Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George




Singaporeans are torn between seeking retribution and wanting to understand.

Whenever a society is beset by mob violence, opinion is almost always divided between demands for uncompromising punishment, and calls for empathy and self-critique. It should be no surprise that our own Little India Riot has provoked a similar spectrum of responses.

The tension between retribution and compassion, between blaming the outlaw and blaming the system that made him an outcast, has been investigated in the world’s greatest literature, its major religions, and its systems of justice – but never conclusively resolved. So, as passionately as we hold one or another point of view, nobody should expect our debate to be settled by a soundbyte, a tweet or Facebook post.

What we can safely say is that neither extreme works. To excuse all wrong-doing as the product of systemic injustice is to invite chaos and negate humans’ capacity to use their conscience. For the authorities to take that view would be shirk the number one job of any state, which is to maintain the orderly conditions for peaceful social life.

However, to respond to criminality only with force – and, when so many individuals are involved, never get round to asking “why?” – would be bad policing, at the very least. The riot seemed like an isolated event, but it would be irresponsible not to look deeper. Uncovering contributory factors and addressing them could avert the next such event.

Mustering empathy for the perpetrators will be difficult if we buy into the comforting illusion that there is only one “Singapore” with one set of norms – the ones we are familiar with. In that Singapore, our Singapore, we take for granted that we can count on those in authority to help us in a life-threatening emergency. But, within our borders are separate Singapores for foreign workers. One of the documented dysfunctions of these other Singapores is the existence of rogue employers who do not treat injured workers in a particularly humane way. Might this warp the judgment of workers who see a comrade fatally injured? This is just one of questions I hope will be answered through sober, fact-based analysis.

The debate that is commencing is an important one; it deserves to be conducted in a healthy fashion. Reliable information is vital. It was reassuring to see that, at the height of the emergency, the Police understood the importance of effective crisis communication, using Twitter and Facebook to give timely updates. Let’s not underestimate how challenging that must have been – they had their hands full trying to deliver a decisive yet measured response (evident from the fact that they sustained more casualties than the rioters). The effort paid off. The information the Police provided ensured that unfounded rumours did not take root for long enough to do any damage.

Equally positive was the role played by many netizens to urge calm, and to blow the offside whistle against irresponsible and tasteless speech.

In the weeks that follow, one hopes that this commitment to transparent and responsible communication is maintained both by official sources and ordinary citizens. It cannot be anything other than a controversial and heated debate. Already, the cheap point-scoring has commenced, linking the riot to various pet peeves. Differences in viewpoints are inevitable and necessary; but whether they end up being divisive is up to us.






  1. Joel

    This episode is a good reminder not to be so blasé about inequality – something the government was until the last GE (and still is when it comes to migrant workers). We don’t know exactly what cleavages will result in outbursts like these, but we do know that reducing these cleavages is the best defense against them. The myth that inequality and its social and economic costs can be separated should be put to rest by now.

  2. I fear a day when S’pore society become a nationalities clashes (PRC against SG Chinese, India Indian against SG Indians, Others against SGreans & so on..), racial clashes, rich/ruling against middle-low clashes, racial & religious clashes etc..) . Some of these are real & it’s already happening in our heartlands, dissenters showing their emotions/sentiments in social media, heart landers & other nationalities unable to tolerate one another. Our basic human needs of social harmony is compromised with our ruling party mass importations of huge immigrants within a short period of time. This, I think need to be carefully studied & its flow need to be ingeniously calibrated, else the consequences could be more tragic than on Sunday’s nite incident. Let’s us be harmonious & not begrudge these foreign workers. I hope this country will not turned into a blaming society whereby its gahmen says the people always “kow beh kow boo or (complaining)” and the people says the gahmen “jiak lao bee or (useless)”.. if that really happen, then it will be a sad ‘Cry, the beloved country’…& S’pore needs a leader like the South African Nelson Mandela to reset this country back in order.

  3. m tamilselvan

    It took 40 odd years for singaporeans including those born here to be enculturised to be well behaved singaporeans. This with the process of a solid education. Its hard for those who come from elsewhere with a known culture of violence in politics and social activity to understand our process.these people needed be quickly edicated in it. That also includes the same punishment meted oit to our own citizens. I sm sure no matter what I would not be excused if I burnt a police csr. One must remember this.

  4. John Tan

    I am disturbed by the arguments of some people who have risen in defence of the rioters themselves. Some common excuses include their poor working conditions, unfair treatment by employers, and the prejudice they face in society. I do not dispute that these factors may, in fact, exist. But absolutely nothing can reduce the rioters’ blame for what they did.

    Insofar as they are human, adults and with the capacity to reason, they should take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. These consequences are substantial: injury to our civil servants, property damage, loss of Singapore’s reputation and puncturing our shared sense of security. For all these harms they have inflicted upon us, these rioters must be punished with the fullest severity that the law can muster. This is justice, in the form of retribution, and in sending a clear message that we have zero-tolerance for any violence.

    On the other hand, I am heartened by the rational responses of Singaporeans towards this terrible incident. All sectors of Singaporean society have called for justice to be done, while rejecting discrimination against any demographic group. This is an isolated event that should not be used to infer that any group is inherently inferior or uncivilised (though this may change if such an event is repeated).

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