BRACING FOR THE DEBATE
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.