'Heroine at Little India Riot: I had no time to feel fear

I was just a little speck in a huge mess.

Lieutenant Tiffany Neo, 26, said this yesterday in recalling her role in the Little India riot last December, which made her one of the heroes in that mess.

The plucky lieutenant was the team leader of the first Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) response team at the fatal accident that sparked the riot on Dec 8 last year.

She commanded a team of five that removed the body of the victim, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, from under a bus and escorted the bus driver and timekeeper to safety.

All this happened in the midst of a communication breakdown and organisational chaos.

For her bravery and quick thinking, Lt Neo was commended in March by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the incident. The COI released its findings and recommendations yesterday.

Lt Neo spoke to The New Paper at the Central Fire Station yesterday, where she had been stationed on the night of the riot.

Newly trained

At the time, she was just three months into her new job as a rota (shift) commander, having just graduated from her eight-month training programme at the Civil Defence Academy.

Clad in her No. 4 uniform, she recalled her involvement in the events on that fateful night.

When she was reminded that her actions had made a difference that night, Lt Neo modestly waved the compliments off and said: "That's our job, to save lives and property."

Asked if she had been afraid when the mob got unruly and pelted the officers with rocks, she said: "I had no time to think about that."

It was a sentence Lt Neo would repeat more than once in the course of the interview, indicating how she had acted on pure instinct at times.

That night, she had just come out of a night lecture at the fire station.

When the call for assistance came a few minutes later, she was eager: "It was a call to attend to a road traffic accident. My heart was racing because it was the first traffic accident that I had to respond to."

She did not expect to be thrown into the deep end - extricating a trapped body in the midst of Singapore's worst outbreak of violence in over 40 years.

"All I thought of at that time was what instructions should I give to my men, how to remove the body, what my action plan was going to be."

But when she reached Race Course Road in a fire engine, it was clear there would be complications.

"There were loud noises of people shouting when I first arrived. When I took a look at the scene, there was a huge crowd," she said.

"It was bigger than anything I've ever seen, save for maybe the National Day Parade or a Justin Bieber concert. It was intimidating." It didn't seem out of the ordinary at first as she was aware of the huge crowds in Little India on a Sunday night.

But it became increasingly difficult for the SCDF officers to remove the body as the crowd grew bigger and more rowdy. When rocks start flying in their direction, Lt Neo knew that trouble lay ahead.

Demonstrating to this reporter how close the crowd was to her men, she said: "I was basically stepping on our tools. There wasn't enough space to work.

"There were some police officers at the scene, but there weren't enough to hold the crowd back."

So she went to look for more police officers.

"I walked around to the other side of the bus, smacked (a police officer) on the head and said, 'come with me'."

They were soon joined by more officers, including the first incident commander, Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Jonathan Tang.

Video footage taken from a mobile vehicle camera mounted on a fire engine showed the police officers holding the crowd back with the assistance of some South Asian men.

With more space to work, Lt Neo's team managed to remove the body from the underside of the bus.

Standard procedures dictated that she should hand over the body to the police. But all the police officers were occupied.

So Lt Neo and ASP Tang made the call for the SCDF officers to take the body away from the bus.

"Typically, the police would be the ones to remove the body. What we did was not the usual practice," she said.

They carried the covered body to an ambulance while escorted by the police. But at the ambulance, she was stopped by a paramedic as it was against protocol to put a dead body in an ambulance.

Said Lt Neo: "I heard him going 'no, no, no' repeatedly. We were stunned and people were still throwing things at us.

"So I said: 'Quickly, just put inside, later then talk'."

She told TNP she made those decisions because there was not much time to think.

"What I did, boiled down to what we were supposed to do - to save lives and property. That really drove all my decision-making then."

She later went back to rescue the bus driver and the timekeeper from the mob surrounding the bus before pulling out from the scene with her team.

Four of them, including Lt Neo, were injured.

When her story came out during the COI, many friends and colleagues congratulated her for her heroics.

Even people she didn't know recognised her on the streets, coming up to her to thank her for "serving the nation".

She received a personal letter from SCDF Commissioner Eric Yap commending her role in the incident.

Said Lt Neo: "It still feels surreal. I didn't really expect this to happen in Singapore."

Referring to the COI's findings, she said: "As time goes by, good things would come out because (the riot) happened."

The lieutenant wanted to share the credit with her men, saying that "the rescue wouldn't have happened without their initiative and bravery".

Said Lt Neo: "Had there been more cameras to capture what my men did, they would have had a greater share of the glory as well, not just me alone."

At SCDF's Operations Centre, this reporter saw video footage of Lt Neo holding back the crowd and commanding her men.

The footage, which was not released to the public, was sent back to the operations centre in the SCDF Headquarters on the night of the riot.

The operations centre's assistant director, Lieutenant Colonel Albert Seow, said: "The live streaming of video footage from the incident site to our operations centre facilitated the real-time monitoring and assessment of the ground situation. It allowed our operations centre better appreciation of the ground situation."

SCDF OFFICER HAD COMMON SENSE

She made the call to move the road accident victim's body away from the mob into the ambulance despite it going against standard operating procedure.

But Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officer Lieutenant (Lt) Tiffany Neo's act drew praise from Mr G. Pannir Selvam, head of the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riot on Dec 8.

"What you decided at that time was the common-sense call - to break the practice that you had to hand over the body," he said of the 26-year-old.

"Common sense on that day was a rare commodity, and I'm sure they (committee members) all join me in commending you."

On the eighth day of the 24-day inquiry, Lt Neo spoke of how the violence unfolded during the riot and hindered her team from the Central Fire Station while they conducted rescue operations.

The riot was sparked off by a fatal accident. Construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, 33, was hit by a bus when he fell. A crowd gathered and started hitting the bus with their hands and shopping bags to vent their anger.

They then directed their anger at Lt Neo and her team after rescuers had extricated Mr Kumaravelu's body.

"I was quite perplexed - why were they throwing projectiles at responders?" she had said during the inquiry.

"It was quite confusing and a bit disheartening because we were trying to help."

PELTING

The rioters continued pelting the damaged bus as Lt Neo and a fellow SCDF officer boarded the bus to rescue the timekeeper and bus driver.

She decided to round up her team and leave the scene only after they had completed the rescue.

"I believed we had completed the task we were supposed to do, and I felt that staying there compromised mine and my team's safety. So I decided to pull all of us out," she said.

ngjunsen@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 01, 2014.
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