24 Indian nationals were charged in court today for the rampant rioting and subsequent carnage which took place just 2 days ago in an unprecedented show of defiance of authority not seen since the racial riots in Singapore of the 1969. 400 rioters took to the streets of Little India, overturning police cars, destroying ambulances and attacking the police, many of them were caught on video running for cover.
According to official reports, a total of 39 officers — 22 from the police, 12 from the Singapore Civil Defence Force and five auxiliary — suffered injuries and lacerations, said the police. In total, 25 emergency vehicles had been damaged, including 16 police cars, of which five had been set ablaze.
This flurry of activity has brought great disrepute to Little India, perhaps one of the last bastions of the “old Singapore” – an area with largely unregulated traffic, where foreign workers from “South Asia” (a new term I learnt from the official media) – Indians, Bangladeshis, Nepalese congregate, hang out, and live their lives out on the streets instead of inside air-condition malls like the rest of Singapore.
It will unfortunately, now be viewed as the infamous area where unruly hooligans, fueled by alcohol and driven by an intense inner frustrations borne on the backs of social injustice broke loose and wrecked rampant carnage on life and property. This has already sparked many racist comments and angry debates on the many problems of having too many foreigners in our nation.
This is definitely not the Little India I remembered. And the rioters are definitely not representative of the people I’ve met and respected and befriended in Little India.
I’ve made friends (though regrettably, transient ones as contact had been lost), exchanged smiles, laughter and small talk with the many migrant workers living and working there. I’ve walked right into a barber shop and took photographs of people having their hair cut; I’ve sat on the sidewalks of Little India chatting with migrant workers from India and Bangladesh, people with the same dreams and visions of a better life like all of us.
I’ve been offered food and drinks; I’ve crossed the same roads and small streets of Clive Street, Dunlop Street, Racecourse road, Serangoon road with the same abandonment, cavalier and seeming disregard for personal health and safety; I’ve visited the migrant workers at night while they were waiting for their buses to go home after a day of rest and relaxation out at Little India, for many of them – their only rest day.
Photographically, it’s pure heaven, a place where street photography can be practiced without being yelled at by irate elderly chinese women or men, or without being stared at, or accosted. Indeed I’ve also never met a single unfriendly or rude migrant worker on the streets of Little India in my many forays there, even at night. I’ve in fact done a whole series of photo essays on the streets of Little India. I felt as safe when I was there compared to anywhere else in Singapore with a camera. (Ok besides Geylang, but that’s another post for another time…)
Little India is one of the last bastions of the “old Singapore” – an area not hugely modernised and regulated with the modern trappings of urban society. It’s the most un-Singapore part of Singapore. I hope that doesn’t change because of the riots because it’s a great place I love to visit and hang out, and not feel like I’m trapped in modernity. Taking in the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells in Little India has always lifted me, and suspending the belief that I’m actually in Singapore.
We can all play armchair psychologists and psycho-analyse to death the cause of the riot and the mentality behind the people who could no longer suppress their anger that night; we can try to respond reactively (as our dear Government always does), but one thing is clear to me – Little India the way it is must be preserved.
My greatest fear and worry is the institutionalisation of Little India because of the riots. The loss of cultural identity of this area would be the greatest tragedy.
If you enjoyed this post, you may be interested in the other parts of my on-going series on migrant workers in Little India – A Home Away from Home. Click on any of the links below to catch up on the earlier parts.