Post-Riot Apprehensions and Activism

The Prohibition is in place in Little India. Exactly where the boundaries are for the no-alcohol zone, some shops are concerned as it affects their weekend takings. Was it a knee-jerk reaction without consultation with the businesses in Little India? It certainly looked like it. There is growing criticism that alcohol should not be the scapegoat for the riot last Sunday as people get drunk at Boat Quay but they don’t riot. Litter, fight, be a nuisance and perhaps public menace, but not riot. The authorities were between a rock and a hard place again. They had to do something quick to show they were working and besides the visible presence of riot police for sure this weekend in Little India, an alcohol ban was one easy move to minimise mischief this weekend. They want to avoid a drunk mob fueled with rumors e.g. Sun TV, of Indian foreign workers being targeted for reprisals. While most of Singapore think the Prohibition is stupid, the residents and some businesses in Little India might not as they would be the ones in Ground Zero if a riot occurred and anything to prevent a riot is welcomed for them. A contest of national liberty and local disorder concerns.

Some have been charged and some released as police investigations into the riot are ongoing. At least 4 people arrested were released. Those arrested were to be given pro bono legal aid by the Law Society but drama unfolded. Vincent Wijeysingha who was outside the Court when the accused were charged confronted Law Society lawyer Amarick Gill. The former SDP and TWC2 activist said that the pro bono work was a nefarious plot to prevent infamous activist-lawyer M Ravi from representing the rioters. The Law Society has since refuted this conspiracy theory. Whether Vincent was right, nobody knows and it did not matter. It cleverly did give added media hype to the case and if the rioters were sentenced harshly, the “nefarious plot” explanation was handy. The activist won here already.

Just like the activists are quick to frame the riot as an issue of foreign workers being exploited in Singapore. Leong Sze Hian was one who with the benefit of hindsight said that the riot was an accident waiting to happen. For the benefit of all Singapore, he should categorically state what other accidents are waiting to happen and its time frame with his sharp socio-political clairvoyance. It is opportunistic and done in the spirit of spinning any topic back to government failures. Another comical outburst was by Alfian Sa’at, a Singaporean playwright happily in Malaysia, who said that the mayhem on the streets should not be labelled a “riot” as it gives the government powers to punish, despite police cars and ambulance overturned and set ablaze.

The authorities are not to be let off either. They subdued the riot well despite some hardliners among the public who said the police should have used force. However, while their timeline of response and events was timely, there are unanswered questions e.g. were the cars and ambulance set alight before or after reinforcements arrived as it was acceptable that police should not have baton charged the rioters if there were not enough boots on the ground to protect public vehicles. However if the police stood idly although they dominated the situation because of their indecision, then the explanation that it was a conscious decision not to intimidate the rioters with force was merely a lame pretext. Furthermore, was it really police or auxiliary police mishandling of the initial crowd that sparked the riot?

The COI, quickly set up before the weekend to assure the public, would issue its findings in 6 months. I’m not at all particular if there is a COI or not. Nevertheless, the composition of the COI with visible Indian members is also an assurance to the foreign workers and overseas South Asian audience that there is no racism underfoot. The COI is in essence a public relations show that if there is something wrong, the government would fix it. There is however a missed opportunity here if the government really wanted to stage a show – the COI should have also included a PAP MP, and also a WP MP.

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