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Committee of Inquiry criticized police handling of Little India Riot: ‘A lot of things were wrong”

Reflecting on the Little India Riot a decade later, the Committee of Inquiry criticized the Singapore Police for their poor response and judgement during the incident on 8 December 2013, highlighting delays in SOC deployment and the failure to arrest and effectively deter rioters.

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This article is a revised version of a previous piece written by Andrew Loh and Terry Xu, in response to the Straits Times’ latest coverage of the Little India Riot.

“What has happened is not acceptable,” Committee of Inquiry (COI) chairman, former judge GP Selvam, told former Deputy Police Commissioner, T Raja Kumar on 7 February 2014 during the COI hearing into the Little India riot at the Subordinate Court.

On 13 December 2013, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean appointed a four-member Committee of Inquiry (COI) led by former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam.

The committee also included John De Payva, former president of the Singapore National Trades Union Congress; Tee Tua Ba, former commissioner of the Singapore Police Force (SPF); and Andrew Chua Thiam Chwee, managing director of SME Care Pte Ltd and chairman of the West Coast Citizens’ Consultative Committee.

As part of its investigation into the Little India Riot on 8 December 2013, the COI conducted a public hearing that lasted 24 days, from 19 February to 26 March 2014, to gather oral evidence from witnesses.

The day began with Mr Raja Kumar being the first witness from the police providing a run-through of the timeline of events when the unrest in Little India happened.

While the sequence of events was not much different from the one the police had previously issued, the COI members questioned several aspects of the response by the police that night.

In particular, they pursued the questions of how many security personnel, especially police officers, were on the ground on 8 December at different stages of the unrest, and the response time it took for the Special Operations Command (SOC) force to arrive at the “theatre of operations”, or Race Course Road, where the riot was occurring.

The COI also focused on the question of whether alcohol and public drunkenness played a part in the riot.

Alcohol and drunkenness – “Police have done nothing”

When asked by the COI chairman, Mr Selvam, what he thought was the cause of the December riot, the deputy commissioner listed 3 things:

  1. The accident itself.
  2. The fact that the crowd saw the body of Sakthivel Kumaravelu pinned under the bus which could have made them more emotionally charged.
  3. The presence of alcohol, which he said made things worse.

Mr Selvam queried Mr Raja Kumar on the third point, highlighting that the problem of public drunkenness has been around for a while in Little India. Mr Selvam said that even the timekeeper, Ms Grace Wong, and the bus driver involved in the accident, had observed that the number of drunk foreign workers has increased in Little India.

Mr Selvam also observed that even Members of Parliament have raised the issue. Drunk workers were going into the void decks, urinating, vomiting, and being generally unruly, he said and added, “The police have done nothing.”

He then passed a copy of the Miscellaneous Offences Act to the deputy commissioner and asked him to read Section 18 out loud in the courtroom.

The Section says:

Drunkenness in public places
18. *Any person who is found drunk and incapable of taking care of himself, in any public road or in any public place* or place of public amusement or resort, or in the immediate vicinity of any court or of any public office or police station or place of worship, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months.

“If this Section was really enforced, you would save the residents, and yourself, a lot of trouble,” Mr Selvam told Mr Raja Kumar.

The deputy commissioner, however, explained that there was a difference between being drunk and being drunk and incapable. And depending on which, the police’s approach would be different, he said.

Drinking too much, he explained, is not an offence – unless one is incapable.

Mr Selvam, however, advised that the police should take a hardline approach against those who were drunk. He suggested that they be warned or threatened with repatriation if they were caught drunk.

“Holding the line”

The COI focused particularly and extensively on the decision by the police for its officers on the ground – the first responders, in effect – to “hold the line” until the SOC arrived on the scene that night.

This decision was severely criticised by the COI members, particularly Mr Selvam and Mr Tee, who are former police commissioners themselves.

