Little India Riot: Committee of Inquiry report set to address 3 key issues

Role of alcohol, police resources and social factors expected to be examined

The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot last Dec 8 is set to release its findings and recommendations tomorrow.

This, after the four-man panel, led by former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam, heard evidence from 93 witnesses over the course of 24 days of public hearings, which ended on March 26.

The report will also take in evidence uncovered by a team from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), which was tasked with conducting an independent investigation for the COI.

The team, led by CNB director of investigations Adam Fashe Huddin, conducted 324 interviews, reviewed hours of video footage and made 11 site visits.

The committee's report was originally due to be submitted to Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean on June 13.

But DPM Teo granted an extension for the COI to go through testimonies from interviews on June 3 with three Indian nationals convicted for their roles in the riot.

The Sunday Times looks at three key questions raised over the course of the inquiry, which the committee's report is expected to address, among other things.

Q: Was alcohol a leading cause of the violence?

Mr Adam told the COI that alcohol was "the main contributory factor" behind the riot.

"Alcohol bottles were literally raining at police officers," he said.

Officers at the scene also testified that they could smell alcohol on the breath of many people within the mob that night.

Some of those who have been convicted for their roles in the riot cited alcohol as a reason they had behaved out of character, during mitigation.

Disamenity issues arising from public intoxication is not a new grouse of residents in Little India.

Many who live and work in the ethnic enclave have complained of drunk foreign workers urinating, vomiting or falling asleep at the void decks of the Housing Board flats or along five-foot-ways.

There were 331 liquor licences in Little India at the time of the riot and before curbs on the sale and public consumption of alcohol were imposed after Dec 8.

The figure has since dropped to 321, according to the latest police figures as of June 16.

Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association chairman Rajakumar Chandra said that liquor businesses have suffered since the riot.

He told The Sunday Times that the bulk of their revenue used to come from foreign workers who bought alcohol to drink in the fields.

He said: "Now, even with the crowds coming back, they cannot drink in public like before."

During the COI, Mr Adam cited revenue losses of liquor stores to show how much drinking there was. One, he noted, was losing as much as $25,000 every Sunday.

Several indoor eateries - where drinking is permitted - have also been affected because of slower crowd turnover.

Mr Rajakumar said: "When people sit down with a bottle of beer, they won't get up for a couple of hours."

As of June 16, 149 people have been issued police advisories, under the Public Order (Additional Temporary Measures) Act, for drinking outside permitted hours.

Two outlets which allegedly violated liquor licensing conditions are being investigated.

The liquor curbs "have been very welcomed by residents", Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua told The Sunday Times. She termed the Dec 8 riot a "rude wake-up call".

"It is due to the Home Affairs Ministry's decisive measures that they have eventually recovered from the shock and, in fact, feel much safer and empathised with than before," she said.

"Residents living just outside the special zones are seeing spillovers of workers coming over to their side and are requesting that these few zones be similarly covered as well."

Q: Did the police have enough resources to respond to the riot?

Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee has stressed that many frontline police officers had neither the right equipment nor the training to deal with a riot.

"I think it will be irresponsible for us to ask them to do so," he told the COI when asked why frontline officers had not acted early enough to quell the violence.

Mr Ng also acknowledged the "unacceptably long" time taken to give the anti-riot squad the green light to respond to the incident on Dec 8, and the "totally screwed up" communications due to jammed airwaves.

"I would readily admit our failings of that night," said Mr Ng then. "Our performance in Little India has not been perfect, but I contend it is far from inadequate."

In response, the police have made key changes to protocol. Divisional commanders can now give the go-ahead to activate the anti-riot squad, rather than requiring permission from headquarters.

A new command and control system will be installed by the end of this year, which will resolve communication issues encountered in the riot. At the Police Workplan Seminar last month, it was also announced that patrol cars will be equipped with special cameras to record what happens when police officers attend to cases.

These will supplement plans to equip officers with body-worn cameras, which resemble pagers and are clipped to their chests.

Meanwhile, more than 100,000 cameras with playback capability are being installed islandwide, to give the police more eyes on the ground.

More, however, needs to be done on the manpower front, Mr Ng said. He hopes to recruit 1,000 more officers to beef up police anti-riot capability, create an additional tactical troop specialised in tackling riots, and increase patrols.

Since the riot and despite limited manpower, 20 to 35 more officers have been deployed to Little India on weekends at the cost of cancelled leave days and sacrificed training hours, the COI heard.

Q: Were there any other underlying social issues behind the riot?

The COI investigation team did not find any "deep-seated unhappiness" among foreign workers in Singapore that might have caused them to "take the opportunity... to vent their anger", said Mr Adam.

Neither was there any evidence of widespread abuse, nor complaints over wages and poor living conditions.

Migrant Workers' Centre executive director Bernard Menon told the COI that there was no "latent frustration or tension". He added: "The general majority of workers here are peaceful, genuine and hard-working."

The Government has announced that it will build four more recreation centres for foreign workers by the end of next year as an alternative to Little India.

These will have amenities such as basketball and volleyball courts, soccer and cricket fields, fitness corners, foodcourts, supermarkets and Internet cafes. There are already four such centres - in Jurong, Penjuru Road, Woodlands and Kaki Bukit.

A regulatory framework - announced during the Budget debate - is also being planned for large dormitories for foreign workers.

Ms Phua said: "Like us, foreign workers have physical, financial and socio-emotional needs to socialise during their days off. Post-riot measures to address their needs must not stop."

waltsim@sph.com.sg