Biggest riots in decades spring up in Singapore over traffic death

Unrest highlights long-simmering tension between migrant workers and Singaporeans

Riot police stand guard during a riot in Singapore's congested Little India district on Dec. 8, 2013.
Mark Cheong/THe Straits Times, via Reuters

Singapore's prime minister has pledged to prosecute individuals involved with an overnight riot in the city-state, which left at least 18 people injured.

Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday that authorities would "spare no effort to identify the culprits and deal with them with the full force of the law," after what was described as Singapore's worst rioting in more than 40 years.

Anyone who is found to be armed in a riot or using objects as weapons that can cause death could face up to 10 years in jail, with the possibility of caning.

A police statement said the disturbance started in the congested Little India district when a 33-year-old Indian man was killed after being hit by a private bus driven by a Singaporean late on Sunday. That prompted about 400 South Asian migrant workers, angered by the accident to battle police and set vehicles ablaze throughout the night.

Ten policemen, four civil defense staff, the bus driver and the conductor were among the injured, but nobody sustained serious injuries, officials said.

Police arrested 27 South Asians, some of whom hurled bottles and other projectiles at authorities who tried to calm the scene, said police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee.

Channel News Asia showed images of burning vehicles, a police car flipped on its side and people attacking the windshield of a bus with sticks and garbage bins.

"Whatever events may have sparked the rioting, there is no excuse for such violent, destructive, and criminal behaviour," Lee wrote in a statement on his Facebook page.

The violence prompted debate among Singaporeans on social media about issues of overcrowding and the increase of migrant workers hired for Singapore's construction sector and menial jobs.

Little India is an area popular among Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Nepali expatriates. It has scores of restaurants, grocery shops and a mall selling food and other items for people from those countries. On Sundays, the area is especially crowded with South Asian workers.

Ethnic Chinese make up 74 percent of Singapore's resident population of 3.8 million. Malay Muslims account for 13.3 percent, followed by ethnic Indians, Eurasians and other racial groups.

Singapore is an city-state known for orderliness, generally law-abiding citizens and harsh punishments.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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