3 key factors in Little India riot: COI report

  • Rioters' misconceptions
  • Alcohol
  • Police lapses

THE riot in Little India was triggered by a fatal accident involving a worker from India, but it was a confluence of factors that escalated the violence into the mayhem that shocked Singapore, found a Committee of Inquiry (COI).

These are: A misconception of the accident and the actions of the first responders, combined with a desire for "street justice" that is likely due to the rioters' cultural background.

Firstly, the crowd perceived bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Gek Woon to be responsible for the accident that killed 33-year-old construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu. So, they were angry to see the two of them protected by shields instead of being arrested when the police arrived on the scene.

Also, rumours had circulated that Mr Sakthivel had not been immediately killed in the accident, but was crying for help beneath the bus. There was also talk that responding officers had kicked and "disrespected" his body. This sparked a violent response.

"In many countries, and especially in rural and sub-urban settings, there is a 'retaliatory ethic' and a sense of the need for retribution for 'wrongdoing'," said its report released yesterday.

In addition, alcohol was a "major contributory factor", the committee added, noting that four foreign workers who hitherto pleaded guilty to rioting and were convicted had admitted consuming alcohol on the fateful night of Dec 8 last year.

The police and Singapore Civil Defence Force were commended by the committee for their teamwork and the leadership of both their ground commanders in the initial phase of the incident.

But the police slipped up in the 30 minutes between the extrication of the dead man's body and the arrival of anti-riot troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC).

The police's decision to hold their positions instead of engaging the mob gave the rioters a "free rein to do whatever they wanted" despite the presence of a sizeable number of officers. "The COI believes (police incident manager) Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim should have made more effort to establish the resources available and find out more about the situation," said the committee.

DAC Lu had testified that engaging the mob with the officers he had before the SOC's arrival could have sparked retaliation and forced the use of firearms. Disagreeing, the committee noted that two officers who charged and drove the crowd back temporarily were not overwhelmed.

It also said the riot was not caused by any deep-seated unhappiness among the foreign workers, but was the result of an "emotional outburst" following the death of Mr Sakthivel.

He was run over by a private bus after he tripped while chasing after it. It led to a riot by about 400 foreign workers, mainly from South Asia.

During the two-hour mayhem, 54 police officers and other first responders were injured, and more than $530,000 worth of government property damaged.

The four-man committee, set up to get to the root cause of the violence, sat for five weeks, heard evidence from 93 people and produced a 75-page report of its findings and recommendations.

Released by the Home Affairs Ministry, the COI made eight recommendations in its report, most of which were on preventing future riots. These include: Beefing up police manpower, including the SOC, cutting the layers of authority needed to activate emergency personnel and improving communications and command-and-control capabilities for officers to get a better picture of the ground situation during public disorder.

In addition, strictly enforcing measures against public drunkenness, and putting in place alcohol restrictions in hot spots where large crowds typically indulge in heavy drinking.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean yesterday thanked the panel comprising retired judge G.

Pannir Selvam (chairman) and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, former NTUC president John De Payva and Mr Andrew Chua, chairman of the West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee. Mr Teo, who is also the Home Affairs Minister, said his ministry and the Manpower Ministry would study the recommendations and give the Government's response in Parliament on Monday.


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