I would drive my weekend bone shaker along Serangoon Road whenever I send my mother to Bugis Street and Waterloo Street. I also used to patronize the row of shophouses along Race Course Road on Sunday for their delicious curry fish head. The crowd there is really fantastic. Tons of foreign workers congregate there and it’s so difficult to move around without really squeezing your way through. My mother told me to avoid visiting there on Sunday. Whenever I drove along the stretch of Serangoon Road, I had to be extra careful. I had to drive at snail pace cuz those foreign workers simply walk across the road without any due care or regard to passing vehicles. Motorists had to give way to them.
Didn’t an MP, once upon a time mention in parliament about a “sea of darkness” in little India and he got into trouble. He had to apologize publicly for his remark. It shows how sensitive it is. Many of us simply can’t handle the truth. Since that remark was uttered, the “sea of darkness” has grown even larger and more complex.
Let me elaborate more hard truths about the presence of nearly 2 million foreign workers in our midst. Our present population of about 5.3 million including the nearly 2 million foreigners occupying this tiny piece of 710 sq km rock, bound to have many problems. It is a double-edged sword. There are many economic benefits from a huge foreign population but also they brought with them unavoidable related social problems. That is a fact.
Whatever it is, we have always depended on foreigners in our economy. Since we became independent, we have always had foreigners working here. From the Malaysians coming across the causeway to work here in the 60s – even till today, the Thais, Koreans in the 70s and 80s to the latest wave of Bangladeshis, PRCs and South Indians all employed mainly in the construction industry where few locals willing to work. They are indispensable to our economy. They built our HDB flats, condominiums, expressways and roads, tunnels, shopping malls, bridges, MRT tracks, clear our rubbish in our housing estates etc. In short, our prosperity depends on those foreign workers. They helped us built this country. We need them.
During their off days, most of these foreign workers would gather at their usual places to keep in touch with their own kind, shop for daily necessities peculiar to their kind, remit money back home and so on. They would buy a couple of beer and some titbits and finding a place to sit so that they could release their homesickness by talking to their own kind. The Thais would head to Golden Mile, the Phinoys to Lucky Plaza, Burnese to Peninsula Plaza, the South Indians or Bangladeshis to little India. Most of them are well behaved. Only few black sheep cause trouble such as fighting or unlawfulness once they got drunk. But to ban alcohol is not the long term solution. There are other measures.
If you ban alcohol in little India, soon you may also want to ban it in other places frequented by other types of foreign workers such as in Golden Mile, Lucky Plaza or even Geylang area where large number of PRC workers frequent. There is no end. Might as well ban alcohol in the whole island? Is it fair to those tourists, visitors and locals who frequent little India? My friends and I have been drinking often and sometimes quite a lot but did we ever go on rampage and rioted? Let’s hope that the alcohol ban is just a knee jerk reaction and only short term measure.
Actually that Sunday riot in little India should have been anticipated by the relevant authorities. Like I say, just look at the crowd and you will be overwhelmed. Why didn’t the authorities foresee the problem? They presumed that there won’t be any riot or lawlessness amongst the huge crowd of foreign workers? One obvious and glaring fact is that there were no SOC troops on standby nearby. SOC (Special Operations Command) – those red color buses with their HQ at Queensway. They used to have bases at Jln Bahar and Mount Vernon Camp. The former made way to cemetery whereas the latter given over to the Gurkhas contingent. Maybe. they feel that Singapore is so peaceful. No need so many anti-riot officers so they simply reduce the number to cut costs? They must be making a big mistake!
My neighbour Douglas aged 67 yrs was most outraged. He’s a police pensioner having served all his life as a police officer. He joined the police force in Dec 1965 – the biggest batch of local police officers when Singapore just got independent. He joined the police force wearing shorts then! Even up till today, Douglas still meet up with most of his ex-comrades in arms regularly to keep in touch. Understandably, they have been discussing about that riot. Whenever I meet him at EM coffee shop, he would start lamenting how they handled the situation. I was also from the police force at one time. I also do not wish to disparage my own brother officers. But facts are facts. We must accept and face the truth before we could improve in our operation efficiency. We must be brave to accept our shortcomings and try to learn from that painful lesson.
