Our Social Fabric – Weaving a Multi-Coloured Cloth

The Little India riot was a real jolt from my sleep last night.

It reminds me of a history tour I did in response to foreign friends asking why Singapore is so paranoid about unrests when such things happen so often around the world.

Here is an extract of the tour paper on the little-known episodes in Singapore from 1800s till our independence in 1965.

At a time when tigers and other wild animals roamed the interiors of this island, when Singapore served as a British trading post in 1819, her population was a few hundred people, mostly Malay natives living along the coast.

Within 50 years the population grew to over 80,000, the majority were Peranakan Chinese from Malacca and immigrants from southern China.

Besides the Chinese and Malay communities, there were Indians, Arabs, Jews, Japanese, Eurasians and Europeans – all living in an urban area of estimated two square kilometres around the Singapore River and the Telok Ayer bay area.

As the population grew rapidly, the Jackson Plan was drafted in 1823 to implement an organized approach to group the population according to their races, thus the building of a European town, a Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Chulia (Indian) Kampong.

Though the physical infrastructure was mapped out clearly, British rule in Singapore was laissez-faire and different ethnic groups were left to manage their own affairs. This was the root cause of much unrest in the densely populated economy driven colony at that time.

The earliest notable unrest occurred in 1846 between two powerful secret societies over the territorial claims of farming land involving around 9,000 members and resulted in countless casualties and deaths.

In 1854, a riot sparked by a dispute over the price of rice between Teochew and Hokkien rice traders claimed over 400 lives, innumerable injuries and some 300 houses destroyed.

The British Municipal Ordinance in 1888 to clear clutter in public spaces particularly along shop verandahs, and the forced removal of goods and personal items fuelled a wave of dissent and heated reactions from shop owners and street hawkers from Kampong Glam to Chinatown. Stirred further by secret societies, protests and rioting spread across the commercial belt and crippled the local economy for over a year.

In 1915 Indian sepoys based in Singapore went on a shooting rampage as a result of misinformation about their war assignment. This lasted for ten days and claimed almost 200 lives. Many foreigners, especially Europeans fled the island out of fear for being targeted by the armed militants.

At the Sun Yat-sen’s second death anniversary in 1927, a riot broke out at the memorial service following an emotional multi-dialect procession. A trolley bus was hijacked and driven to the Kreta Ayer Police Station where a violent confrontation ensued with the police firing shots at the rioters. The aftermath was a boycott of the British-owned Singapore Traction Company (STC) resulting in empty trolley buses for several months.

A month after the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, about 7,000 port workers protested against the British against insufficient wages and working conditions. Four months later, over 170,000 members of the General Labour Union protested against the arrest of one of the leaders suspected of being a communist. Unrests continued in the following years with 1947 alone reporting over 300 strikes paralysing regular trade and businesses island-wide.

The 1950 Maria Hertogh legal custody battle between the Dutch girl’s biological parents and her adopted mother caused an angry mob outside the courthouse and an outbreak of riots and violence that lasted for a couple of weeks.

In 1954 over 1,000 students gathered at Government House (now Istana) to petition against the National Service Ordinance by the British government. The peaceful gathering turned violent when police were called in to dispel the crowd, resulting in street clashes with the police and the student arrests.

1955 tops the year of unrest with 300 worker strikes and student protests reported, the most notable being the Hock Lee Bus Riot.

On 21 July 1964 a peaceful procession to celebrate Prophet Mohammed’s birthday turned into a racial riot that lasted for weeks and caused undue mistrust between the Malays and the Chinese communities.

The day of the last riot in 1964, July, 21st is now observed as Racial Harmony Day to remind everyone living in Singapore of the delicate nature of our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society.

Thoughts about last night’s riot …

Racial Harmony should not just be a day in a year when we are mindful of our unique colourful society. Every day, every minute, everywhere we go, we are with people from all walks of life, from different ethnic groups with different beliefs and values, and we have grown up to respect this great diversity of cultures and customs.

It has become second nature for Singapore-born citizens. We feel safe mingling, working, trading, playing with people from different races. In fact, I can’t even think of a time when there was any unpleasant racial exchange.

New immigrants welcomed to our shores need time to assimilate into our society and truly understand the culture of our people.

Buildings are easy to erect but a peaceful society takes years to develop. And while planners and policy makers work on increasing the population, I hope that the intricate social fabric of our republic remains a primary consideration in building a harmonious world-class state for all.


Social Fabric


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