the increasing number of migrant workers gathering in these areas. This tension will continue to grow if neither Singaporeans nor migrant workers are willing to change their mindsets. Singaporeans ought to keep an open mind about these migrant workers while the workers become more sensitive to their environment and the feelings of the residents. Singaporeans have to learn to appreciate their existence on Singapore landscapes, the role they play in our society and not judge them based on the work they are involved in. It is the only way to prevent continual build-up of tension as it is an undeniable fact that Singapore needs these workers to sustain its development.

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