igrant labor flows from poorer to richer countries have been raising significant political, social and cultural issues worldwide. For conservatives, these flows pose issues of national integration and identity, and provide fodder for early pronouncements of the death of multiculturalism, as we have seen in Britain, France, Germany and Australia in recent years. For liberals, questions of human rights are sharpened when illegal economic immigrants are shot or left to drown in the borderlands, and when the citizenship and labor rights of those already working in the country are denied or neglected. For me, as a student of spatial politics based in Singapore, I am interested in how these issues intersect with the production of space and the rapid urbanization of Asia.

In comparison to the migrant labor experience in North America, Europe and Australasia, these issues take on a different color for Asian cities attracting migrant workers from the poorer hinterlands. To differentiate even further, there is a special class of Asian global cities that have been attracting cross-border migrant labor immigration. Unlike the Chinese coastal cities or the South Asian mega-cities, transnational and transient migrants flows to aspirant global cities, such as Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Qatar and Singapore, pose special problems and raise peculiar issues. These are cities ruled by national regimes with an autocratic grip on municipal space. “Flexible citizenship”, extra-legal recruitment regimes and exclusion from labor laws are used to control and manage migrant workers (Ong 1999). A recent mission to Qatar by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants highlighted recruitment practices and exclusion from labor protection as sources of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers.

Since the riot by hundreds of South Asian migrant workers on 8 December 2013 in Singapore, the first major riot in decades, Singapore has been in the international news for similar issues raised by the UN Special Rapporteur’s mission to Qatar. The Wall Street Journal pointed to rising anti-foreigner sentiment and resentment against perceived discrimination and poor working conditions. The New York Times noted the high indebtedness of migrant workers to hiring agents and their having few means of expressing grievances. The Guardian featured in-depth interviews with non-government organizations providing help and advocacy to the workers and low wages and poor working conditions. I discuss here the spatiality of migrant labor flows and control that underpin capitalist labor exploitation and led to the riot in Singapore, and conclude with a short reflection on the question of spatial justice in the Asian global city.

The First Riot in Four Decades

The evening of the eighth was like any other peaceful Sunday night in Singapore. Residents of the city were winding down the weekend and preparing for another grueling workweek ahead. In Little India, tens of thousands of South Asian workers were also beginning to head back to their dormitories spread out across the island. Little India, just north of the downtown civic district, has been designated as a historic neighborhood representing the constituent Indian community in Singapore’s multiracial national make-up. The neighborhood comprises a tight grid of narrow streets branching off from the main trunk, Serangoon Road, and is made up of densely arranged low-rise shophouses of early twentieth century heritage architecture. Every weekend, migrant workers from South India and Bangladesh packed the area, leaving very little room for vehicular and sometimes even pedestrian traffic, to meet friends, eat hometown foods and consume services such as repatriating money home, calling loved ones, getting a hair cut, and paying for sex.

The night of the eighth ended differently. At the bus boarding area close to the Little India subway station, an unfortunate accident took place. Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33 years of age and a construction worker from Tamil Nadu, ran after a moving bus, fell in the path of the bus as it turned and got crushed under its wheels, dying instantly. He was earlier ordered off the bus for apparent drunken behavior. An angry crowd quickly trapped the bus driver and timekeeper in the bus and attacked the bus. After Sakthivel’s body was extricated and the driver and timekeeper escorted out of the area by police and rescue officers, a large group of workers descended on the scene and attacked police and rescue vehicles, while pelting the officers with stones and bottles. Over 50 officers were injured and 23 emergency vehicles were damaged in the 2-hour riot.

Though ordinary citizens were not caught up in the riot, they were shocked that this could even happen in Singapore. The state, long governed by the autocratic People’s Action Party (PAP), maintained a strict no-nonsense approach to public order. Memories of violent anti-colonial and Chinese-Malay racial riots in the 1950s and 1960s faded with the passing of the older generations and were only used sparingly in black-and-white photographs in government educational programs. The Little India riot was of a different magnitude and quality. It was relatively subdued, since the violence was targeted at emergency vehicles rather than police officers and confined to the location of the accident. No lives were lost in the riot and the injuries were not serious.