Douglas was a detective all his police life. He was never posted to the RU (Reserve Unit) or PTF (Police Task Force) – predecessors to the current SOC. He mentioned that since there was such a huge crowd in little India, one RU (He still refers them as Reserve Unit) troops should be stationed nearby on Sundays where the crowd is fantastic. The response time would be so much faster. In the event of any incident, it could be nipped at the bud without it getting bigger and escalating into a major unruly mob. “Quickly and straightaway nap those trouble makers on the spot” in his own words. But they outsourced to auxiliary police forces and shut down Kg Kapor Police Post after 7pm which is within little India. I’m not sure about this statement. But I was told by another neighbor that he used to drive his taxi to deliver food packets to auxiliary police personnel in the area and they paid him with coupons.
Next, Douglas also remarked that unlike those days when he was in the police force; currently many of the SOC troopers are National Servicemen. In fact, it could even be as much as nearly three quarters of them young NS men. They are not the hardened, seasoned veteran officers like those days. Douglas said, “What do you expect?” Surely we can’t blame them. Yes, he is correct. He knows what he is talking about since he has been through so many riots when he first joined the police in Dec 1965.
I remember when I was a team policing officer on patrols in the early 1980s, we had at least 2 pieces of wicker shield ( also known as punkee or rattan shield) plus blue helmets permanently in our patrol car booth. They were always there, never taken out. We did not have air-con in our Datsun Bluebird or Daihatsu models. I heard that those police officers facing the rioters on that night had to use “rain clothes” to shield themselves against missiles and projectiles hurled on them by the unruly crowd. Douglas says “imagine the whole wide world watching us on the internet and laughing at us!” He says that we have recruited so many scholars in the police force but with no simple common sense at all. If they had those wicker rattan shields in the police car booth, they would have used it. Another remark he made was that why didn’t they use tear gas on the crowd since they were getting out of control to the extent of setting fire to so many police vehicles? It is one thing not to fire at them – “not a single shot fired!” – but is there any valid reason for not using tear gas? He just could not understand how they blundered handling those rioters. According to him, in those days, once their command vehicle was attacked, all the troopers would’ve run back to protect their command vehicle and repel off any attackers on hearing the siren or ringing of the bell mounted on top of their command vehicle. That is understood by those troopers in the RU then he said.
Douglas kept asking me to blog about that riot. It did not give me any satisfaction to voice out these shortcomings on our own symbol of law enforcement authority. Like one minister commented that there could be “copy cat” in future. Let’s hope that they learn from that episode and improve.
Unlike Douglas, I only had one experience with that sort of incident. I remember in late 1988, the Thai and Korean construction workers clashed at Ubi or Bishan HDB construction sites (I cant’t recall exactly which site started first) and it quickly spread to other construction sites like Jurong West extension near to present NTU. The spark was caused by a football match between Thailand and Korea (can’t remember what cup they were playing). I think Korea won and the Thais were unhappy. Alcohol was also the immediate contributing factor of the riot at the construction site. Mind you those days, there was no internet or new social media unlike today where you can’t hide the truth or the facts.
Actually, there were problems between the Thais and the Koreans then. The Koreans were very professional construction workers. They dressed up smartly in white overalls and fully equipped with quality safety shoes, tools etc. They slept in air-con dormitories with their own cooks brought in. They were extremely well organized and systemic commanding a much higher pay. If you look at the quality Bishan HDB estate, most of them built by the Koreans. Whereas, the Ubi estate mostly built by Thais. Needless to say the Thais cold not even compare to them in all aspects especially in their living conditions. They lived in squalid conditions. I had personally inspected the latter’s living quarters when I escorted them in an army three-tonner truck to the old Victoria school along Jln Besar to be subsequently deported back. I was part of the operation to separate the Thais and the Koreans in different holding centers for subsequent deportation.
I think they have forgotten about that episode of rioting foreign workers. In those days in the late 1980s, there were not much foreign workers. Today, we have so much more from many different countries – nearly 2 million of them living amongst us. The fact that we will always need those foreign workers for our economy, surely we need to expand not reduce our security forces especially our riot troops. We should not allow too many NS men in the riot troops. We must not take for granted that there are only racial riots amongst the locals but expect no trouble from those foreign workers.
