In that situation when you don't have a force advantage, it is actually the mob that decides whether there is an uncontrolled situation and escalation, not the officers. - Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean
He went from facing rioters to being in the line of fire from the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the Little India riot.
But in Parliament yesterday, the ground commander of police forces in the riot on Dec 8 found support from Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean.
The minister defended the decisions of Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, the second incident manager of the police responders that night last year.
Said DPM Teo: "I evaluated the actions of the commanders and the officers that night and I do not find them wanting."
He was responding to a question by Member of Parliament (Sembawang GRC) Vikram Nair, who asked what was to become of DAC Lu following intense questioning by the COI.
DPM Teo's response to the COI centred on three factors:
1. Force. advantage
DAC Lu, the commander of Tanglin Police Division, was roundly criticised by the COI for deciding to hold his position with the first responding officers instead of intervening the riot.
DAC Lu testified he made that call because he was waiting for the arrival of anti-riot troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC) before moving in, citing his own lack of numbers.
But the COI clearly disagreed.
In its report last week, the COI said: "The lapses in the second phase of the riot were an aberration from the norm... (They) reflected the decisions of the ground commander who could have taken more positive action instead of holding a position until the SOC arrived."
Explaining DAC Lu's decisions, DPM Teo said: "When you are able to have the force advantage, you can choose the amount of force to use, and then calibrate it better.
"You decide whether to escalate it or not."
On the other hand, intervening without a force advantage may escalate to the use of lethal force, he added.
"In that situation when you don't have a force advantage, it is actually the mob that decides whether there is an uncontrolled situation and escalation, not the officers."
2. Hindsight, advantage
While DPM Teo praised the COI for determining what happened, he also highlighted that the COI gathered its facts based on "a reconstruction of all available information after the riot".
He said he had to evaluate the actions of the commanders and the officers using information the officers had during the riot.
Said DPM Teo: "(They) had to make decisions in the heat of the action, under time pressure and based on the information they had available...
"They did not have the benefit of hindsight."
He added that it was not possible to predict what would have happened if DAC Lu took the "interventionist" course of action suggested by the COI.
"We can't be sure that it will definitely be better or if the outcome might have been worse because we know that the crowd had been emotional and prone to misperceptions."
DPM Teo also said the police actions were seen to be proportional and fair, which helped restore calm and confidence the next day.
"If the police had been seen to be excessive, I think it would have caused a new set of issues and concerns," he said.
3. Manpower, advantage
In his ministerial statement, DPM Teo announced a number of improvements to policing and infrastructure.
This included the addition of 300 more officers to the SOC over the next two to three years, doubling its current strength.
During the inquiry, Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee had asked for 1,000 more police officers to augment the force.
But MP Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked how the police would manage to find that many people to join the force, with the current tight labour market?
MP for Aljunied GRC Sylvia Lim also said the issue of manpower in the police force was not a new issue and asked if the DPM was surprised that it was brought up again during the inquiry.
DPM Teo replied that these are problems faced by every organisation.
"These (manpower issues) are not unique to the police or the Home Team. Every organisation in the public and private sectors are dealing with these issues.
"The realities are quite stark. In the coming five years, we will have fewer young Singaporeans entering the workforce than we have in the past five years.
"So the issue is not going to be simpler and it is not going to be solved simply by asking, though there is no harm asking."
This article was first published on July 8, 2014.
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