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Causes of the 2013 Little India Riots

Introduction

On Sunday December 8th 2013, a fatal accident occurred in Little India, Singapore. This accident caused a riot lasting around 2 hours which involved about 300 migrant workers from Bangladesh and India. Little India is very busy on weekends as it is where migrant workers from South Asia would normally gather and socialise on their rest days. This incident was the second time a riot broke out in Singapore, the first one was over 40 years ago in 1969. This riot was important as it led to the implementation of a new law in Singapore.

Causes of the conflict 

The conflict began on a Sunday evening when a 33-year-old Indian construction worker, Sakthivel Kumarvelu, tripped while running beside a private bus and was accidentally run over and killed. Kumarvelu’s body was pinned under the bus when it stopped, a crowd of foreign workers immediately gathered around the bus and began attacking it but the driver and assistants managed to stay sheltered inside the bus (“REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE OF INQUIRY”, 2014). Local businesses were shocked at the events and closed their shutters the moment the violence began, a shop owner in the vicinity recalled hearing loud bangs and seeing people throwing beer bottles and pushing vehicles over (Cheung, 2013). The crowd was throwing objects at the civil defence officers while they were trying to extract Kumarvelu’s body from under the bus and the police officers at the scene. The crowd eventually turned violent against the police and civil defence officers. 37 police officers, 5 auxiliary police officers, 12 civil defence officers were injured, 16 police cars and 9 civil defence vehicles were also damaged during the riot (“What are the facts”, 2013).

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According to a newspaper report, the Home Affairs Ministry found that the “riot was not caused by any deep-seated unhappiness among foreign workers here, but rather the result of an emotional outburst following the death of construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu” (Little India Riot, 2014). The Committee of Inquiry also stated that alcohol was “a major contributory factor that led to the escalation of the violence” (Little India Riot, 2014). However, Genesan (2015) found that there were some misunderstandings amongst the rioters, they were angered because they had the perception that the police were shielding the bus driver and his assistant from criminal liability or arrest. The crowd also believed that the victim only died because he was not given medical aid but autopsy reports found the victim died immediately from the accident. As can be seen from the reports, the primary causes of the conflict was the influence of alcohol and an emotional surge from witnessing a death. There was also the misperception of the rioters that the victim died because he was denied medical care and the police were protecting the bus driver and assistants from arrest.

Measures taken to resolve the conflict

Police were initially notified of a fatal accident and was sent to address it, however, when they arrived, they realised a riot crowd was growing and they needed assistance to extricate the body from under the bus and disperse the crowd (“Little India riot: A timeline” 2013). Police reinforcement arrived progressively at the scene but the crowd was growing and turned their aggression towards the police and civil defence officers and their vehicles (“What are the facts”, 2013). The police and civil defence were attempting to extract the victim’s body from under the bus, at the same time, covering the bus driver and his assistants while they move from the bus to the ambulance in a shield formation. (Sim, 2015) The mob was very aggressive and was pelting them with various items. Despite this, the police showed restraint and no shots were fired throughout the entire incident (“What are the facts”, 2013). The SOC (Special Operations Command) was activated and the police also recalled a total of 53 patrol cars across Singapore (“Little India riot: A timeline” 2013). The SOC forces formed up to disperse the mob while the police started arresting rioters, the police then started to conduct patrols around the area to prevent rioters from regrouping (“Little India riot: A timeline” 2013). Based on these sources, it is apparent that the authorities took careful measures to extract the victims and quell the riot without injuring the crowd despite sustaining injuries and damage to their vehicles.

Aftermath

After the riot was over, 420 people were brought in for investigations, 57 of them were identified for participating or failing to follow police orders to disperse (“What are the facts”, 2013). Police proceeded with charges to 28 foreign workers and deported another 53 of them (Feng and Au, 2013). Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, Teo Chee Hean said the harsh punishments is a message that the government will not be lenient to people who threatens the law and order of Singaporean society.  The riot also brought about the implementation of a new law; “The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Act” which was passed in parliament in January 2015. “Under the Act, the consumption of liquor will not be allowed in all public places from 10.30pm to 7am every day. In addition to restrictions on liquor consumption in public places, the Act also puts in place limits on the supply of liquor. The retail sale of take-away liquor will not be allowed from 10.30pm to 7am every day. The Police may grant an extension of retail sale hours on a case-by-case basis,” (Tay, 2015).

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