But its symbolic and visual impact was far greater. Everyone could see the riots for themselves through bystander video clips uploaded on the Internet. The sight of South Asian foreign workers overturning police cars and setting fire to them, and of police officers fleeing from them, raised fears of an unhappy underclass razing the city. For the first time in four decades, the riot police was seen clearing rioters off the streets while overturned police cars burned.

Denials of Labor Unrest

Foreign workers on work permit, excluding domestic workers, numbered over 770,000 in December 2013, with almost 320,000 in the construction industry, in a city populated by almost 5.4 million people, of which just over 61 per cent are citizens. Foreign domestic workers made up another 214,500 people, bringing to total almost a million low-skilled foreign workers (see Singapore Ministry of Manpower and Singapore Department of Statistics). A year before, in November 2012, over 170 bus drivers of Chinese nationality at a government-owned public transport operator went on strike over unhappiness with the lower wages they received compared to Malaysian drivers. Chinese foreign workers were known for taking collective action by massing at the Ministry of Manpower to make complaints, but this was the first strike in 26 years.

Now that the South Asians had rioted, the pundits were worried the sizable population of foreign workers could be unhappy with their low wages and working and living conditions. Non-governmental organizations made representations to this effect and called for improvements to the labor recruitment system and better regulation of foreign worker employment and living conditions. At the other end of the public opinion spectrum, xenophobic commentators took the government to task for failing to deal with the riot forcefully and blamed its liberal immigration policy for causing the problem in the first place.

Since immigration controls were relaxed in the 1970s after labor needs became apparent with successful industrialization, the PAP government had kept a tight leash on foreign worker advocacy and representation. Social workers helping foreign workers were among those detained without trial in the “Marxist conspiracy” arrests in 1987. The chilling effect on civil society after the crackdown only dissipated in the 2000s, when two non-governmental organizations, Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) spearheaded assistance for abused foreign workers and advocacy for foreign worker rights. Not to be outflanked, two of the three partners in the state-led tripartite system of labor management, the government-linked National Trade Unions Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation formed the Migrant Workers’ Center to conduct its own assistance and advocacy programs. A PAP Member of Parliament currently chairs the Center and its executive director was a former director from the government’s Ministry of Manpower.

After the riot, HOME and TWC2 raised various foreign worker issues to the attention of the public. In a forum organized by law school students at the National University of Singapore, HOME and TWC2representatives raised issues such as late or non-payment of salaries, poor accommodation conditions and food provision, the constant threat of forced repatriation, workplace injuries and lack of medical assistance, and the government’s placing of heavy burdens of proof on foreign workers in adjudication of disputes. At around the same time, the Migrant Workers’ Center launched a survey of thousands of foreign workers. Interim findings were released after the Committee of Inquiry into the riot reported its findings at the end of June 2014. The interim findings of a survey of 930 foreign workers showed that nine out of ten were satisfied to work in Singapore.

Very quickly after the riot, the government appointed the Committee of Inquiry primarily to determine “the factors and circumstances that led to the riot”. A former Supreme Court judge, a former Commissioner of Police, a former President of the National Trade Unions Congress and a former banker and sitting government-linked grassroots leader formed the Committee. After six months of hearings and site visits, the Committee concluded the fatal accident was the “primary or triggering cause of the riot”, meaning that the riot was essentially a unique event. Three “contributory factors” were acknowledged: misperceptions and false rumors about the accident and the response, a small minority of foreign workers seeking street justice, and alcohol consumption. The Committee stated very clearly that it did not think the riot was “a result of dissatisfaction among foreign workers with their employment and living conditions in Singapore”, as nearly “every foreign worker who the [Committee] spoke to testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore and condemned the riot”. Yet, the Committee “nevertheless acknowledges that there is always room for improvement in the treatment of foreign workers”.

