The actions of the police commander who led the operation to quell the violence in Little India on Dec 8 were the subject of a fiery debate yesterday as the hearing into the unrest resumed.
The Committee of Inquiry (COI) pulled no punches as it grilled Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim for more than four hours on the witness stand.
One issue it raised with DAC Lu was his claim that his men were outnumbered by the mob. "Let me ask you again. At the time you arrived, the record says 130 men were on the ground. Car flipped over," said COI member Tee Tua Ba.
"That is not the correct assumption," said DAC Lu, correcting Mr Tee, who is a former commissioner of police.
Although the inquiry had been presented with evidence that showed there were 111 police officers on the ground that night, only 47 were dealing directly with the riot, said DAC Lu.
Most of these officers were also scattered across an area the size of "three football fields", he added. Of the remaining 64 officers, 30 were controlling traffic, 22 were unarmed plainclothes officers, seven were injured and another five were "around the area".
All he had at his disposal were 11 police officers, of which only eight were armed with revolvers and T-batons, said DAC Lu.
The 11 men, who included himself, were also facing two sections of rioters - on one side a group of about 50, and on the other in Race Course Road, rioters "in the hundreds".
Mr Tee also took issue with DAC Lu's strategy of "holding the line" to wait for riot control troops from the Special Operations Command to arrive before engaging the unruly mob. A Traffic Police sergeant had given testimony that he had charged at some rioters earlier that night and a Certis Cisco officer had even "caught" four men, he noted.
Mr Tee also quoted a British parliamentary report on the 2011 London Riots which concluded that holding back police action would only embolden rioters.
DAC Lu, however, disagreed. Quoting from the same report, he said: "I have read the report... The conclusion was not that the tactic did not work, it was that numbers matter. Sufficient numbers were the key to the issue."
Mr Tee had also asked why DAC Lu was not aware that police vehicles were being set on fire even though he had "command and control" of the scene.
DAC Lu explained that his line of sight was blocked by the bus, which was involved in the fatal accident that sparked the riot.
He said he also had difficulties communicating with other officers because the radio airwaves were jammed and hence he did not have an idea of how many of his men were at the scene or where they were located initially.
"As a commander, the first thing you want to know is how many men you have on the ground," said Mr Tee. "You didn't know how many men were on the ground?"
The 48-year-old senior police officer seemed beleaguered at various points yesterday as the committee peppered him with questions, often cutting him off as he tried to answer.
At times, he gave as good as he got, asking at one point: "Is the COI using information gathered over the last three months to evaluate my actions on that night?"
At another, Mr Tee asked him: "Was it a failure of you, or a failure of the whole system?"
DAC Lu replied: "Is the honourable member asking for an opinion or asking a question?"
Pressed on the inaction of his men, he said: "These are not two armies facing off, it was like fighting an insurgency so even if we wanted to shoot, shoot who?
"Stones were coming from behind people in the crowd," he added. "This would have been a totally different COI, asking different questions... (such as) why did you shoot without a clear line of sight?"
The commander of Tanglin Police Division added that if his men had opened fire and shot or killed one of the rioters, "the sentiments would have been inflamed".
"They might have set fire to a building, or attacked people. So my guiding principle that night: Where possible, do not escalate the situation, do no use force unless there is no choice, even if we're legally right in shooting."