Singapore’s first major riot in four decades is forcing the wealthy island to confront a stubborn but vexing question: how to treat low-paid foreign workers whose muscle underpins much of the economy but whose presence increasingly riles its citizens.
Images of rioters overturning police cars, throwing garbage bins and burning an ambulance in Singapore’s Little India on Sunday night shocked the orderly south-east Asian nation and stirred debate over whether foreign workers should be better integrated or see their numbers reduced.
“This is just a tip of the iceberg,” said Gayathiri, 30, an engineer who lives near the scene of the riots and goes by one name. “I hope the government will take it as a wake-up call. We need foreigners to boost our economy, but not at the expense of our security,” she added, echoing a widely held sentiment.
Police charged 24 Indian nationals with rioting, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ prison and caning. They were among an estimated 400 people who rampaged after a private bus fatally struck construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33. The number of arrests could rise.
The government has urged people not to jump to conclusions but many Singaporeans blame an overabundance of migrant workers and could use the riots to intensify a push for tighter immigration curbs — a step that could hurt the economy.
The dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) that has ruled Singapore for more than half a century was already facing pressure over Singapore’s high cost of living and its reliance on foreign workers on the island of nearly 5.4 million people.
Founded by Lee Kuan Yew, the father of the current prime minister, the PAP is credited with transforming Singapore from a colonial outpost in the 1960s into a global financial hub with world-class infrastructure, safe streets, an efficient civil service and the world’s highest concentration of millionaires.
Part of that success is built on cheap foreign labour, which makes up nearly 20% of the population. Many Singaporeans have expressed concerns over a government proposal on January 29 to raise the population to 6.9 million by 2030.
Of that, up to 36%, or 2.5 million, would be made up of foreign workers to balance a low birth rate and sustain economic growth.
Many of the current 1.3 million foreign workers do low-paid jobs shunned by locals — from construction to domestic work.
Jobs in the construction industry, for instance, are dominated by male workers from India,