Riot In Retrospect

The unmistakable waft of lilac incense saunters out of a grocer located at the corner of Kerbau Road, reviving the still mid-day air outside.

Well-adorned idols and meticulously hand painted periodicals detailing Hindu mythology stand proud against the weathered pastel walls which house them.

Across the junction, a huddle of migrant workers indulge in a game of cricket—running barefooted up and down a makeshift gravel path.

A flurry of open back delivery trucks serpentine their way down Race Course Road, the same way they have done on Sundays before this and the ones before that.

But this is no ordinary road.

And this is no ordinary Sunday.

Today marks the second week since the culmination of—what the media has termed—the Little India riot that unraveled before these streets—one of the biggest outbreaks of public disorder in the recorded history of Singapore over the past 30 years—leaving one dead, 39 injured and reducing three government vehicles to scrap metal. The tumult was brought to a halt within a span of three hours, but not without altering local history forever.

Narrow back lanes that once overflowed with life on weekend nights now remain void of sound as they are of people.

The clear glass doors of a restaurant reveal desolate tables and vacant chairs.

The unoccupied waiters inside fidget with cutlery and realign table mats—a sign of being restless from having too much rest. 

With its nostalgic aura and yesteryear-inspired interiors, one gets easily displaced by time in rustic Race Course Road.

Memories, like people are edifices of time. A kaleidoscopic micro-sweep, as opposed to the macro-viewpoint of any given situation.

Here are a collection of memories from the night of December the 8th2013—a moment in history.

Sokkiah Ashok

Sokkiah Ashok’s eyes speak of hope.

The kind of hope one embodies to make ends meet—however difficult—in a foreign land for seven years.

Home for Ashok is a shared dormitory unit at the corner of Veerasamy Road while he works as a driver for a company based in Tuas.

Just as the Indian national was about to have dinner with a few friends, he remembers the strong smell of smoke that night. 

“We all heard loud yells and people shouting.”

Crossing over from the intersection of Kerbau Street and Race Course Road, he sensed this was no ordinary Sunday night.

His hands nimbly cheroots a brochure with a calm uneasiness as he speaks about that fateful night.

“Even though it’s been a week, I still feel very emotional about what has happened,” the 28-year-old said. “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow or if I will ever be able to work here for long.”

He pauses to disarm a tear with a conscious dab of his eyelids.

“I feel like crying because there is nothing else I can do.”

Devi Priyaa

When Devi Priyaa left her beauty products store near Tekka Market at 10pm that night, she had no idea something big was happening close by.

“Its funny how I was less than five minutes away from the riot when it happened,” the 40-year-old said, “but I only got to know about it via Facebook on my way home.”

The visual myriad of essential oils and medicated ointments that picket her storefront hint of origins beyond that of our shores—much like the bulk of patrons that throng her shop on weekends.

Drunken stupors, larger-than-life celebrations and swarming crowds are not an indication of a riot—but that of Tekka on any other weekend she said.

Some days, things can get out of hand fast and one might also find tipsy men sleeping outside stores and on the walkways.

“The best thing to come out of this incident is the alcohol ban,” Priya opines. "I think it’s about time we put a stop to the madness on weekends.”

She adds that some workers get drunk and disturb the people working at her store.

“I hope the ban is permanent.”

Grace Rivera

Walking from Chander Road to Kerbau Road was restaurant employee Grace Rivera’s usual way of going home.

That night, the fighting and shouting made the Filipino retrace her steps back to Gurkha Palace Restaurant. They were screaming words in Tamil that she could not make out. 

Back inside, her boss pulled down the metal shutters for fear of their customers’ safety. Elsewhere, bottles were hurled. 

Grace, 36, then planned an “escape route” via the car park of Hotel Grand Chancellor.

On her way, she saw a drunk man lie flat on his face a few steps in front of the vehicle gantry—blocking off the only exit route.

Thankfully, another foreign worker who was nearby pulled him away onto the parapet, she adds.

“I could not help but laugh at the drunk man at a time when things were getting out of hand nearby.”

For Grace, a sense of humour is a sense of proportion.

T. S. Mallika

Front-row seats to a riot were the last thing on kitchen helper T. S. Mallika’s mind that night.

But that’s exactly what unfolded before her own eyes from her temporary dorm, located atop her workplace along Race Course Road.

From the confines of her second storey vantage, a peep through the curtains revealed thick smoke and a bantering crowd that was now beginning to grow by the hour.

“It’s tough being away from your family for so long. Having a good time with friends helps to numb the pain,” says the employment pass holder who hails from the village of Pudhupettai, Tamil Nadu.

The 55-year-old might empathise with the affected migrant workers almost maternally, but she also has no qualms about chiding them in the process.

“There is a saying in my hometown that drunkards are equivalent to wastrels,” she said. “There is no respect for anyone who is a drunkard.”

Those arrested have parents to take care of, sisters to marry away and young children to feed she said. She asked, who will take care of them now?

“What about their families who have sold everything to depend on them to survive?”

Irene Yeo

Irene Yeo’s memories of the riot are as vivid as the shop that houses her and her extensive assortment of antique liquor bottles.

Having been in the collectible liquor industry for over four decades now, the 42-year-old Singaporean Citizen has had her share of drunk customers over the years.

But they generally mean no harm other than to have a good time on weekends, she adds animatedly.

Deeply saddened by the incident, she firmly believes that alcohol was not the main factor, and that it was definitely not a race issue. “Any one of any race would have reacted the same way if their fellow countrymen was in a similar situation,” she said, referring to the fatal accident that culminated in the riot outbreak.

“The accident happened at the wrong place, at the wrong time.”

Settled in the rustic enclave of Belilios Lane, business on a Sunday evening was taking place as usual when the riot began.

“But I’m very sure this is the last time this happens in Singapore, the government will make sure of that.”

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