Committee of Inquiry into Little India Riots: 10 things you need to know

Police officers examining the wrecked private bus at the aftermath of the Little India riot in the early hours on Dec 9, 2013. With the conclusion of the committee of inquiry into the riot on Wednesday (26/03), the committee is expected to delib
Police officers examining the wrecked private bus at the aftermath of the Little India riot in the early hours on Dec 9, 2013. With the conclusion of the committee of inquiry into the riot on Wednesday (26/03), the committee is expected to deliberate and submit a report and recommendations to the Minister for Home Affairs by June 13. -- ST FILE PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

With the conclusion of the committee of inquiry into the riot on Wednesday (26/03), the committee is expected to deliberate and submit a report and recommendations to the Minister for Home Affairs by June 13.

These are 10 key takeaways from the five-week public hearings:

1. The fatal accident which sparked the Dec 8 riot - how did it happen?

The riot was sparked by a fatal accident between 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu and the private bus he had earlier been ordered to get off from. Forensics showed he died instantly, while a toxicology report showed his blood alcohol level was almost three times the legal limit for driving.

2. How much of a role did alcohol play in the subsequent violence?

Lead investigator Adam Fashe Huddin said that evidence presented by various groups meant intoxication was "a main contributory factor" in causing violence to escalate. Besides the huge demand for alcohol before the riot, beer bottles were the most common projectiles that night. Alcohol played a large role in escalating the riot

3. How did the authorities respond?

When the first 999 call came in, the incident was classified as a road traffic accident and not an urgent case, which requires police to reach the scene within 15 minutes. While nearby officers arrived within 14 minutes of the call, and more later arrived, they had difficulty communicating as air waves and mobile networks were busy, resulting in police being scattered along Race Course Road.

4. Police tactics - right or wrong?

The ground commander that night, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim, was grilled for more than four hours over his decision to hold the ground instead of trying to disperse rioters as they torched police cars and an ambulance. But Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee stood by his commander's tactics, reiterating DAC Lu's argument that police doctrine was to amass a superior force before moving in, and commended his officers for showing restraint.

5. Get the lathi!

Several times, Mr Selvam pointed out that a lathi - a long, heavy wooden stick used by riot police in South Asian countries - could have been more effective than the T-baton used by police here. He even produced a news article showing that Indian riot police effectively put down a riot using lathis and shields, and asked Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar to procure lathis for police here.

6. Anti-riot police - why so late?

Red tape and an ill-fated U-turn held up Special Operations Command (SOC) troops, leaving regular officers to face rioters for more than 45 minutes. Eighteen minutes passed before approval was given to activate the SOC, while troops were stuck in a jam after being ordered to meet DAC Lu at another junction when they were about 100m away from Race Course Road. Mr Ng agreed that 18 minutes was "excessive", and that the activation process has been changed to no longer involve police headquarters.

7. Was violence spurred by foreign workers' working and living conditions here?

"No." - That was the reply from the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union (Batu), dormitory operators, the Ministry of Manpower's representative and workers themselves. Despite anecdotal evidence raised by non-governmental organisations, there was no systemic maltreatment, said the police force's chief psychologist Dr Majeed Khader.

8. Sense of injustice fuelled the riot

The crowd gathered around the accident scene might have misconstrued the actions of first responders as biased and protecting of Singaporeans, said Dr Majeed. They might have been angered when SCDF officers covered the deceased's body and did not allow them access to it, and this was likely compounded when police protected the bus driver and timekeeper, whom they deemed perpetrators who should have been punished. This caused a sense of "us-versus-them", he said.

9. New technology fast-tracked, plea for "more boots on the ground"

Police will be trialing new wearable cameras for officers by mid-year that will give the operations room a real-time sense of ground developments, while radio sets may be modified with in-ear headphones and priority signals to improve communications in chaotic situations. Mr Ng asked for 1,000 more police officers, noting that police numbers have not kept pace with population growth and were stretched to near breaking point.

10. Police were too soft on foreign workers

The committee disagreed with police's assessment that the crime rate in Little India had fallen over the years, noting that it did not capture the excessive drinking and overcrowding that meant large-scale violence was "waiting to happen". While auxiliary police deployment in Little India had increased over the years, shopkeepers also told the committee that police had been soft on foreign workers who congregated there every Sunday, and that, as a result, rioters did not fear the police.

yanliang@sph.com.sg

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