Closure on causes, but will remedies go far enough?

Closure on causes, but will remedies go far enough?
Little India was bustling with foreign workers yesterday.

The first Parliament sitting after the Committee of Inquiry (COI) report was noticeably tamer than the questioning that took place during the investigation itself and the Parliament debates that preceded it.

Earlier, some MPs had been critical of the Government for seeming to have prematurely concluded that alcohol was a contributory factor, and one it used to justify giving more powers to the authorities patrolling Little India. But yesterday, of the nine MPs - from both the People's Action Party and Workers' Party (WP) - who rose to speak on the Government's response to the COI report, few probed the findings of the committee. Perhaps the change in tone was due to an element of fatigue. It has been eight months since the riot took place on Dec 8 last year. Many of the issues have been aired.

The committee sat for five weeks, and produced a 75-page report of its findings.

But I also read it as a sign of trust in the COI - that it has been independent and exhaustive in its investigation.

Is this enough to bring closure to this episode, which is ultimately what the COI was intended to do?

Going by the line of questioning yesterday, the answer is not yet.

The focus has now turned from the causes of the riot to its remedies, so that the chances of another incident are minimised. And on that front, the Government still has some serious work to do.

One major point of contention yesterday is ensuring that the force is strengthened sufficiently.

This was one of the eight recommendations by the COI (all which were accepted by the Government), which found that the current manpower levels are insufficient to deal with large-scale public order incidents.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that 300 officers will be added to the Special Operations Command, the police's anti-riot force, to double its current strength.

But several MPs seemed sceptical if this was realistic, or even enough.

Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) noted the tight labour situation.

WP chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) asked if the problem of a lack of manpower had been properly communicated between the police and the Government.

Was the DPM surprised by Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee's assessment at the COI hearings that the police need 1,000 more officers to meet multiple demands, she asked, when the Government had previously said it did not lack resources.

In his response, DPM Teo noted that the manpower crunch is not unique to the police force. The problem is not solved by just "asking" for numbers, he said. Even as there is no harm in doing so, the issue of manpower constraints comes into the picture soon enough. And so while the Government is "quite confident" it will be able to add the 300 troops, he added the caveat that the demographic realities are "quite stark".

This is because over the next five years, fewer young Singaporeans will be entering the workforce than in the past five years.

It begs the question, therefore, of whether the 300 extra troops would really be enough, or amount to a compromise, given Singapore's manpower constraints.

The second issue pertains to the training of troops to handle such riots in the future.

Here is where it gets trickier. While practice does make perfect, in Singapore's case it is hardly the type of situation that we want to encourage.

This did not stop Ms Lim from making a suggestion to have more peaceful protests in order to give more hands-on training, which DPM Teo shot down as not logical, because not many Singaporeans will want chaos on the streets disrupting their lives and which would take up resources that can be used elsewhere.

To another suggestion of getting exposure overseas where riots are more common, he said it is "not common for forces to send their nationals to enforce in other countries".

On this front, again, the realities make giving more hands-on training to our forces not practical.

Another point that deserves a deeper study is the finding of how the crowd reacted.

One cause was that the riot escalated because of misperception that the accident was caused by the bus driver and the timekeeper, and that the first responders protected them instead of arresting them.

Another had to do with the "cultural psychology" of the workers, which in this case may have spurred them to take the law into their own hands.

On these, DPM Teo acknowledged that more cultural understanding needs to be provided to officers, and said there will be programmes tuned for these different culture groups.

Ms Lim also asked if there was a need for crowd psychologists to help guide the riot manager. But DPM Teo, again, said that it may not be practical.

The Little India riot was a once in a four decade occurrence. That a riot is so rare is a blessing.

Yet, now that it has occurred, it has raised important questions over the adequacy of manpower and training and the limits to which they can be improved.

Yesterday's debate suggests that while there appears to be closure on the riot's causes, providing sufficient assurance and instilling confidence that it will not re-occur is a much more difficult and longer process.

chanckr@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 08, 2014.
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