The Right to Recreation (And Other Casualties of a Police State)

I feel like someone besides bar / club / eatery owners and alcohol retailers should speak up in defence of booze. And I figured, why not me? However, I’m doing this not because I am a raging alcoholic (I take exception to the use of the word “raging” – my friends will tell you I am quite the happy / flirty drunk). I’m doing this because alcohol has long been a convenient scapegoat – among others – for governments to exert more regulation and control over people.

The recent riots in Little India are a prime example of this. I attended Maruah Singapore‘s What’s Up In Little India? forum, where a panel of experts, including Dr. Lai Chee Kien, Dr. Kevin Tan and Mr. T Sasitharan, discussed and answered questions regarding the government’s proposed Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Bill. Classism, segregation, cultural ignorance and suppression and human rights were among the issues highlighted. Here, Maruah explains its position on the proposed bill.

Alcohol: The Evil Spirit
Now, let us return to what I started this post with: alcohol. Alcohol is much-maligned in times of crisis and unrest. Alongside bad parenting, GTA (yes, you read right) and rap music, the London riots of 2011 were also blamed on booze. I don’t know when people stopped taking personal responsibility for their actions, but external factors should not be used as excuses in the face of human violence. Humans make choices: whether or not to play a particular video game, how to raise their children, what kind of music to listen to, what to do for recreation and enjoyment. But when something goes wrong, they are suddenly absolved of such choices, either to justify their own behaviour, or to cover up deeper, underlying issues deemed too “sensitive” to address.

So when the riots in Little India broke out and it was reported that the rioters had been drinking, of course the government and mainstream media vilified alcohol. Were the rioters somehow not responsible for purchasing and ingesting those drinks? Was the alcohol an evil spirit that possessed that particular group of migrant workers so they suddenly became an angry mob? Certainly not. In fact, alcohol is a depressant that lowers inhibitions and therefore, enhances or worsens one’s mood – good moods get better, bad moods get worse. Had the rioters not already had certain grievances, I suspect the evening of 8 December 2013 would have turned out quite differently.

In Vino Veritas
The more plausible scenario is that the rioters – comprised of about 400 South Asian foreign workers – had long been dissatisfied with their employment and living conditions in Singapore, and the unfortunate death of their compatriot, the late Sakthivel Kumaravelu, became the catalyst for them to express their displeasure, further compounded by their lowered inhibitions. The following image should shed some light on what many of them experience here:

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While some of the items on the list stem from isolated incidents or at least, may not be as common as the others, issues regarding salary, working hours, safety, medical benefits and lodging are prevalent amongst blue-collar foreign workers in Singapore. None of this excuses or absolves the rioters from their own actions, but it is important to examine the situation and identify the root cause(s) of the problem. Otherwise, how can anyone, be he a social worker, regular citizen or government official, hope to solve it?

Regardless of social status and individual circumstances, no one is completely innocent. Social workers (though I am not one) should not fall into the trap of assuming that the migrant workers they help are angels and so, never at fault. My friend Jagwinder, who works at Jaggi’s North Indian Cuisine on Race Course Road, was in the restaurant at the time the riots broke out. I spoke to him on the night of the riots itself, and found out that South Asian migrant workers in Little India getting intoxicated, fighting amongst themselves and even harassing women (his wife and mother have personally experienced this) are regular occurrences.

Later chats with acquaintances from India, as well as a local friend who has backpacked in South India three times, revealed that riots and protests are common there, though they happen in different states at different frequencies and for different reasons. So it’s not wrong to say that the rioters indulged that part of their culture that night.

Facts and Balances
On the other hand, my friend Jagwinder, as well as other shop owners in the area, also received help from some of the intoxicated migrant workers in packing up their goods and closing their shutters as a safeguard against the riot. They had chosen to exclude themselves from the mob and do what they could to minimize the damage done to the surroundings, something the mainstream media did not tell us. Clearly, generalization is not the path to take in this case, or any other case, for that matter.

The truth is, a generally lower level of education usually lands them low-wage hard-labour jobs, something which has given many of their employers cause to exploit them and the rest of society an excuse to stigmatize them (just observe how some commuters move away from them or even pinch their noses when they board the train or bus), has no doubt given rise to much dissatisfaction amongst these workers.

Deny, Divert, Divide
Predictably, the government has once again chosen to sweep the real issues under the proverbial carpet, where it will sit and simmer alongside the numerous other problems they have attempted to cover up. PM Lee himself said, “We have not seen any evidence of” the riots being caused by the foreign workers’ pent-up tensions. The level of denial and attempt at pulling the wool over our eyes is painfully obvious: “The riot happened spontaneously, it was localized. The people who were involved in the riot were not from one company, or one dorm; (they were from) several dorms, many different companies, and it is unlikely that all the companies will have the same problem.” He might as well have said, “If we say they are happy, it means they are happy. Do not trouble yourself thinking otherwise or finding out the truth.”

Needless to say, this only exacerbates the issue. Simple logic dictates that acting as if nothing is wrong, using diversion tactics to distract from the real issues, and not talking about the actual problems always make things worse.

