SrSm: Blog Post 2

Last updated 2015-08-20 07:08:36 SGT

(context: Little India Riot COI Report)

One thing about the whole enterprise which strikes me as incongruous is the manifest discomfort with which the COI approaches the possibility of the Little India riot having been politically motivated. There's a historical reason for this. It is true that “rioters” are arrested and charged on a regular basis (13 cases annually, per §48 of the report); these are routine, if severe, misdemeanours. But in living Singaporean memory, Riots, with a capital R, the kind that go down in history books (or at least have names conferred on them), are inseparable from the sort of pre-industrial semicolonial social milieu — disparate subcommunities with little in common held together by economic entrêpot glue — that one tends to associate with communal factionalism and communist agitators. The party line today is that Singapore's present economic success relies on its prevailing climate of socioeconomic stability, which in turn relies on a hard-won, somewhat better-integrated social configuration that seems to have worked pretty well so far; the possibility of the LIR having been just this sort of political instrument naturally unsettles, in that it questions the stability and sustainability of an institutional edifice that, by tacit admission, we all need to keep working well.

The intent of the COI is therefore twofold, and its success (or lack thereof) should be assessed likewise. As the COI itself makes clear, the report's primary goal is to examine the immediate causes of the riot with a view to prevent recurrences, extending to include some structural considerations (dissatisfaction with living conditions, etc). In this respect it succeeds admirably; the COI has been evidently very assiduous in its collection and analysis of material evidence, witness interviews, expert opinions and so forth. I personally feel that the majority of its recommendations are salient to this purpose (though I have somewhat less faith that they will be heeded, or properly implemented…) — certainly, with an ideally trained police force, with ideally designed public spaces, and ideally installed surveillance measures, an angry mob should be deprived of the time and opportunity to coalesce, or precipitate into full-blown rioting.

A secondary, if somewhat unarticulated, goal, however, is also clear: the COI seeks to allay concerns about the stability of Singapore's social fabric, given the recent strain imposed upon it by significantly liberalised immigration laws, consequent drastic changes in workforce composition, and now, actual violence on a large enough scale to defeat cover-ups and denials. In this sense, the report is also (though not explicitly) a political instrument unto itself, intended as a means to address these concerns, even if only obliquely. To this end, the COI insists throughout on the sui generis nature of the riot. It does so with such obvious indelicacy and haste, though, that its treatment comes off as dubious, and occasionally contradictory. Consider: were the LIR truly a unique circumstance, there would hardly be any necessity to anticipate and forestall any similar, likewise unique and unforeseeable future event, nor any truly adequate means by which to do so — rendering the COI's recommendations at best superficially and at worst perfunctorily ineffectual. Were it truly bereft of structural causes, no amount of inquisition could serve to illuminate — and yet even the cursory examination of so-called “underdog culture” that the COI managed to scrounge together has been swallowed whole as sufficient explanation for the crowd sentiment behind the riot.

Beyond these sins, though, in taking such an ultimately reductive approach to its investigation, the COI dances around those harder questions that have arisen in the wake of the riot: how does one go about nation-building in a nation with a preponderance of resident non-nationals? If we entrust with our future those who have no stake in our continued success, what is just for them to demand from us in return? How do we prevent these hard questions from themselves becoming cause for acrimony? How sure are we that, when all is said and done, our social fabric, as we know it, retains its integrity? On these and similar matters, in a sudden break from its erstwhile meticulousness, the COI falls silent.

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