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| On 2 months ago

History #throwback: 6 Riots & Unrest Singapore Experienced from Independence to COVID-19

On 25 May 2020, an African-American man named George Floyd died of asphyxiation from having his neck pressed onto the ground under a police officer’s knee. According to reports, Floyd was initially detained as he matched the description of a suspect for forgery. In a now-viral video, we see Floyd not resisting arrest and that the police officer who held him was using excessive force.

His last dying words, “I can’t breathe” can be heard clearly throughout the eight-minute video, before Floyd slowly lost conscious and stopped speaking. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey acknowledged in a press conference that race was a factor in this fatal incident.

Floyd’s death has sparked nationwide protest in the US and discourse on racism. On a global scale, there have been many peaceful protests in solidarity with the anti-police brutality and Black Lives Matter movement. Other than educating yourself on privilege and racism that you might not even be aware of, there are also organisations you can donate to, to show your support if you wish to.

But when does a peaceful protest turn into a riot? By definition, a riot is when a demonstration by a large number of people become violent and behave in an uncontrolled way in public. In the US, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, people have the right to peacefully assemble to express their views.

In Singapore, we do not have such rights. Under the Public Order Act, a police permit must be granted for any form of public assembly. Any type of assembly without a permit would be deemed illegal and can be fined up to S$3000. Repeat offenders may be fined up to S$5000.

If you’re unaware, we do in fact have riots in our history. Whether you’re one to believe in radicalism, these six riots in Singapore have contributed to the narrative we live in today.


1. The Anti-Catholic Riots of 1851

The Anti-Catholic Riots were a result of several disputes between Chinese immigrants who had converted to Roman Catholicism and those who have not. The agitation began on 15 February 1851, when Chinese secret society members attacked, robbed and burnt down plantations owned by Chinese Christians.

These riots began because Chinese secret society members were slowly declining in membership as more and more people turned to religion. The decline was interpreted as a challenge to the secret society, Tan Tae Hoe. Chinese Christian plantation owners were not a part of the plantation networks controlled by the secret society and thus were perceived as threats to the interests of the Chinese secret societies.

Large scale attacks on plantations and kidnappings took place during this time. Even police were attacked as they investigated these riots. The resolution of these riots came through the mediation of Chinese community leader and businessman Seah Eu Chin. The non-Christian Chinese merchant community paid the affected Christan plantation owners S$1,500 for damages incurred.

2. Maria Hertogh Riots of 1950

The riots took place over three days, between 11 and 13 December 1950 after a court ruled in favour of Maria’s biological parents. She would be taken from her Muslim adoptive mother’s custody and returned to her Dutch Catholic birth parents. Protests escalated into a riot when an image of Maria kneeling in front of a Mother Mary statue was published.

The main controversy of the Maria Hertogh riots was driven by the fact that she was forced to be returned to her biological parents despite being brought up by her adoptive mother. Motivated by how the press sensationalised this event, this would eventually be the fuel that sparked the violent and deadly riots. This custody case was largely viewed as the colonial legal system being biased against Muslims.

The riots consisted mostly of Muslims attacking any Europeans or Eurasians within sight. Authorities were only able to take control of the situation on 13 December 1950. A total of 18 people were killed and 173 injured.

Maria later returned to the Netherlands on the night when the riots began, where she continued to live a turbulent life, haunted by her childhood trauma.

3. National Service Riots of 1954

It all started when the British Colonial government in Singapore passed the National Service ordinance. This ordinance required all British subjects and Federal citizens aged 18-20 to register for part-time National service. Those who failed to do so would have been jailed, fined, or both. On 13 May 1954, Chinese Middle School students gathered to petition against this ordinance.

The peaceful demonstration turned violent after a clash between police and students. This resulted in more than two dozen people injured and 48 arrested. The 13 May Incident was followed by other demonstrations and was a pivotal movement in opposition of colonial rule.

4. Hock Lee Bus Riots of 1955

The riots started as a workers’ strike as a result of failed negotiations between the Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company and its bus workers. The issue of contention laid on the welfare of workers versus the protection of business interests.

On 12 May 1955, an estimated 2000 people participated in a riot on the streets of Alexandra Road and Tiong Bahru. Four deaths resulted in this riot, including one of a 16-year-old student, Chong Lon Chong. Conventionally, the Hock Lee riots have been viewed as one of communist subversion. Still, many have also interpreted the incident as a reaction of the anxieties fulled by the conditions of colonial society.

This riot was the catalyst to the modernisation of the transport industry in Singapore, which led to the establishment of the government-led Singapore Transport Advisory Board in 1970.

5. Race Riots of 1964

1964 was a dark and scary year for Singapore. The Race Riots of 1964 was a series of race-based civil conflict between the Malays and Chinese in Singapore following the merger with Malaysia in 1963. These riots have been interpreted to be pivotal to the independence of Singapore in 1965 and our policies on multiracialism, multiculturalism, and the justification of laws such as the Internal Security Act.

The riot of 21 July 1964 initially started as a peaceful procession of about 20,000 Muslims to mark the birthday celebrations of Prophet Muhammad. There have been many theories as to what instigated the riots, however, the dominant narrative of this incident points to several Chinese people throwing bottles and rocks at the Malays as they gathered for their procession at the Padang.

The end of the July riots resulted in 23 deaths and 454 injured. This riot only exacerbated the existing political tensions between PAP and UMNO. A commission was only formed after the September riots of 1964, however, the findings of the report have remained confidential.

Political tensions and the race riots are just some of the issues that contributed to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. Since 1997, 21 July has been marked as Racial Harmony Day, the day on which the riots started.

6. Little India Riot of 2013

The Little India Riot took place on 8 December 2013 after a fatal traffic accident occurred between a private bus and a foreign worker. In a report released by the government after the incident, it was found that a total of 56 people were injured as a result of the riot.

Vehicles were damaged, and fires surrounded the scene. The riot following the death was a controlled one and ended after two hours of violence. The authorities did not resort to violence to disperse the crowd nor did they use any weapons.

A committee of inquiry was ordered by our Prime Minister, and a total of eight recommendations were made to the government. 24 Indian nationals were charged with rioting after investigations. It has been largely agreed that this incident was due to rioters’ misconception of the situation.

The aftermath of this riot led to the creation of Liquor Control Zones (LCZs) in Geylang and Little India. Under The Liquor Control (Supply and Consumption) Act of 2015, retailers cannot sell alcohol within LCZs on 1900 on Saturdays to 0700 on Monday. Nationwide, we are not allowed to purchase alcohol or consume liquor in public places between 2230 and 0700 daily.


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Leo Goh

Way too curious for my own good.

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