Singapore was rocked by its worst rioting in decades, as hundreds of foreign workers overturned police cars and burned vehicles following a fatal road accident, reports said Monday.

About 300 officers, including many in riot gear and members of the elite Gurkha unit, were sent to control the situation on Sunday night, police said.

The incident started shortly after 9:20 p.m. (13:20 GMT) in the Little India district, which on Sunday evenings is packed with Indian and Bangladeshi workers enjoying their weekly day off.

The riot followed the death of a 33-year-old Indian man who was hit by a bus, news reports said.

A crowd attacked rescue workers trying to reach the body, which was trapped under the bus, The Straits Times daily reported. Angry bystanders smashed the windscreen, and the mob turned on police officers arriving at the scene.

Police said around 400 people were involved in the rioting that damaged five police vehicles, one ambulance and several private vehicles. Ten officers were injured, they said.

Police arrested 27 suspects from South Asia, and more arrests were expected.

“The Little India riot last night was a very grave incident,” Prime Minster Lee Hsien Loong said on his Facebook page Monday.

“Several police officers were injured, and vehicles damaged or destroyed. The situation is now under control, and investigations are under way.” The Straits Times said the dead man was a construction worker who had been in Singapore for about two years.

The Bangladesh embassy in Singapore urged its citizens to stay calm and cooperate with authorities, the newspaper said.

The unrest was the worst to hit the orderly, tightly controlled city-state since race riots in 1969.

Singapore relies heavily on foreign workers to fill a labour shortage, with hundreds of thousands working on the island as labourers, maids or positions in the service sector.

But activists have raised concerns about low pay, exploitation and poor living conditions, which have led to growing discontent.

Last year, bus drivers from China staged an unofficial strike over pay and conditions.

There are fears that the rioting might spark a backlash against foreign workers, who many Singaporeans already blame for social problems, leading to increased tensions in recent years.

“Don’t blame the expatriate workers,” said Kenneth Jeyaretnam, leader of the opposition Reform Party.

“The [government’s] thirst for an easy way to boost economic growth through the importation and exploitation of cheap foreign labour has reached its limit. We’re seeing the social costs now.”

(This article was published on December 9, 2013)
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