Mr Raja Kumar explained that the police officers on the ground at the time had withdrawn to several potential exit points to block them off, to prevent the violence from “spilling over” to other areas, before the SOC arrived.

However, Mr Selvam said that by doing so, they effectively left the actual scene of the rioting and gave the rioters “a good protected area” and “full freedom to do what they wanted”, including destroying government property.

Mr Selvam noted that at this point, there were only “20, 25 active rioters”, while there were more than 100 police officers along Race Course Road itself.

Mr Raja Kumar explained that the decision not to engage the rioters directly at this point was because Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC), Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, had decided that there were not enough officers at the time to “dominate the ground.”

“It was a matter of judgement,” Mr Raja Kumar said.

Mr Selvam replied that it was “poor judgement” to make such a decision as it gave the rioters the impression that what they were doing was alright.

“The police had arrived,” Mr Selvam said. “They stood there and did nothing. Ah, the police approve of what I am doing,” he said, suggesting what the rioters would or might have been thinking then, as they continued to hurl projectiles at the bus and at the officers, and eventually setting security vehicles and an ambulance on fire.

“[The rioters] had full freedom to do what they wanted – namely, to burn the bus, burn the vehicles, attack you,” the former judge said.

To this, Mr Raja Kumar said that while all the officers were armed, they “chose” not to respond with force because they felt the situation “was not life threatening.” But Mr Tee pointed out that there were others there whose lives were at risk, such as civilians, diners and bystanders.

He read out a copy of the police’s internal protocol when handling such situations. The protocol, among other things, said the police’s response must prevent public disorder; to preserve life and property; its actions must be based on moral high ground and be publicly defensible; and that its response must be proportionate.

Mr Selvam pointed out that there was nothing the police did to protect the lives of innocent people then.

“Police vehicles were burned,” he said.

Mr Selvame suggested that the police officers on the ground that night could not do anything to deter or stop the rioters because they were not allowed to use their pistols, or guns.

However, Mr Raja Kumar explained that the use of firearms at the time, in fact, would put the lives of innocent bystanders at risk too.

“If you open fire at a time like this, there could have been [a] loss of innocent civilian life,” he said.

Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang, who was one of the first few police officers who responded to the accident, later testified during the COI hearing that he did consider firing a shot but decided against the move as it might “agitate the crowd”. He was also worried that it would remind the crowd that the police officers were in possession of firearms and that they might try to seize the revolvers.

Mr Raja Kumar told the COI that the police officers “didn’t have the numbers, the equipment, the training” to deal with such a situation.

But Mr Tee and Mr Selvam pressed home their points and urged the deputy police commissioner to consider the consequences of the police’s decision not to engage the rioters directly in the initial stages of the riot.

“A lot of things were wrong,” Mr Tee said. “Are you showing weakness and emboldened them? That could be the reason why they became more violent.”

Mr Selvam said, “They were rioting. What did you do?”

The deputy commissioner looked a little flustered at the criticism.

Mr Selvam added, “You must spook them, or you will get spooked. The entire psychology must be one of fear.” He said that if the rioters saw the police “running away”, they would be emboldened.

The COI members suggested that the police have not learnt the lessons of three riots in England in 2011, where it was later found that the strategy of holding the line during a riot, in fact, emboldened rioters.

Mr Tee noted that the police were not arresting any of the rioters, and he questioned the police’s tactics to withdraw and guard the exits until the SOC arrived.

“The rioters are watching you: how you behave, how you respond, or if you stand there and wait,” Mr Tee said. “They may get a perception that you are not going to do anything so it becomes even worse.”

Mr Selvam also relayed what a Cisco officer had told him, that the police should have done something. “

If the police had done something, the situation would have been different,” Mr Selvam said, repeating what the Cisco officer told him.

Mr Selvam described the decision to hold the line as “poor judgement, wrong decision.”

Auxiliary police officer Srisivasangkar Subramaniam, who has been working in CISCO for two years, testified at the hearing that his colleague, Mr Raymond Murugiasu and he were at the scene at the very start of the incident.

