Tiffany Gwee of The Online Citizen (TOC) meet up with two of the Indian workers arrested for allegedly being involved in the riot in Little India in December, to see how they are dealing with their daily living.
Singapore witnessed her first major riot in 44 years on 8th December 2013 at the junction of two main roads in Little India. Being almost as rare as hail precipitating in Singapore, it was no surprise the riot sparked off much debate and stirred up numerous questions in relation to Singapore’s foreign worker policies and immigration laws. The suspected rioters were arrested and charged swiftly by the police. There cases are now before the courts.
However, with the workers stripped off their jobs and living in a new environment under a stricter routine, how are they actually coping with their current lives?
The first thing I noticed when we met up with 3 of the 25 workers being charged for participating in the riot was the clear look of exhaustion that was evident on their faces. They were as apprehensive as I was (since it was the first time I had such close communication with foreign workers) as they introduced themselves to us.
Arun Kalimurthy, 28, was in Singapore as a tourist when he was caught by the police in the early hours of December 9; while Rajendran Mohan, 25, was working as a spray painter in the Marine sector. Arun spoke extremely fluent English as he explained to us the system in which they were under.
“Every morning we have to report to the ICA (Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore) to get our Special Passes at 9am in the morning,” Arun said. “It has to be 9am sharp or at most 9.30am or else we will not get our passes.”
The Special Passes, not to be confused with the S-Pass issued to workers for extended stay in S’pore for various purposes, were issued to the men to remain in Singapore while the case against them are being put together by the authorities.
A daily renewal of the passes is an unusual requirement as such passes are normally renewed weekly or even fortnightly. The men’s application to the courts to allow them to report to the ICA weekly was turned down.
Also, they are required to report to the police every Friday, and have surrendered their passports to the authorities.
Financial and health issues
Jobless and without income, Mohan has found it “very difficult to survive” and has to borrow money from his cousin to help him get through the days. He lives in a backpacker hostel in Geylang for $13 a night, a substantial sum to him. He spends $10-15 a day on food.
Arun is now staying with his friend, and is being helped by his family.
When asked if they could go to Rowell Road in Little India to avail themselves of the free food provided by TWC2, a non-governmental migrant workers aid organization, the men said they couldn’t since they aren’t allowed to be in that part of Little India.
It is due to the accumulated stress from the financial burden and personal problems that have led to Arun developing a seizure in the wee hours of the morning just last week. “I have always had seizures. It’s a medical condition. But it only acts up when I am under stress,” he explained as he showed us his medical certificates to prove his illness, “I have been very depressed lately due to the case and it has caused me to have the seizure.”
When he was at the hospital, the doctor wanted to admit him for further observation. However, Arun declined as he said he had to report to the ICA the next morning and did not want to take any risks of failing to do so, even for medical reasons.
Adaptation and reputation
When asked about their new environments, they expressed much sadness that they were not allowed back into Little India. Mohan viewed Little India as a place where he could be with his friends to “ease and relax” but now that he lives in an enclave completely foreign to him, he finds it very difficult to adapt to the new environment.
“You can’t make friends because everyday different people,” he said, referring to the transient tourists who stay at the hostel. So, he is alone most of the time.
His financial state also means he can’t go out as he pleases as it adds to his transport costs.
For the moment, he depends on his cousin who is also working in Singapore for help. But he does not know how long this can go on.
When asked about how they would feel if they are eventually sentenced to jail and not able to come back to Singapore to work in the future, Arun was the first to confidently answer, “I don’t even want to think about jail because I have done nothing wrong. I was not involved in the riot.” He said that he was “arrested without reason” and was disappointed in the lack of evidence provided upon his arrest.
“I will be very disappointed if I get sent to jail. I used to trust Singapore a lot and that is why I came here to work. When I worked here last time, I was really happy but now not really. I have started losing trust.”
.Mohan comes from a poor family of farmers back in India and his parents are “extremely saddened” by his arrest, he told us.
“Before all this happened, I rejected offers in the Middle East and wanted to work in Singapore for at least 4 years to support my family but it has not even been 1,” Mohan said as he remained much more subdued. “My family is very upset because of this.”
Determined as ever
Arun said he strongly believed that the majority of those charged are innocent and were not directly involved in the riot.
“There were 400 of us, how are they so sure we are the ones? They should review the videos carefully again,” he said. “Singapore is like home to me and knowing that this can happen to anyone makes me feel very upset.”
Will to survive
As we left the interview room, I cannot help but admire the workers’ will to survive even under these conditions and their firmness to fight for what they believe in. Rather than giving up, they found ways to cope with the changes as they continue fighting on.