Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee is "proud and gratified" by the restraint his officers showed in the face of violence in Little India on Dec 8, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) heard yesterday.
Defending the actions of front-line officers during the riot, the police chief commended his ground commander, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim, who had come under fire for holding his position when he was greatly outnumbered, and waiting for reinforcements to arrive.
Mr Ng said it was the right and sensible thing to do, as he clarified the reasons behind the police's doctrine on use of force, and addressed the criticisms that had been levelled against police action on the night of the riot.
To the main criticism that they did not act early enough to quell the rising violence, Mr Ng stressed that the men on the front line had neither the right equipment nor training to deal with a riot. "It will, I think, be irresponsible for us to ask them to do so," he said.
While patrol officers can deal with a "gamut of incidents", including violent individuals, a situation such as a riot requires greater police expertise or capability.
Also, the helmets and vests worn by front-line officers were to protect them against bullets in the event of a shootout and were not specifically riot gear, he said.
While they improvised and used their ballistic shields to protect the bus driver and timekeeper in the initial fracas, they correctly assessed that they had to retreat and regroup when the situation intensified, he added.
Mr Ng also drew parallels with a riot that occurred between Korean and Thai workers in 1985, the last time foreign workers had clashed here. Riot police had exercised restraint until they could dominate the ground, a posture adopted by the force both then and now, he said.
But the situation was not escalating then, countered COI member and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba. "Time was on our side: they had stopped fighting," said Mr Tee, who was then police director of planning. "After the show of force... (the workers) were as tame as rabbits."
Mr Ng agreed a projection of force was necessary to quell a riot, but the reality on Dec 8 was that the police were outnumbered by eight to one, with 54 policemen at best, against 400 rioters.
"The last thing you want to do when you are outnumbered is to advertise the fact that you are outnumbered," he said. "We have to wait for force to come before we can show it."
To another criticism that the police should have fired a warning shot to scare off the rioters, Mr Ng said this would have been done if the cops had judged doing so would end the violence immediately, but it was "highly improbable", given the situation that night. Reiterating a point made by DAC Lu, he said it would have been "outright illegal" if the police had fired upon rioters who torched police cars that night.
"So I'm glad, and I'm also proud and gratified, that our officers that night all decided without exception that they do not have to resort to deadly force," he said.
Wrapping up, he said the silver lining had to be considered: Besides some damaged vehicles, there were no deaths or serious injuries to anybody and the violence was put down within two hours.
"I think many of my counterparts in the other side of the world would have taken this riot any time," he said.