SINGAPORE – Singapore's prime minister urged citizens not to react negatively toward migrant workers on Monday following the first rioting in 40 years in the wealthy state, which prides itself on being an island of calm in an often chaotic region.
The disorder involved mostly Indian guest workers and broke out in the Little India district on Sunday night after an Indian worker was hit and killed by a bus driven by a Singaporean. Cars were torched and eighteen people were injured as crowds hurled rocks at authorities.
It followed recent signs of tensions between the country's citizens and the growing numbers of migrant workers, who have largely built the country's impressive skyline, transport infrastructure and other facilities. About a quarter of the country's 5.4 million people are transient workers, compared to a tenth in 1990, according to government statistics.
In a posting on his Facebook page, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded Singaporeans that "the vast majority of foreign workers here obey our laws. We must not let this bad incident tarnish our views of workers here. Nor should we condone hateful or xenophobic comments, especially online."
Liberal commentators said the riot strengthened their calls for better treatment of the workers.
"The inequality that has taken root in Singapore has dire consequences and they are beginning to show," said Roy Ngerng, a blogger on social issues. "Perhaps, it is to be expected that when we pay such (a) pittance ... to people who have helped build our country — our buildings and roads — and yet expect them to toil in the most tiresome conditions."
Little India attracts thousands of South Asia workers on Sundays, when they eat, shop and drink together.
Police said Indian citizens comprised 24 of the 27 people arrested so far, while two others were Bangladeshis and another was a person of undisclosed origin with Singaporean permanent residency status. Rioting in Singapore can be punished by seven years in prison and whipping with a rattan cane.
One Cabinet minister suggested that liquor licenses should be more tightly restricted in Little India.
Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, whose constituency includes Little India, said it was "quite evident ... alcohol could have been a contributory factor" based on his observation of some of those arrested, The Straits Times newspaper reported.
Sunday night's incident was considered Singapore's worst outbreak of public violence since race riots in 1964 involving the ethnic Chinese majority and Malay minority left a total of 36 people dead that year.