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Alcohol, police lapses at fault in Singapore's Little India riot - inquiry

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - A fatal bus accident and alcohol, not foreign workers’ living conditions, were to blame for Singapore’s first major riot in 40 years, according to the report of an inquiry into the incident released on Monday.

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Some 400 migrant workers went on the rampage in the Little India district one Sunday evening last December, setting fire to cars and clashing with police after a construction worker was knocked down and killed by a bus.

It was the worst social unrest in Singapore since the 1960s and shocked many in the Southeast Asian island nation, which has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and cracks down quickly on signs of public disorder.

A four-man Committee of Inquiry (COI) chaired by a former supreme court judge said the riot was caused by misperceptions about the traffic accident, alcohol and cultural issues that meant some rioters may have had a desire for “street justice”.

Poor police communication and slow deployment of the force’s special operations unit, it said, extended the time needed to restore order. There was little evidence to support suggestions that anger over living and employment conditions was to blame.

“Nearly every foreign worker who the COI spoke to testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore and condemned the riot,” the report said.

Foreign construction workers used to gather on Sundays to drink beer in Little India, an area of narrow streets packed with Indian restraunts and shops, popular with Singapore’s south Asian community and tourists.

The government has since banned alcohol consumption in the area and restricted sales, a move the report recommended for districts where crowds congregate.

Cheap foreign labour makes up around 20 percent of Singapore’s population, with the construction industry dominated by workers from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Many live in large dormitories on the fringes on the island.

The report did recommend improvements in how foreign workers are treated, the standard of their accommodation and access to services. It called for better police communication, improved training and a rise in staff numbers.

“A well-trained and adequately resourced police force will help Singapore maintain the safety and stability which we all enjoy today,” it said. The government will respond to the report’s recommendations in parliament next week.

Editing by Ron Popeski