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First riot in 40 years rocks peaceful Singapore

Twenty seven people have been arrested following the worst case of civil unrest that Singapore has seen in over four decades, local press reported.

A mob of approximately 400 foreign workers were involved in the riot late on Sunday evening, sparked by a fatal accident involving a 33-year old Indian national who was run over by a private bus in Little India, a Singaporean district that is home to large amounts of Indian and Bangladeshi foreign workers. Ten police officers and four civil defense officers were injured.

The crowd of foreign workers swarmed the bus, chasing the driver – a Singaporean national – and set police vehicles and an ambulance on fire.

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The incident comes amid rising tensions in Singapore, considered one of the world's safest cities, about the recent influx of foreign workers, many of them immigrants from South Asia. The last riots to take place in Singapore were race related in 1969.

Following Sunday's riot, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong published a statement on his Facebook page urging local Singaporeans to stay calm.

Firemen douse a charred ambulance and a car after a riot broke out in Singapore, in the early hours of December 9, 2013.
Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images
Firemen douse a charred ambulance and a car after a riot broke out in Singapore, in the early hours of December 9, 2013.

"Whatever events may have sparked the rioting, there is no excuse for such violent, destructive, and criminal behavior," he said.

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Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean stressed to the public that the incident would be dealt with very seriously.

"I want to make very clear that the government will not tolerate such lawless behavior. I have asked the police to investigate the matter thoroughly and deal with all aspects of this incident and all persons involved strictly, firmly and fairly according to our law," he said.

Under Singaporean law, those found guilty of rioting can face a jail term of up to seven years. Rioting with a deadly weapon can lead to imprisonment for up to ten years and in some cases a beating with a cane, according to the Attorney General's Chambers' website.

Poster seen on the streets of Singapore on Monday
Poster seen on the streets of Singapore on Monday

Members of the public took to Twitter to express their shock at the incident.

After the trouble broke out on the juncture of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road at around 9.30pm, 300 police officers in riot gear were deployed to the site and the riot was quelled in under two hours, the Strait Times reported. No shots were fired by police officers in retaliation.

Rioters are reported to have thrown glass bottles, railings and other projectiles at officers. They attacked emergency vehicles which responded to the incident as they attempted to extract the casualty from beneath the bus with hydraulic rescue equipment.

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Residents in the area described the scene as that of "havoc" to the local press, and said the minibus involved in the accident was at one point surrounded by 200 men.

Vishnu Varathan, senior economist at Mizuho Bank told CNBC he thought the riot stemmed from differing cultural norms and underlying tensions amongst foreign workers.

"This shows that the perception of a seamless, cohesive population of 5-plus million misses the finer points. There are pockets of the population - foreign or otherwise - that have different social norms," said Varathan.

"And to some extent this is a reflection of underlying tensions bubbling up. There are capacity constraints with the number of foreign workers. This generally impacts public transportation and specifically workers' living conditions. Over time, these things could fester; and inevitably tensions could bubble up," he added.

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The bus driver is reported to be in hospital and has not been arrested.

The multi-cultural city state of Singapore has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and incidents of civil unrest are rare.

Last year the city state saw its first industrial strike action in 26 years, after 171 foreign workers from mainland China went on strike for two days over pay and living conditions.

Singapore's population of 5.3 million is comprised of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Tamil amongst others.

By CNBC's Katie Holliday: Follow her on Twitter @hollidaykatie

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