Are foreign worker riots in Singapore becoming endemic

A riot among Burmese earlier in June shared a similar profile to 2013 Little India riot. More should be done to ensure foreign integration.

By Azira Mohamed

A riot amongst Burmese nationals broke out in Peninsula Plaza in June this year. The men involved were work permit holders who had been drinking since earlier in the day. A fight broke out between them and another three Burmese over cigarettes in the evening.

During the court hearing on 13th October, District Judge Imran Abdul Hamid gave a stern warning to these men, asking them to “tell your friends and family desiring to come to Singapore: don’t mess around with our laws.”

Links to Little India riot in 2013

As with the 2013 Little India riot, alcohol consumption was a contributing factor leading to rowdy behaviour by the foreign workers. The judge sentenced the men to 12 months in jail each and said that the harsh sentencing served as a deterrent to prevent Peninsula Plaza from turning into Little India.

Like Little India, Peninsula Plaza is a known enclave among foreign nationals who often gather there on weekends to connect with other nationals. The judge referenced the earlier riot in his hearing and warned that Singapore held a “very serious view of rioting offences.”

Singapore government crackdown

The similar profiles of both riots in foreign enclaves show how such areas are prone to incidents of public disorder. To deal with the issue, the Singapore government has largely enforced laws and security measures by introducing new alcohol restrictions and stepping up police surveillance in these known areas of congregation. Alcohol purchase is prohibited from 10:30 pm to 7 am daily, and public drinking is banned on weekends.

Acknowledging the problem, Ms Denise Phua, Member-of-Parliament (MP) for Jalan Besar GRC said that “congregations of such high density are walking time-bombs and public disorder incidents waiting to happen.” “We want to protect our residents from the disamenities that arise from large gatherings of visitors, including foreign workers, in the communal areas, such as playgrounds, void decks and stair cases,” she commented. Her statements were made in response to complaints by residents of foreign workers infringing on public spaces.

Government intervention does not address root causes

Government efforts in curbing alcohol and stepping up surveillance, however, only serve as stop-gap measures. The underlying issue of poor integration between Singaporeans and foreign workers leading to the prevalence of such foreign enclaves remains unaddressed.

Foreign-worker dormitories are kept away from the public eye as Singaporeans are unwilling to share their housing estates with these workers. Singaporeans often complain of anti-social behaviour among foreign workers loitering and causing nuisance in shared spaces. Yet, isolating foreign workers in far-flung dormitories only exacerbates the social divide between the two groups.

In 2016, MP Phua further suggested fencing communal areas to prevent foreign workers from encroaching public spaces in her constituency, which includes Little India. However, cordoning off public areas from foreign workers adds to the stigma surrounding them.

Foreign workers gather to cope with the stresses of working as foreign labour in an alien environment. Singaporeans are a minority in these enclaves, and the social divide between the two groups is apparent, especially on weekends which are a common holiday among work permit holders. More should be done to disperse the crowds at these enclaves, such as creating alternative recreational spaces for foreign workers to hang out in.

Foreign nationalisms in Singapore

Different enclaves also exist for different foreign populations – Filipinos in Lucky Plaza, Burmese in Peninsula Plaza, Chinese and Indonesians in separate areas in the Geylang vicinity. These places are often platforms where foreign workers act upon national issues occurring in their home country. Such acts of nationalism could pose a security issue for Singapore. In 2014, a Filipino Independence Day was planned at Lucky Plaza, but it was later cancelled due to public order and safety concerns. Netizens had complained that it was inappropriate for the Filipinos to display their nationalism overtly in Singapore.

In recent years, increasing reports of foreign workers involved in crimes have surfaced, including radicalisation. Despite rising media attention, Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam shared in parliament that crime incidents are lower among the foreign worker compared to the general population. His statement served as an assurance that foreign worker crimes were not heading towards an endemic problem in Singapore.

Singapore’s Foreign Workforce

Singapore’s economy relies heavily on its foreign workforce. Excluding domestic workers, 33.6% of Singapore’s employed population were foreigners in 2016.

Rising xenophobia and the poor welfare of workers in Singapore, therefore, bodes poorly for its economy. In 2016, Indonesia announced that it plans to stop sending live-in domestic workers overseas, quoting poor welfare conditions. Almost half of maids in Singapore are Indonesians, and the move would disproportionately affect many Singaporean households. Association of Employment Agencies (Singapore) President K. Jayaprema noted that progress on improving the working conditions of maids in Singapore was not moving fast enough. If left unaddressed, migrant social issues may also strain Singapore’s bilateral relations with its neighbours who source the bulk of its transient workers.

The majority of Singapore’s foreign workforce is made up of work permit holders in labour-intensive industries such as construction, which many Singaporeans are unwilling to take up. Given its reliance on a foreign workforce, Singapore needs to ensure it remains an attractive country for foreign workers or risks losing out to its competitors.

Source: Ministry of Manpower


What should be done

The 2013 riot in Little India galvanised the government to look more closely at migrant worker welfare in Singapore. The riot in Peninsula Plaza early this year, though, indicates that gaps continue to exist in addressing migrant social issues. Instead of focusing on surface level measures, the government should target the underlying social divide between Singaporeans and its foreign worker population. There should be more public spaces for integrated recreation between the two groups and public conversation about the role of foreign workers as the backbone of Singapore’s economy.

The Singapore economy continues to be heavily reliant on a foreign labour force. Given this reliance, the government should act concertedly in reducing the separation between Singaporeans and its foreign workers to reduce the incidence of enclaves in the first place.