I think they are of the view that the riot troops are mainly targeted at our own people especially during election rally or racial disturbances amongst locals like what happened in the 1960s when we had racial riots. They did not really anticipate that foreigners might cause trouble like what happened in that little India riot. Their mindset that those foreigners are here to make a living happily working here is rudely shattered after that shocking riot. Images of burnt cars, overturned police vehicles sent shock waves across the world until they made headlines. They need to rethink if they had that mindset. Let me highlight the fact that the language of command used in SOC is in English which is a neutral language. It’s unique cuz the rest of the police or armed forces use Malay as the language of command.
Those foreign press took this golden opportunity to twist and manipulate that little India riot to broadcast all kinds of wild imagination they had against us. They are jealous of our success as a small country where our prosperity and wealth are built primarily by those foreign workers. The Indian Sun TV station is the worst of the lot where they blatantly lied and resorted to mischievous reporting of the riot. Maybe we are such a tiny country that they love to take potshots on us. When you are tiny, others like to bully you thinking that you can’t do anything at all.
Let us all learn from that unfortunate episode and never let it repeat again. We must be prepared for whatever unrest or disturbance by getting prepared for the worst. For a start, the set up of the SOC need to be revamped. It need to be expanded and those troopers need to be trained professionally to handle such incident. It will have to be decisive and a potent force to be reckoned with.
Like so many Singaporeans concerned and worried about the unfolding drama of that little India riot, at the back of our minds we know that we could depend on the Gurkhas in the event that if the situation spiraled out of control. After all, those Gurkhas have been with us as a potent professional force since colonial days. We inherited them from the British. They saw action during our early turbulent history in the 1960s and 70s. For without them, we would not have enjoyed so many years of peace and stability. I heaved a sign of relieve when they were not activated to the scene. Nevertheless, let us appreciate those police officers on the line of fire for their courage in the call of duty despite the many shortcomings. They will get it right the next time after rounds of post-mortem of the little India riot even as I am writing this now.
Singapore’s then-named riot squad practicing drills in formation during the 1960s. (Photo courtesy of Roy Dank …
He said he faced “anywhere between 30 and 50” episodes of rioting and unrest in the roughly eight years he served (between 1964 and 1971) with the riot squad. Having lost around 10 of his good friends in the line of duty and himself having had numerous close brushes with death, the incidents then have burnt themselves into his memory.
Of these, he dealt with slightly fewer than 10 larger-scale riots, including the 1964 and 1969 racial riots, as well as what he calls the “Chinese school riots” around the middle of that decade.
He recalls one particular day when students took to Singapore’s old District Court building at Empress Place, near Pickering Street, and he was among the first responders to the riot that started there.
“We were told that these are schoolchildren, do not use force on them,” he said, adding that they were told to leave their sidearms and rifles inside the command vehicle that accompanied them. “There were a lot of girls, who took ground fresh chili and threw it at our faces… we were blinded, and then the boys took over, whacking us with sticks and poles. Thank God we had our helmets on,” he added.
That day, he says he personally sustained injuries to his knees, back, spine and shoulders, while others were warded in hospital. He was fortunate enough to escape without any broken bones, but many of his colleagues, upon release, went right back to the streets and into the thick of the action.
“We didn’t like staying in hospital or being out of action for long, really,” he said. “Even if the doctor offered us one or two days’ MC, we’d just take the medicine and go!”
When not dealing with an actual riot, Danker said the riot squad officers also did coastal patrolling and traffic policing.
“We did practically everything in those days,” he said. “We were really the backbone of the Singapore police force.”
Asked for his views on Sunday’s riot in Little India, where about 400 South Asian workers mobbed a bus that ran over and killed an Indian national, Danker said he was shocked that so many police and emergency vehicles were damaged and burnt.
“I don’t know what the procedure is now but our jobs were to protect lives and public property… we would have guarded the vehicles at all costs,” he said. “Back then, we had lorry guards whose job it was to protect our command vehicles — when there was a threat (to the vehicles), they would sound a signal that would recall all of us to form up around the vehicles with our shields. We wouldn’t have let that (the damage of police and emergency vehicles) happen.”