Migrant Labour in Asia: The ‘Riot’ in Singapore’s Little India

Tamil migrant men labouring around the island of Singapore.

Tamil migrant men labouring around the island of Singapore.

Riots are typically unheard of in Singapore, which is ranked as the leading global city of Asia and striving to be seen as an urban model. A fatal traffic accident on Sunday, 8 December 2013 involving a migrant worker in Singapore’s Little India sparked a sharp reaction from the low-waged migrant workers gathered there, which turned into a ‘riot’ against the police and ambulance service.

News spread fast online via various social media. This in turn led to xenophobic comments and confusion on the island.  This was followed by younger Singaporeans across diverse backgrounds leaving condolence notes and flowers on the site of accident.

Tamil workers in Singapore.

Tamil workers in Singapore.

Two weeks on, investigation of the riot incident has been wrapped up, where 28 men have been charged, 57 men have been deported to India and one man to Bangladesh. These deported men banned from returning to Singapore. Another 200 men who were passive participants were issued a stern warning by the police.

While the state needs to maintain law and order, there is also the need to address core issues surrounding the nature of labour migration in Singapore and Asia generally. This includes such as differential wages, non-payment of wages and exploitative conditions facing the ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers. Temporary labour migration is the most prevalent form of migration in Asia. Singapore has the highest proportion of immigrants in Asia.

With a small resident labour force and rapid industrialisation, Singapore has been dependent on migrant labour since the late 1980s. This dependence has been growing, with migrant labour needed at all skill levels. It grew from 120, 000 in 1980 to 1.3 million in 2013.

Of these, 760,000 are ‘low-skilled’ male migrant workers on work permit (The Straits Times, December 14, 2013), while an estimated 210,000 female migrant workers are hired as live-in domestic workers (The Straits Times, December 22, 2013).

It has been estimated that South Asian men number around 300,000, they fall under the ‘low-skilled’ category and are hired largely in the construction industry (The Straits Times, December 14, 2013)[1]. It must be noted here that Singapore is not a signatory to the UN’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Though Singapore is an “important financial hub and key player in ASEAN“, it has yet to sign any bilateral agreements with any labour-sending countries (Kaur, 2010).

Largely Tamil migrant men queuing up to remit their salaries back home.

Largely Tamil migrant men queuing up to remit their salaries back home.

A huge proportion of the men who gather weekly in Little India belong to the category of ‘low-skilled’ migrant workers who hail mainly from India or Bangladesh. They gather to meet friends from their home countries, to remit money, to visit the temple and also to shop for groceries.

The man who lost his life was from Tamil Nadu in India, and so were the majority of men behind the riot. Tamil men, estimated to be one of the largest groups of construction workers in Singapore, have formed the bulk of migrant workers from India (The Straits Times, 1994; 2008). It must be noted here that the Tamil language is one of the official languages of Singapore as Tamils have historically formed the largest group of Indian migrants since colonial Singapore.

A ban on sale of alcohol, increased security, and suspension of private bus services that ferry migrant workers to Little India were some of the immediate measures taken in response to the incident. The ban on sale of alcohol has since been lifted, upon arising concerns of business and restaurant owners there.

These measures were intended to bring calm to Little India, which serves as a residential place for some.

Little India in Singapore is a historical transnational space which offers a parallel in contemporary time, as it used to be a meeting ground for Indians when they initially arrived and settled in Singapore. This is still the case for the newer Indian migrants – both highly skilled migrants and the lowly skilled foreign workers. The ready availability of speciality Indian food and vegetables (now encompassed to include other South Asian cuisine such as Bangladeshi and Pakistani), clothing, religious paraphernalia, and spices attracts the local Indian population and other local Singaporeans who crave a different taste. The other uses of this space include as a religious space. It is also a heritage site. The state has a stake in preserving it as well as sprucing it up for tourists, it being one of the top tourist destinations in Singapore (Henderson 2008). The temporal divisions of this place can be observed with tourists visiting Little India during the day, while the locals come here in the evenings and the migrant workers frequent on weekends.

The ‘low-skilled’ Tamil workers from India have been contributing to Singapore for three decades.  Claimed as transients, they have often been ignored by the society and state.

Scholarly research on labour migration in Asia has not paid sufficient attention to these male migrant workers either. Though an individual worker’s stay in receiving countries is temporary, the phenomenon of labour migration is here to stay. A recent report from Amnesty International on the conditions of construction workers in Qatar underlines the vulnerability of migrant men to abuse. Some have experienced psychological distress due to abuse and a sense of powerlessness. Examining how such migratory experiences challenge the masculinity of these men, as seen in the incident in Little India, should be part of any attempt to develop more effective policies for the management of migrant workers and also as part of the pre-departure training imparted to them.

The idea that the riot might have been caused due to underlying grievances facing the workers has been officially discounted by the state. However, this does not eliminate the issues and conditions facing many of the workers (Ruhs, 2006).

Reducing the number of ‘low-skilled’ migrants has been advanced as an option in Singapore. However, in the long-run such a policy will not solve the issue of effective management of labour migration. The construction sector continues to boom in Singapore. The construction sector grew in Singapore by 5.1 per cent over the past year, driven by demand for residential, commercial, industrial, and civil engineering works. The Singaporean labour force is not able to fill the construction jobs as these jobs traditionally have been considered dangerous, dirty and difficult – often shunned by them.

“The sooner policy-makers accept that labour markets do no magically ‘clear’ as in the idealized world of the neoclassical economist, and as soon as migrants are viewed as more than simply workers – that they need to sleep, eat and dream like anyone else – then ‘migration management’ might actually work.” (Samers, 2008:143)

The incident in Little India should be used as a starting point now to re-examine how low-skilled labour migrants are managed and acknowledge that managing migration goes beyond economics, by taking into consideration the realities faced by migrant workers in the consideration of policies. It also signals to the society to recognise the labour of these migrant workers and accede them some form of dignity.

The author wishes to stay anonymous.

All pictures © the author 2012.

Indian migrant workers were watching a local artist paint of the shop houses in Little India. The local artist was seated on the grass patch and was painting, Jul 2012.

Indian migrant workers were watching a local artist paint of the shop houses in Little India. The local artist was seated on the grass patch and was painting, Jul 2012.

Shop houses along the streets of Little India

Shop houses along the streets of Little India

Criss-crossing path of migrant workers and tourists in Little India’s temple.
Criss-crossing path of migrant workers and tourists in Little India’s temple.

Certain foodstuffs and specialty vegetables from India and the South Asian sub continent are only available in Little India.

Certain foodstuffs and specialty vegetables from India and the South Asian sub continent are only available in Little India.


[1] Official data with breakdown of migrant workers by nationality is not released. Data are usually based on estimates released by the national press.

Other references:

Kaur, A. (2010) ‘Labour Migration Trends and Policy Challenges in Southeast Asia’, Policy and Society 29: 385-397.

Ruhs, M. (2006) ‘The Potential of Temporary Migration Programmes in Future International Migration Policy’, International Labour Review 145(1-2): 7-36.

Samers, M. (2008) ‘At the Heart of ‘Migration Management’: Immigration and Labour Markets in the European Union’, In Governing Labour Migration: Current Issues, Challenges and Dilemmas. Ed. C. Gabriel and H. Pellerin. Abingdon: Routledge. Pp. 128-143.

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