Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Serangoon Road Conundrum

A stormy riot, on an equally rain-soaked Sunday night along a routinely bustling strip of Singapore’s Little India, has captured the world’s attention.  The trigger, a purportedly drunken foreign worker of Indian descent was mowed over by a bus ferrying other workers back to their dormitory.  What sparked the violent scenes of vehicle pelting and assaults requires answers that possibly no inquiry can ever fully surface.

Was this an alcohol-induced incident, fueled by a rowdy mob packed within a two km stretch of road enveloped by ethnic shops, restaurants and temples? Anyone who has taken a stroll down Serangoon road on any given Sunday evening would witness a scene of collective drinking along pathways and on any available patch of grass. As pointed out by Alex Au of Yawning Bread, “at their low wages, they can’t afford to spend their leisure time in commercial establishments like cafes and restaurant”. Alex also offers an interesting treatise on how a confluence of spatial features and bad weather provided the ideal backdrop for the eruption of violence.

Explaining how usually rational individual behave during an irrational situation is too broad and complex to discuss definitively. I would like to however touch on a divisive subject that was alluded to in discussions on social media, and featured prominently in Alex’s aforementioned blog post; the role of disruptive policing (termed ‘active’ policing by Alex) and the perception of authorities manifested in first responders.

Anyone who was once a self-respecting pubescent teenager would recount at some point in their life running into the scope of a patrolling police officer. Be it loitering at a void deck late at night, or sneaking that illegal cigarette in a public playground. To some this is a rare occurrence, but to others that perhaps fit a deeply engraved profile of a typical troublemaker (you know who you are), this tends to happen more often than not.

Alex shares that such active or disruptive policing happens regularly “in the void decks and alleyways of Little India, freely issuing summonses and intrusively asking for identification. Workers see this as harassment. It is the exact opposite of what it takes to build trust between the police and communities”.

Now is this generally a bad thing?  Disruptive policing is a key component of the law-enforcement strategy modeled under Intelligence-Led Policing. In a sentence, this technique seeks to utilize the crime deterrent effect generated by a highly visible, regular and tangible police presence, to reduce crime in an identified crime hot area.

To illustrate its application, a scenario could be an increase of crime in a neighbourhood littered with street walkers and drug dealers. Active and visible police cars patrolling the streets could possibly deter the would-be clients from loitering in the vicinity, resulting in a decrease in the attractiveness of the area for crime.  Drawing back to the situation along Little India, perhaps the right type of disruptive policing would involve the visible presence of a credible deterrent, in the form of regular police officers and not auxiliary officers and the token NS-men or two.

The conduct of these additional patrols is as important as their numbers. Unlike the example of street walkers and soliciting clients, the purpose is not to displace our South Asian temporary residents. Our boys in blue have to be seen as being equally interested in maintaining a conducive and safe space for Singaporeans and Foreigners alike. This is the real challenge.

There are two events that suggest this animosity between our South Asian workers and enforcement authorities are, for lack of a better word, strained. Symbolically, the flipping and torching of police vehicles and ambulances offers a clear target of frustrations. Did they believe the first responders were arrived to assist their pinned compatriot, or were they there to merely engage in crowd control and to sweep the incident into non-existence? Perhaps there are other anecdotal incidents that fuels this perception.

The other (non) event is the conspicuous lack of acts of looting. Looting often goes hand-in-hand with spontaneous riots.  Flash back to the August 2011 London riots, much of the incidents coincided with opportunistic looting of mobile phone shops, restaurants and other retailers along the British High Streets. Similarly to what I read now, commentary back then pinned the blame on a disenfranchised minority group that were concentrated in areas of relatively high deprivation.

Now taking these two points together, it becomes harder to accept the online speculation that the ‘real’ reasons for the riots were the manifestation of the traditional class-divide tension rooted in poverty, employment frustrations, and general over-crowding.  As commenters now claim that attempts at painting the event as alcohol-driven is merely engaging in scapegoating, it would over-generalising to suggested a micro event was fuelled primarily by marco socio-spatial factors; without any empirical proof of course.  

To conclude, from a purely speculative assessment, understanding the interaction/relationship between our foreign workers and the people that share their spaces is a more important priority than let’s say a re-look at our immigration policy. Otherwise it seems counterintuitive to claim to be concerned for the welfare of this sub-group, and at the same time be knee-jerked into proposing solutions that only seek to limit their opportunities to make a decent living for themselves.