Their initial task was to control the crowd gathered around the bus involved in the fatal accident. When Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers arrived to extricate the body, he and the other CISCO officers asked the crowd to move back but the mob continued to be noisy and persisted in throwing projectiles at the bus.

The group then helped to form the human barrier to provide working space for the SCDF officers.

APO Srisivasangkar said that he attempted to arrest four foreign workers who were throwing bottles from the back of the crowd, grabbing them from behind and handing them over to the police one by one before rejoining his supervisor. He mentioned not feeling afraid while arresting the rioters and noted that the crowd did not turn on him during the process.

He was unsure if the police subsequently handcuffed the individuals, as his focus was on apprehending more people who were throwing objects at the bus.

When asked by the COI why he ceased making arrests, he explained that his supervisor had advised him that it wasn’t his duty and, being alone in the effort, he should stop.

He was then directed by a female inspector to move to the junction of Kampong Jaya and Hampshire Road to control traffic, clear the vehicles along the road, and disperse the crowd gathered there.

Timeline of police deployment

Mr Selvam later requested the Senior State Counsel, David Khoo, to provide him with a timeline of events along with the number of police officers present on the scene that night. (Area that lies between Bukit Timah Road, Race Course Road, Serangoon Road  and extending till Farrer Park Mrt)

The timeline according to what was revealed in court:

Time Event Number of Officers/Cisco APOs
09:37:00 PM 1st Team of police officers arrive 2 officers/ 62 APOs
10:00:00 PM 2nd Team of police officers arrive 4 officers / 62 APOs
10:31:50 PM Smoke emitted from 1st police car 111 officers / 62 APOs
10:35:46 PM Smoke emitted from TP motorbike 113 officers / 62 APOs
11:00:39 PM 5th vehicle burned after catching fire from the ambulance just beside it 146 officers / 62 APOs

It was also revealed that the police officers on the ground were unable to communicate with the command centre with their radios. The police’s phone lines were also jammed because of calls from the public.

Mr Tee observed that as a result the police officers on the ground were essentially on their own, without knowing what other officers were doing.

SOC delayed

Turning to the part the SOC played in quelling the unrest, the COI members praised the riot police.

“The SOC did a good job,” Mr Tee said.

However, he expressed disappointment that it took the SOC more than an hour to arrive at the scene. In the meantime, he said, the police officers on the ground were left exposed to attacks from the rioters. “Some of them were in flux,” he said. “They ran from the ambulance.”

The COI learned that the first SOC team was activated 18 minutes after the initial request from the officer on the ground.

And that out of those 18 minutes, 12 were because Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Koh Wei Keong, the 2nd Deputy Director of Operations that night, wanted do his “due diligence” by consulting various other officers to be sure that activation of the SOC was required.

“We have since reviewed the protocol,” Mr Raja Kumar said, after being questioned by the COI members on the length of time taken to approve the request. “We think the time taken is too long and should be abbreviated and it has been abbreviated.”

Mr Raja Kumar also explained that the SOC is made up of eight troops, called Police Tactical Troop (PTT), and each troop has 20 men and four “smaller” vehicles with it. These troops are more commonly called the “riot police.”

On 8 December, each of these troops was assigned a code name – PTTKA, PTTKB, PTTKC, and so on.

The first team, PTTKA, which had formed up at South Bridge Road that night, took 38 minutes to arrive at the scene in Race Course Road.

When asked why it took so long, Mr Raja Kumar said, “Traffic conditions were one of the factors which led to the delay.” He explained how the team had had to make two u-turns – at Bukit Timah Road and then at Kampong Java Road – because it was stuck in traffic.

Mr Raja Kumar revealed that in normal circumstances, the PTT is given four hours to form up, but that on 8 December, the PTTKA team had been on duty and was deployed at City Hall and Boat Quay. When the riot happened, the team was going off-duty but was activated and redirected to Little India instead.

