Acknowledging home truths of riot

The Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot, in the eyes of many, has discharged its duties in rigorously conducting the public hearing into the two hours of surreal mayhem that left Singapore profoundly aghast. No stone was left unturned as the inquiry drove to the heart of the key questions: why did the riot happen, how did it unravel, how was it dealt with and what can be done to better manage such incidents?

While these were amply answered in the committee's report, the stark contrast in its report from the robust manner in which it conducted its inquiry did not go unnoticed. Yet, right from the start, the committee had no legal power to determine civil or criminal liability and no executive mandate to dictate policy adjustments. What was expected was an independent, objective and unflinching scrutiny of facts, official doctrines and social perspectives that can contribute to public understanding of an event and the responses to it. It is for the Government to specify and Parliament to debate changes that are called for, including their scale, operational rationale and political imperatives.

While the committee made it a point to affirm positive aspects of the response forces, it is inevitable for public attention to focus on shortcomings and factors that contributed to the unhappy outcomes of December 8: one dead (the accident victim); injury to 54 officers and eight members of the public; and damage to 22 police and civil defence vehicles, an ambulance, the accident bus and six other private vehicles. Hence the need to provide assurance that there will always be efficient and effective institutions to stand at the edge of order and lawlessness - those that are simply too important to fail.

Another way of looking at lapses is to ask if the questions tackled by the committee could have been anticipated in some way earlier as part of, say, scenario-based planning, capability development, and stress tests of communications and command and control systems. Of course, the wisdom of hindsight is infinite, and one should not lose sight of the unpredictable and challenging nature of law enforcement.

In the circumstances, adequate steps ought to be taken to ensure both experienced and younger officers are well prepared for the threat of new security situations that will undoubtedly arise. One should also not overlook the social factors highlighted by the report. Just as all it took was misperception of a street accident, fuelled by alcohol, to develop into a full-blown riot, the mundane steps to improve and regulate the areas where foreign workers congregate, as well as understanding what might move or enrage them, can help to make a big difference towards achieving durable social peace in congested areas.