COI chairman clarifies remarks on property and life

On Tuesday, Mr Selvam clarified comments made last Tuesday to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim over police actions during the riot.

THE chairman of the ongoing Committee of Inquiry into the Dec 8 riot on Tuesday clarified remarks he made last week that might have been taken by some to imply that he valued property over life.

Mr G. Pannir Selvam and committee member Tee Tua Ba had disagreed with a senior police officer's comments last Tuesday that police actions during the unrest be judged on the outcome of the incident in Little India that night.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim said during the public hearing last Tuesday: "Nobody died, we didn't have to use our firearms, no shot was fired, there was no serious injury... the outcome speaks for itself."

But Mr Tee disagreed and pointed to the burning of the police patrol cars by the mob that night.

DAC Lu accepted that properties were damaged but added: "These are things we can buy. If a life had been lost, no money would bring him back... that's what I think is important to say."

That, however, drew a stern rebuke from Mr Selvam, who said to the Tanglin Police Division chief: "No, no. That is not the philosophy of riot control."

To which DAC Lu replied: "I said this earlier, and I'll repeat it; I think it is morally wrong to prioritise property over human life. The preservation of human life must be paramount."

But Mr Selvam said: "The loss of human life was not the priority issue at that stage, not on that day, in the circumstances of everything that happened."

On Tuesday, Mr Selvam raised the matter again, this time asking migrant workers group TWC2 president Russell Heng - who was appearing before the inquiry - if he was under the impression that the retired judge had indeed valued property more than life.

"A lot of people (have) asked me that. I never said that. What I said in the proceedings was, on that day, it was not a life-threatening situation. That means these rioters weren't after the lives of anybody," said Mr Selvam.

"So what the responders were faced with was a simple rioting situation, where rioters were burning property, overturning cars. They never threatened the life of anybody, so there was no justification to pull out the gun and fire."

The retired judge agreed that if the police had pulled out the guns, it could have changed the situation. "(But it was) not a life threatening situation, so no point in saying: 'I handled the situation without a loss of life'," he said on Tuesday. "The situation you have was purely confined to property damage, not life damage. Fact of the matter is, there is no evidence of them wanting to kill anybody.

"It's not a situation of someone trying to kill somebody, and you were trying to prevent it. They were even quite conscious of the fact that they were targeting police vehicles."

Mr Selvam said what he meant by his remarks last Tuesday was that "the priority of life was not the situation they were facing on that day... What they were facing was not a threat to the life of anybody, but the property... So it should be handled in the sense that property damage should have been prevented... None of us, I think, would be bold enough to say, or stupid enough to say, property is more important than life."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

Little India Riot COI: Police commander "made the problem worse"