But as is the government’s tried and tested method, knee-jerk reactions to public concern inevitably lead to extreme measures and an overall atmosphere of heightened paranoia, which it seems content to keep feeding, even if it further stigmatizes certain communities and deepens segregation in this “multi-racial” and “multi-cultural” nation of which we are so proud.

It started with the deportation of 53 migrant workers supposedly involved in the riots. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the swiftness with which they were investigated and then repatriated smacks of the government being determined to make an example of them as a warning to other foreign workers in Singapore, justice be damned.

Gov. Is Watching Us
Now, we have the Public Order Bill, which, if passed, will essentially turn Little India into a police state. Should anyone be seen consuming alcohol in any area the authorities deem a “special zone” (which includes public places and under which certain areas in Little India have already fallen), he can be fined up to S$1,000; repeat offenders face the possibility of a jail term of up to three months.

Worse, officers of the law are permitted to, without a warrant, ban “suspicious persons” from entering “special zones” for up to 30 days, and raid premises / vehicles and conduct strip-searches on suspicion of the illegal possession of alcohol.

The most disturbing part of this bill is found in Section 19:

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We are not to hold the government liable for anything it does in upholding the bill, because we can be assured it will act “in good faith and with reasonable care”. Furthermore, we are not trusted to govern ourselves and act in the best interests of individuals and society at large, but expected to trust a self-proclaimed “elite” group of supposedly qualified scholars and wealthy, well-connected businesspeople and investors to act in our best interests.

I don’t know about you, but I’m hard-pressed to imagine a more nightmarish scenario. When a group of people legalizes its own freedom from accountability and liability, it is essentially manipulating the law, treating it as a ladder to climb above the rest of society to tell us it is more capable of looking out for us than we ourselves are. And when that happens, an eventual abuse of power is guaranteed.

Not long after the riots, I was having speaking with some of my friends from the local political scene about the impending ban on the public consumption of alcohol in Little India. I said that if alcohol were truly to blame for the riots, and if the foreign workers who drink on the weekends were to be regulated and barred from doing so in Little India itself, those intent on causing trouble while using alcohol as an excuse could easily go on a drunken “rebellion tour” of sorts throughout Singapore and riot in Clarke Quay or Chinatown, for instance. “They’d go from place to place, drinking and causing trouble,” I said, “and the government will stumble over itself to ban, ban, ban. Then it’ll be the Prohibition all over again.”

And we all know how well the Prohibition worked.

Class is in Session
Mr. Sasitharan said at the forum (and I paraphrase): “It’s not a security problem. It’s a problem of arrogance, whereby an elite minority wants to impose its culture on a certain class of people that it thinks cannot hold their liquor.”

I can’t help but agree. I have personally witnessed drunk expats and Singaporeans cause trouble in Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, Robertson Quay and other popular nightspots. In fact, local cab drivers have been physically assaulted by intoxicated white expats on more than one occasion. Sure, they’ve never started a riot in Singapore, but one could still blame alcohol for such occurrences, no? I wonder why, then, only South Asian migrant workers are being targeted for this latest wave of government interference and over-regulation.

Are they easier to control and marginalize because they aren’t moneyed individuals who can easily afford to up and leave anytime they wish? Are they merely disposable statistics because they are a dime a dozen, all providing “cheaper, better, faster” labour to build infrastructure in which the rest of us live, play and work? Singaporeans should ask themselves these questions before deciding whether or not this bill is necessary at all.

From Molehill to Mountain
As TOC succinctly explains, Little India has been relatively peaceful since the night of the riots. Yet the government somehow deems it necessary to propose a bill authorizing its choke-hold on the residents of Little India. It would stand to reason that our fears and concerns have been played upon, leading us to believe we ought to be suspicious of a particular group of people, that if they are allowed to drink in public, all hell would break loose and our lives would be in danger.

But is this true? For those who live in or frequent the area, intoxicated foreign workers engaging in scuffles with one another, or even heckling passers-by, is a common sight. I myself have been bothered on more than one occasion. But just as we wouldn’t want foreigners to use someone like this guy as a yardstick for all other Singaporeans, we should remember that the same sentiment applies to other ethnic, racial and social groups.

The climate of fear and paranoia the government seems determined to perpetuate will no doubt worsen the the prejudices and segregation that already exist between Singaporeans and migrant workers. Basic rights will be infringed upon, and opportunities for harmony and integration will be greatly compromised.

Eyes on the Prize
But of course, the authorities cannot possibly be expected to concern themselves with such trivialities. There are far more important issues to worry about, such as how consistently and on what scale cheap labour can be churned out, and how tightly our freedom can be controlled. After all, when the goal is “cheaper, better, faster”, proper integration and humane treatment of certain individuals or communities – Singaporeans included – take a backseat.

The proposed bill will undergo a second reading in Parliament later today and, if our history under PAP governance is anything to go by, will likely be passed. Don’t let the contents of its parentheses fool you, though. It says “Additional Temporary Measures”, but I’ll let the late great Milton Friedman wrap it up for me:

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme.”

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