I didn’t predict a riot

Down the street from my office is a bus stop with an advertising hoarding, and the current advertisement is a man kneeling, back to the camera, his hands in cuffs, a small pile of knives and wooden staves to the left of him. There’s some text, informing you that the penalty for rioting is prison and up to nine lashes with a cane.

I thought that was by far the silliest advert I’d seen in Singapore. More so than the "be a good wife and make your husband sandwiches for when he does his National Service" film they used to play in the cinema before the main feature. After all, it’s not as though there are competing brands in the market here, with Rioting, Inc. offering a free television to every looter, and the police only able to tempt you with the chance of not being beaten.

And after the 1960’s race riots, Singapore hasn’t been a centre of excellence for mass disturbances. In Thailand there’s rioting at the drop of a hat. In Croydon there used to be a riot every time England played a football match (win, lose or draw the town centre would be an apocalyptic wasteland patrolled by drunk skinheads, ready to headbutt the first tram that looked at them the wrong way).

But Singapore? Festering low level passive aggression about how the government was mucking things up/wasn’t doing enough, unhappy taxidrivers and the one person every month who went off on one ranting about construction workers/Malaysian wedding parties/Ferrari drivers aside, it’s not the sort of place that you feel is going to topple over into chaos at the drop of a hat. I thought they’d be better off with adverts extolling the benefits of washing your hands before eating, or not running red lights, than warning off people considering rioting as a lifestyle choice.

In fact, I thought it was such a silly thing that I laughed about it with my wife on the way across town yesterday. Riots? In Singapore? Might as well warn Singaporeans that hypothermia can result from dressing skimpily in cold weather, for all the effect it would have on anyone’s behaviour.

And then last night in Little India, somebody was hit by a bus and killed, and a riot broke out. This morning I read that "dozens" of police were injured; I haven’t seen any reports of how many rioters left the field of combat with broken bodies (and there’s a blurry line between "rioter" and "drunk bloke in the wrong place at the wrong time"). I don’t believe that putting some adverts up around Little India telling people the penalty for rioting is imprisonment and lashes would have made a difference there.

What the news does stress is that all the rioters were foreign workers, which makes me fantasize about somebody with a clipboard going round and checking the citizenship of everyone in the mob while they overturned cars and smashed things up. Things are organized in Singapore, but not that organized.

From what I recall of London in 2011 (when, being a solipsist and egomaniac, I figured the violence was to commemorate my wedding) all the rioters were feckless youths (apart from the angry middle aged men going off to fight them) so it was easy to have a bogeyman to blame for the troubles. Likewise here: it was the foreign workers that did it. Foreign workers who hang out on the streets drinking because they’ve got nowhere else to go, or because they’re an unruly mob spoiling for a fight, in dire need of pacification? One interpretation probably sells newspapers better than the other.

Hopefully it’ll be quiet tonight, rather than inspiring newspapers elsewhere to gleefully point out that Singapore’s suffering riots. But I feel sorry for whoever it was that went under the bus – they seem to be almost forgotten already.

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