It is important to note that DAC Koh redirected the SOC to his location at the junction of Hampshire Rd and Race Course Road. This redirection caused them to get stuck in traffic despite having already reached Race Course Road by 10.30 pm.

The second PTT team was activated at 10:15 pm, and it took 33 minutes for it to arrive at Little India from Queensway.

During the COI hearing, it was highlighted that the delay might have been a contributing factor in preventing the burning of police vehicles.

Mr Raja Kumar said the SOC was a “scarce resource”, Mr Raja Kumar said. He explained that the force has decreased in size – from 12 troops to the present eight troops. The number of team members in each individual troop too has decreased, he said.

“We have not had the luxury of resources to be able to put one SOC troop every weekend [in Little India],” he said. Still, in 2013, the SOC was deployed 16 times in the area.

Mr Raja Kumar praised the SOC’s effectiveness in quelling the unrest. He said the incident started out as a traffic accident and was reported to the police as such. Thus, the first people on the scene were the traffic police. As events escalated and when the SOC finally arrived on site, Mr Raja Kumar said they were “clearly effective.”

“[They brought] the riot under control, 15 minutes to an hour.”

Mr Tee described the SOC as being “very professional”. However, he said that taking more than hour to be at the scene “is a long time.”

Mr Raja Kumar said the police “will definitely learn” the lessons of 8 December, and that it will build up its capability.

True enough, the SOC now includes Rapid Deployment Troops (RDTs) capable of swiftly reaching incident sites on motorbikes. Initiated in 2017 as part of the SOC’s Police Tactical Unit, these troops are trained to ride their bikes over road kerbs and navigate off-road terrain. Each RDT team comprises approximately 30 officers.

Fewer charged than were rioting

Mr Selvam had observed that despite the deputy commissioner saying that the number of 100 rioters was an “underestimation”, there were less than those who were actually and eventually arrested for rioting. He wondered if this meant that some were guilty but who had escaped scot-free.

Mr Raja Kumar responded by saying that some were deported, but he was cut short by Mr Selvam, who said that Mr Raja Kumar cannot claim that more than 100 people were rioting when the police have only arrested and charged a much smaller number for it.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Mr Selvam told the commissioner. The riot of 8 December was a “wake-up call” for the police, the chairman said.

While screening videos showing vehicle burning in another session of the COI hearing, Mr Selvam inquired about the number of individuals arrested for this act. The prosecutor responded that only one had been arrested.

Twenty-five individuals were charged in court and eventually found guilty for their involvement in the riot. However, it should be noted that some were charged not for participating in the riot itself but for failing to disperse from the scene despite police orders.

Mr Raja Kumar was appointed the Chief Executive of the Home Team Academy in January 2014 and later stepped down as Deputy Police Commissioner in December of that year.

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Ah Khaw now is into hiding (after the SMT subscription fiasco), so the white monkeys have no one to provide them with hara-kiri knives.

During investigations, it was revealed that residents in that area had complained of large crowds, insufficient police presence and some even fearing to go out in evenings. Recall in parliament, Shamni replied that the Police was aware of these public feedbacks and was in the process of taking some actions, but the riot happened BEFORE the (planned?) actions can be implemented. Whaa, such an understanding Boss, hor. Yeah, so nobody’s fault, it is FATE that the rioters acted faster than the police, hor. Near 1m foreign workers allowed into SG overnight, no time to plan for contingencies, hor. As LKY… Read more »

Could Home Affairs be a factor why the police are helpless on the ground?

Apparently during their regular meetings and presentations, the little commissioners from home affairs would lord against the regular policeman, making them into small fries!

Is this also the reason why home affairs is located together with the police? Not scdf, prison, drug centers, immigration or ic card?

Is Shame aware of this?

With the huge and perpetual influx from south asia unabated Tekka is now no more known as ” little ” India.
It has grown to rename it to PROVINCIAL HINDYA !

Well done, SPH.
They are all out to humiliate SPF….lol. 10-year-old embarrassing news still bring out to publish now.

