Five questions on the riot

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 21, 2013

THE flames in Little India of two weeks ago have been put out but questions continue to simmer.

Dec 8 will be remembered as the day Singapore saw its most violent outbreak of street violence in 44 years.

The police acted decisively and swiftly. They called up 4,000 people for interviews within a week.

Among them, 28 rioters were charged in court and another 53 were deported and banned from returning. Some 200 passive onlookers were told that they can remain here, but will be sent packing if they break the law.

An independent committee has started probing the carnage. The four-man panel headed by a former Supreme Court judge is expected to take six months to complete its work.

The public will be looking to the panel for answers to at least five questions.

What happened exactly?

DEPUTY Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean described the riot as a "a very serious incident... arising from violent actions of an unruly mob reacting to a fatal traffic accident".

The accident where a private bus ran over and killed a drunk Indian worker, deteriorated rapidly into an orgy of violence.

Mr Annai Velu, who runs a provision shop at Race Course Road some 50m from ground zero, told me that he had never seen such violence before.

"There was so much rage. My car was damaged but thankfully my shop was all right," said the 51-year-old Singaporean.

While the broad story is clear, some crucial details are missing: How did the violence soar? How quickly did the mob form?

The committee's report will be a definitive, and hopefully blow- by-blow, account of the riot, to the extent that it is possible to document such an outburst.

Why did it happen?

BESIDES how the mayhem unfolded, another burning question is why it happened. The committee will not find any simple answer.

So far, the two prime suspects are alcohol and the fatal traffic accident. But were these the only two factors at play?

Foreign worker activists have jumped at grievances as a cause, while Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy associate dean Donald Low wrote online that "we should be open to the possibility that there were underlying grievances and social tensions which contributed to this riot".

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has rejected speculation that pent-up tensions might have been a cause, saying: "We have not seen any evidence of that."

The committee will have to decide whether to believe those who may claim that they rioted because they were unhappy with their bosses or some aspect of the Singapore system.

Indeed, it will be interviewing some of these workers to get to the bottom of what happened.

How police handled the riot

BY MOST accounts, the police handled the riot well. Although there was substantial damage to public and private properties, no innocent bystander was seriously hurt.

Some brave policemen bore the brunt of injuries, protecting others such as ambulance officers.

Mr K. Kesavapany, president of the Singapore Indian Association, praised the police for their restraint: "The police chose to bear the fury of a mindless mob."

Still, the riot police's response time is worth a closer look. The first troop of riot policemen from the Special Operations Command reached ground zero 45 minutes after they were activated. They took another 14 minutes to form up and break up the mob.

The police have already explained that they could not get into ground zero earlier as the roads were congested.

Soccer fans will remember seeing riot police's distinctive "ang chia", the Hokkien phrase for red vehicles, near the Jalan Besar Stadium or the now-torn-down National Stadium for football matches, especially when Singapore played Malaysia.

National servicemen will know this as "forward deployment", which means stationing response teams near hot spots where they may be needed.

This is something worth considering so that response time is shortened for future incidents.

Indeed, the police told The Straits Times that its crack riot troop already "conducts regular patrols in Little India as part of police's continual efforts to prevent and deter crime".

What about previous measures?

THIS newspaper reported on Dec8 last year, prophetically one year before the riot, that liquor stores were sprouting up quickly there. The police, which grant liquor licences, were reported to have said that they consider the law and order situation there in granting such licences.

To be sure, two weeks before the riot, the Ministry of Home Affairs was already considering a ban on the consumption of alcohol in common areas.

The problems at Little India cannot be solved by the police alone. In fact, the "whole of government" approach to solving problems was applied to Little India. In 2010, an inter-agency task force led by the Urban Redevelopment Authority implemented a $3.5 million project to widen pavements and erect safety barriers.

As the committee explores measures to prevent another riot, it can look into the successes and shortcomings of what the authorities have done.

What's next?

THE alcohol and bus service restrictions are, at best, temporary measures. With a population of five million - including more than a million foreigners - on this small island, the onus is on the authorities to be prepared for flare-ups that could erupt in future due to crowded conditions and the reality of individuals with different cultural codes and norms of behaviour living, playing and rubbing up against one another regularly.

Foreign workers doing low- paid jobs that locals shun will continue to be needed for the economy to run, even as the Government slows their inflow.

As we enter this post-riot phase, the public waits eagerly for the committee's report. It also wants to be assured that those in charge of keeping the peace and ensuring safety have the situation in hand, and that they will learn useful lessons from this riot - to help them better anticipate, manage and minimise the fallout of any future incidents.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 21, 2013

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