The Committee’s conclusions squared with the government’s own early assessment after the riot. A week after the riot, even though the government had just appointed the Committee, the Prime Minister said that the riot happened spontaneously and was a localized event. He also said there was no evidence of pent-up unhappiness of the foreign workers and added that alcohol was a factor. A high ranking minister of Indian ethnicity visited foreign workers at their dormitories and the Prime Minister promised the building of more dormitories over the next few years and that foreign worker would be fairly treated and protected under the law. A temporary alcohol ban was put into effect in Little India.

The Spatial Concentrations of Migrant Labor

Rather interestingly, in its introductory section on the scene of the riot, the Committee report alludes to a dimension that has largely been ignored in the public discourse on foreign worker issues in Singapore. In describing the situation in Little India, the Committee wrote that the estimated concentration of 100,000 South Asian workers in the small, built-up area every Sunday leads to serious human traffic congestion and “social disamenities”. These social disamenities were not felt by the workers, since they are consuming the amenities and services in Little India, but by residents when foreign workers spill over into the ground-floor void deck of public housing blocks to unwind, some of them “under the influence of alcohol”.

Importantly, the authorities had also specially arranged for private bus services to ply between Little India and the foreign worker dormitories, with two boarding locations, one of which was the site of the accident leading to the riot. In effect, the authorities had, prior to the riot, facilitated the spatial distribution of South Asian foreign workers between three concentrations: dormitories in the urban fringe, workplaces such as construction sites and shipyards, and Little India for services and amenities. In each concentration, disciplinary strategies are used to manage the foreign workers. In Little India, prior to the riot, authorities deployed 27 3-man walking teams made up of armed auxiliary police officers in uniform and unarmed security officers wearing vests to patrol and police the area on weekends. Some of the teams were in charge of anti-littering enforcement handling out $300 fines, which was a hefty sum for the low-wage workers. They were meant to have a salutary disciplining effect on the foreign workers, and the Committee reported that major offences in the area dropped by a third in the past five years since the deployment of the security teams.

Foreign workers used to be better integrated into local society as they lived in rented apartments in public housing estates or in on-site barracks at construction sites close to residential areas. Over the years, complaints by locals worried about safety and property prices pushed the foreign workers out of the residential areas into dormitories established in the urban fringe. In late 2008, the government announced that 11 dormitories housing 65,000 foreign workers would be built over two years, including two new dormitories housing 12,000 workers sited next to a cemetery out in the rural northwestern area of the island and that disused government buildings would be converted into temporary housing in the meantime.

A furor soon erupted in an upper middle-class landed housing estate called Serangoon Gardens over the proposed housing of up to a thousand foreign workers in an old school complex at the edge of the estate. Nearly half of the 4,000 households in the estate signed a petition against the proposal and the more vocal leaders expressed their opposition in explicit racial terms, as summarized by a journalist, “They will rob our elderly folk. They will molest our women. They will sleep with our maids. They will litter. They will get drunk in our parks and make us feel unsafe in our homes.” To appease the residents, fences and recreational facilities were built to segregate the dormitory and cut off the foreign workers from the estate. The dormitory could only be accessed through a slip road off a highway, essentially trapping the foreign workers in the dormitory

Elsewhere, in public housing estates, pressure was mounting on local ruling party politicians to do something about foreign workers crowding out town centers, parks and void decks of public housing blocks during off-work hours. The strategies used were increased security patrols and the use of anti-littering enforcement to exercise some disciplinary control over the foreign workers. One month after the Serangoon Gardens furor erupted, Parliament discussed the possibility of offshore housing of foreign workers, with the question left in abeyance, as the government looked forward to a drop in foreign worker numbers due to the economic turmoil of the financial crisis of 2008.