And to avoid cum negate such embarrassing situations, highlighting the gross incompetence of its police force and its senior members therein, … what does the ruling elites do ????? Drafting draconian laws, like, … the public order act where one man and his placard is deemed an “illegal assembly” and imposing stringent liquor sales and drinking time lines, and, … declaring specific “no drinking zones” as their “fall guy” for the disturbances. It’s not about dredging up epic failures for the sake of it, but rather, … remembering and reminding the nation that no one’s perfect and one must learn… Read more »

The SPF seems effective in tackling anti PAP voices, going hand in hand with AG, alright – not as expected and taken for granted, to serve peace and order, to protect citizens and safeguard personal liberties. How on earth is the violence if a one man peaceful protest for eg. Rmb what Wong Fuck First said, WP cyclein ECP could struck up conversations with strangers, and hence, then leads to physical development of disorderly demonstration, mass disruption.

Provincial India riot aka Tekka riot.
This is our Sinkiland’s version of Black Lives Matter.
Can sell the COI script to HOLLYWOOD or BOLLYWOOD into making a movie.

The PAP’s response is to install 90,000 cameras island wide.
200,000 by 2030 (ST, 30 Oct 2023).

Cut costs
Cut
Cut
Cut

Already China produces products that are sold cheaper than 20 years ago
And still cut costs..
But as for ordinary people, cost is forever rising.
Where does the money go…???

No worries. more CECAsians and foreigners have already worked here..Hope they are well prepared this time. tsk tsk tsk tsk

They are very efficient in arresting 14 year old schoolboy Benjamin. The boy who committed suicide. RIP !!! GB

The police from Singapore Police Force only know how to bully and take advantage of Singaporeans by confiscating their handphones and laptops.

But 61% says No Blaming Culture. leh. An aside, let’s focus on more present-day news. Can someone put up a list of 10 Most News-worthy happenings in SG for 2023? Mediacorks used to do such a program at the end of each year, but somehow not recently – no budget, maybe? Some suggestions(?): 1) No corruption in MIWs – ever. 2) Million$ ministers choose to live in humble dwellings. 3) SG remains a cheap/highly affordable place to live in. 4) Singaporeans show they didn’t need a kelong Reserved President; were capable of electing a minority (aka somewhat botak pineapple) in… Read more »

“Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang, ………..during the COI hearing that he did consider firing a shot but decided against the move as it might “agitate the crowd”. He was also worried that it would remind the crowd that the police officers were in possession of firearms and that they might try to seize the revolvers.” This is the kind of training that has given to police force, A decorated neighbour of the police force who has retired told me even if you take a gun out and show a drunk man, in all his drunken state would take.… Read more »

It was truly a night of shame both for the Police Force and Singapore. It must be noted that representing the Police was the Dy Commissioner; not the Commissioner himself. I believe the Police Commissioner should have been summoned to answer to the COI; not his deputy. Importantly, the whole fiasco shows that our Police Force has been operating in a cocoon and when truly tested, failed miserably. It was really embarrassing to see the police; both regular and auxiliary, run away from the rioters. And our fellow contributor Jessie is right..5 officers “bravely” questioned a 14-year old boy without… Read more »

But, but , but they sent 5 police officers to arrest a 14 year old Singapore student who later committed suicide. Here they hid from the foreign workers because of fear. In the case of Benjamin Lim, he was bullied to death without his parents being present and the Yishun MP stood up in Parliament and justified it

10 yrs later still dig out old shit, you ppl are really….SHIT STIRRERS!😆😆😆😆

Don’t take it too seriously

Criticise ONLY

“…Straits Times’ latest coverage of the Little India Riot…”

Why are they bringing up this unfortunate incident again..
To warn us peasants of our country’s vulnerabilities?
If so who’s the ones responsible…???..
And what are they doing to see civil unrest dont happen again….
What u see is not what you get in Fantasy Island…

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