Vehicles set afire. Police cars flipped over. Citizens throwing stones at police clad in riot gear. A common image in many countries, but completely unheard of in Singapore. Yet this past Sunday, the city-state of Singapore suffered its first outbreak of widespread violence in over four decades, as hundreds of foreign workers took to the streets to protest a bus accident that killed an immigrant worker.

Singapore

Tension between immigrants and natives

Police, with the aid of an elite Gurkha unit, were able to quell the violence and bring the situation under control, but numerous people were injured and both public and private property was destroyed. The outbreak occurred in Little India, an ethnic district located in Singapore’s downtown area. While the outbreak of violence centered around the death of a 33-year-old Indian man, it highlights underlying tensions between Singapore’s poor immigrant workforce and native Singaporeans.

Apparently a city bus struck and killed the man, but when emergency personnel arrived to remove the body, they were met with a hail of stones and debris. Rioters began to attack the crashed bus and the violence quickly spread. In total, four police cars were flipped over, and three more were torched along with an ambulance, causing explosions that rocked the once quiet streets of Singapore.

Singapore’s government forced to call elite Gurkha unit

Three hundred police were quickly mobilized and sent to respond. However the violence continued to spread. The government was forced to call in its elite Gurkha unit of Nepali soldiers and other special forces units. Even then it took over two hours to bring the situation under control. The mob is believed to have numbered in the hundreds, but the violence was contained to Little India.

In total, at least 18 people were believed to be injured, and so far 27 people have been arrested. Fourteen of those reported injured were police. Prime Minster Lee has promised to continue to pursue all rioters with the full force of the law, and authorities have said more people will likely be arrested in coming days. Singapore has not seen violence of this scale since the Chinese-Malay race riots in 1969.

Wages issue in Singapore

Tensions among Singapore’s immigrant workforce have been rising in recent years. Unskilled workers often make only a fraction of what a Singaporean in the same job will earn. As Singapore is home to less than 4 million citizens, the city-state relies on an influx of cheap labor to keep costs low and to meet the demand for low-skilled labor, which Singaporeans generally shun. Last year some 170 bus drivers went on strike over poor wages, causing the government to respond with a heavy hand.

Since then, tensions have continued to build. While the riot was sparked by an accident, most believe that the real cause is the underlying tensions and the rapidly growing gap between the immigrants and the rest of society. It is not believed that any Singaporean citizens were involved in the riot.

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