Beyond the riot: 5 questions

Beyond the riot: 5 questions

The Dec 8 riot in Little India was quelled within hours. By 6.45am the next day, roads where the violence - the worst in Singapore in more than 40 years - broke out were open to traffic. A national inquiry was convened almost immediately, and cooling measures such as a ban on public consumption and sale of alcohol were introduced. The Committee of Inquiry has now submitted its report, and eight recommendations on how to prevent a repeat of the incident have been accepted by the Government and debated in Parliament. Yet even as the dust settles, Insight's Hoe Pei Shan, Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Walter Sim ask: Are there issues that linger?

Are there enough police officers?

THAT is a question that has kept coming up in the seven months since the Dec 8 riot.

The issue came to the fore at the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearings earlier this year, after Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee told the committee that he would need 1,000 more officers.

The extra manpower, he said, would allow him to raise additional troops specialised in tackling riots, as well as beef up patrol teams that police hot spots and neighbourhoods.

Two MPs raised his request in Parliament on Monday, after Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean announced plans to add 300 men to anti-riot troops in the Special Operations Command (SOC).

One was Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC's Hri Kumar Nair, who wondered how the force would recruit the 1,000 given the tight labour market, while opposition MP Sylvia Lim asked if there was a "serious under-resource problem".

There is, however, no magic number when it comes to the strength of a police force, said security expert Kumar Ramakrishna, head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security here. "Too many and accusations of 'police state' may be heard. Too few... and public anxiety may spike."

But the decision to reinforce the SOC troops is a step in the right direction, he added.

DPM Teo also said on Monday that the Gurkha Contingent - and if necessary, the Singapore Armed Forces - can be tapped if a large public order incident occurs.

Case in point: Army reinforcements were activated to support the police during the manhunt for terrorist leader Mas Selamat Kastari after he escaped from detention in February 2008.

It was also after the debacle that year when the Ministry of Home Affairs said it was stepping up recruitment. This after it announced a study on its workload in Parliament earlier, said Ms Lim.

"But as the riot shows, the extent of the problem is still serious after six years." She said more officers are now needed to fill positions for community policing, as well as to police, among other things, emerging threats such as transnational and organised crime.

As of last year, there were just under 8,800 regular police officers. This means a ratio of one officer to 614 residents. The force, however, is supported by about 3,700 full-time police national servicemen and 2,000 volunteer officers.

London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York, however, have police strength two to three times that of Singapore's, said Mr Ng.

He also told the COI that the Singapore Police Force has been kept compact in line with public service restraints.

Insight understands the police saw job cuts across its divisions, including the SOC, as part of a public sector-wide drive to shave 9 per cent of its workforce over three years from 2004.

Mr Nair, however, said Singapore's low crime rate - compared to other major cities - means "we are not too off the mark".

The numbers alone are also not a true indication of police capability, especially when new technology allows the officers here to do more with less, he said.

Still, DPM Teo told Parliament that between 2008 and 2014, more than 1,000 new posts have been added for initiatives such as the Community Policing System - almost all of which have been filled. The force has also increased its headcount by about 15 per cent in the past 10 years.

This despite recruitment challenges beyond the tight labour market. For instance, potential recruits would need to satisfy stringent requirements. Also, like most forces around the world, foreigners - unless they are permanent residents - need not apply.

Ms Lim suggested that the Government strengthen its mechanisms to regularly assess and detect whether operational capabilities are being compromised, without needing major incidents to show up the problems.

Mr Nair said that with the additional officers for the SOC in the next two to three years, DPM Teo has made it clear that the focus, for now, is on building up the SOC. "And he was confident that could be achieved in the short-term, so that gives a measure of assurance.

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