A simmering cauldron of sentiment

WHAT would drive people revelling on the streets of Little India in Singapore to such mayhem last Sunday that the eyes of the world were transfixed on the little island for a few hours?

In a split second, all hell broke loose and hundreds from the Indian subcontinent who were having the time of their lives turned into an unruly mob that began the first riot that the republic has seen in decades.

Police cars were burnt, auxiliary policemen injured and roads in perhaps the busiest district in the republic cordoned off much to the consternation of its denizens.

The island nation, usually a cocoon of peace and serenity with underpinnings of tension among a harried lot of people who face the daily grind in an increasingly smaller "space", was beside itself with fear, surprise and indignation.

I can guess what could have been going in the minds of leaders of the aseptic nation that is the poster boy of small countries making it big on the economic front.

How dare these foreigners who depend on us for their daily sustenance disturb the peace of our beloved nation which we have worked hard to develop?

Don't they have any gratitude for the chance we have given them to earn a decent living besides living in a country that once only existed in their dreams?

Questions that are not off the grid by any chance.

I understand that a panel has been set up to study the isolated incident and publish findings on what led to the explosion of emotions among Indians, once thought of as docile by some Englishmen.

But the writing was on the wall from the time that foreigners were allowed in droves to take up jobs that the local citizenry sniffed at.

Thousands of Malaysians join the expatriate community daily in Singapore in working at lowly-paid jobs that may be converted into veritable fortunes back home if one did take into account rentals, the cost of food and entertainment.

The Malaysian horde brings back the Singaporean dollars to flaunt it in Johor, something which the Indian nationals cannot do.

The British set up toddy shops in estates in the early and mid 1900s for a bit of entertainment for Indians who came to work in the Straits Settlements and later Malaya and were in two minds on whether to stay or go home.

But in Singapore, where there is nowhere to go beyond the 714 sq miles of natural island and reclaimed land, bubbling emotions can be expected to be bottled up only to a point when an eruption occurs.

That's probably what happened five days ago when mob mentality took over the sensibilities of people who are expected to be subservient at work with the unstated but assigned rights of the second class among citizens who are equals among equals.

If anyone, especially government thinks that what happened in Singapore is a uniquely Singaporean affair, I am afraid that this may be a gross mistake.

What we saw in Singapore could be a mirror version of what may happen in Malaysia if urgent action is not taken to ascertain the state of affairs among foreign workers here.

The settings are almost identical, the only difference being that the number of foreigners working here is infinitely higher than in Singapore. Hence if any trouble, God forbid, occurs, one can expect it to be of a greater magnitude than what happened down south.

For those who have been to parts of Kuala Lumpur on weekends or public holidays, entire streets are transformed into little Dacca's, Kathmandu's, Chennai's, Yangon's or Jogjakarta's.

There are eateries to cater to hunger pangs, shops to meet the need for things from back home and, of course, the company of countrymen to jaw for a bit until the hour to go home for yet another day of tedium at work arrives.

Sometimes Kuala Lumpur looks like the foreigners have taken over and Malaysians are the visitors.

All the pent up emotions, petty rivalries at work, the overbearing boss, the claustrophobia of small rooms or worse still dormitories, the angst over smaller amounts sent home than promised earlier, the mechanical nature of the job and the patronising attitude of many Malaysians may finally get to some.

Hence, gang fights at hostels, knifings after a night of drinking (Singapore has outlawed the sale of alcohol in Little India after the incident) and the sordid activities indulged in by those with a baser human instinct surface.

There have also been instances here of foreign workers taking grievances with employers to unexpected levels. Thankfully they have been few and far between. Thank God we have not had anything of the proportion of Singapore's nightmare but the chance of something going wrong is always there.

Human Resources Minister Datuk Richard Riot's statement yesterday that foreign workers in Malaysia are generally happy as there have not been riots involving them is simplistic and untenable.

Riot should instruct his officers to carry out an in-depth study of the Singapore riot as we cannot assume that foreign workers here are happy as there are no riots.

Malaysia should take heed of what happened with its southern neighbour and learn from the unfortunate episode.

Poor wages, bad living conditions, and the feeling of always being at the bottom of the social and economic heap never portends good.

As the government ponders the foreign worker situation viz a viz the Singapore affair, the private sector and employers must start treating their foreign staff better.

Lets have a heart. They are no less human than us and suffer the same anxieties when working abroad where the lingua franca and culture is totally alien to them.

A lot of soul searching is going on in Singapore as should be the case with Malaysia over whether foreign workers should be better cared for by a country that prides itself on looking after its citizenry and visitors, including those coming here to eke out a living.

Balan Moses, executive editor (news), tries to be cognizant of the fact that the foreign worker is here not because he or she wants to but because the individual has to. Admittedly, they serve a crucial purpose here. Treating them right will pay dividends in terms of better productivity and more importantly, preservation of the peace. Let's live and let live. Feedback: bmoses@thesundaily.com