While the political impact is hard to measure, it is suggested in the swing of support for the opposition Workers’ Party that the Serangoon Gardens residents contributed to, which helped the Party win the multi-seat constituency, in a historic first, against a team of senior politicians led by a popular cabinet minister in the general election of 2011. The Workers’ Party has done little to raise foreign worker issues in parliament, opting instead to focus on issues faced by local workers. Its response to the Little India riot was muted at best. This does not only reflect narrow electoral concerns, but also the fact that the chasm between local and foreign workers has been wrought wide by excessive competition in the small labor market to the detriment to local wages and the increasing segregation of the two workforce in urban space, work-wise, residentially and leisurely.

The spatial strategies of concentration and control are being recalibrated, now that the riot put paid to the stability of the current mode of bussing foreign workers between fringe dormitories and Little India. Just over a month after the Committee published its report, the government announced nine new dormitories to be built over two years to house nearly 100,000 foreign workers in the urban fringe. These include four mega-dormitories with 12,800 to 25,000 beds, one of which will be sited on a small island just off the northern coast and connected to the main island by a link road. These will be integrated dormitories with industrial-size laundry machines, massive kitchen facilities, recreational facilities, supermarkets, beer gardens and food courts. The move is towards small self-contained ghettos that would reduce the spatial concentration of foreign workers to two locations—worksite and living space—segregating them almost completely from the city and the citizens.

Spatial Justice and the Global City

There are two larger issues associated with the spatial regime of foreign worker control in Singapore. Fundamentally, foreign worker issues reflect a spatial justice problem embedded in interlocking multiscalar geographies of labor and class divisions with ethnic and cultural overlays (Soja 2010). At one level, foreign workers are discriminated in public spaces and pushed into urban fringes through spatial segregation invoking social norms, public morality and property prices. But this is also a function of the management of the labor flows attending the needs of constructing and manning the rising global city and its attendant property and service sector booms. This spatial justice problem is not unique to Singapore. As I have noted in the introduction, it also implicates aspiring Asian global cities from Dubai to Hong Kong that rely on cheap workers from poor neighboring countries to fuel their growth.

In Singapore, the strong presence of foreign workers takes on a political dimension because it is also a nation-state. Over the past decade, global city formation reliant on intense foreign capital and immigration inflows, its strongly pro-business ideology, and the resultant widening wealth and income gaps have deeply affected citizenship and the nascent national identity in Singapore. Intense labor market competition among the middle classes with skilled migrant workers from China, India and Southeast Asian countries has led to growing anti-foreigner sentiments and outbursts. Caught in the xenophobic crosshairs, the plight of low-skilled foreign workers has largely gone neglected. Local intellectual response to the riot was practically non-existent. Most local academics avoid tackling foreign worker issues, turning their attention instead to the identity politics of history and heritage and questions of protecting local privilege in an academic arena where they are the minority.

In his book on Incomplete Urbanism, the foremost local urbanist, architect William Lim, discussed spatial justice and the city in emerging economies in terms of tenancy rights, low income housing and the protection of the environmental and cultural commons (Lim 2012). This picture is however itself incomplete without a discussion of the migration flows that is reshaping Asian cities and the spatial strategies adopted by states to manage and discipline the flows, reterritorializing them for economic growth and global city formation. For the masses of low-skilled foreign workers in Singapore, the issues of tenancy, housing and the commons manifest themselves acutely in the denial of access to the global city they are helping to build.

I met an immaculately dressed foreign worker once in the Singapore reference section of the National Library, in a skyscraper overlooking the civic downtown district. I was photocopying some archival research materials when he came in to make an expensive color print of a page in a coffee-table tourist souvenir book that showed the Singapore skyline. It was almost a moment of transgression; casually dressed local visitors stared at him with improbability. He smiled as he said, proudly, to me that he was sending it back to his family in Bangladesh to show them the great city he was working in. I merely smiled, but should have thanked him for helping to build the great city. 


Lim WSW (2012) Incomplete Urbanism: A Critical Urban Strategy for Emerging Economies. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.
Ong A (1999) Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Soja EW (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.