Lessons learnt to make sure S'pore stays safe

After coming under intense scrutiny during the Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearings, the men and women of the Singapore Police Force are likely to take heart from its report on the Little India riot.

The committee declared that the force had responded "relatively swiftly and efficiently" to the incident on Dec 8.

This seems a fair conclusion, not least if one remembers that there was no loss of life as a result of the violence, and the police did not have to resort to more forceful or aggressive means, such as using tear gas or firearms to neutralise the mob.

The findings, however, will strike many as being in marked contrast to the committee's tone when it questioned several policemen, including senior officers, during the public hearings which ended in March. Then, police officers who responded to the riot were grilled on their decisions and course of action during the riot when they took the witness stand.

These range from why the police did not engage the rioters earlier to quell the violence to why there was a delay in activating anti-riot troops from the Special Operations Command (SOC), and whether officers could have been more assertive when confronting the mob, among other issues.

On one particularly memorable day during the inquiry, the incident's ground commander, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, was questioned by the committee for more than four hours over his decision to hold the ground instead of trying to disperse rioters as they torched police patrol cars and an ambulance.

Former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba said the perceived police inaction at the time could have made the rioters bolder.

DAC Lu hit back by saying that the police doctrine was to hold and "wait for superior forces" before moving in. His small group of officers could have been overwhelmed, which would have forced police to open fire, he said. But COI chairman and retired judge G. Pannir Selvam, replied: "It is just your imagination and self-delusion."

When word of the exchange between DAC Lu and the committee got out to the ranks of the force, morale among the officers took a hit, going by comments of many of the former and serving officers in the force that I spoke to. Some wondered if the committee's approach and line of questioning was fair. After all, it had the luxury of hindsight, unlike those on the ground who faced hundreds of angry rioters that night, many highly intoxicated.

So the more measured tone adopted by the COI in its report will come as a relief. After reviewing evidence, the committee broke down the police response into two phases: The first from around 9.20pm, when the fatal accident that sparked the riot occurred till the body of the victim was extricated at about 10.15pm, and the second from 10.15pm until the SOC troops arrived at about 10.45pm.

The force was roundly commended for the handling of the first phase. "Any direct action taken by the police against the rioters in this phase would have taken an ugly turn. There were too many rioters and too few (police) officers there," it said.

Several lapses in the actions of the police during the second phase, however, were highlighted by the COI. But it acknowledged that the officers at the scene had faced "severe communications problems", which made it difficult to establish proper command and control at the scene. This lack of communications also added to the delay in the activation and arrival of anti-riot troops, it said. But when the reinforcements from the SOC arrived, the rioters were dispersed within "a very short time".

Turning back to the big picture, however, the committee was quick to emphasise its view that these lapses in the second phase of the riot were "an aberration from the norm", adding that they did not reflect a "serious and systemic defect" in the force as a whole. It also acknowledged that none of the officers that night had encountered a major riot incident before.

"In the view of the COI, (the police force) is on the whole an efficient and effective institution, and is one of the finest police forces in the world," said the report. "The key is to learn from this incident, so that mistakes are not repeated and future responses are improved." So, did the COI help ensure the right lessons are drawn after it took a hard look at what transpired that fateful night? Or did it pull its punches?

To be fair, the committee seems to have weighed the need to ensure that the morale and standing of our men and women in blue were not diminished by its process, given the critical role they play in keeping Singapore one of the safest and most peaceful cities in the world. In 2009, during the Group of 20 summit in London, the Metropolitan Police was sharply criticised for its rough handling of protesters, including pushing into crowds with shields and batons. Some have argued that this eventually contributed to a "softly, softly" approach to policing when riots broke out in London two years later. Media reports noted that one of the more astonishing sights of the 2011 riots was how the police held back from arresting looters only metres away. "A police officer later told me that this was all part of official policy: Better to let a few criminals smash up a few shops than intervene and spark off a full-scale riot," wrote a journalist from The Daily Telegraph.

So, having looked at what happened on Dec 8, the COI sought to help ensure that lessons are learnt, and the force recovers its ability to continue to keep Singapore safe.


This article was first published on July 01, 2014.
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