Little India Riot COI: 5 acts of bravery in just 45 minutes

Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officer Lieutenant Tiffany Neo.

Rookie Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officer Lieutenant Tiffany Neo was the team leader of the first SCDF response team at the fatal accident that sparked the Little India riot.

Taking the stand on day eight of the Committee of Inquiry hearings on the riot, Lt Neo, who joined the SCDF in January last year, described what happened that fateful Dec 8 night - a night when she displayed great bravery.

1. SHOWS GRACE UNDER FIRE (9.30PM)

By the time Lt Neo and her five-man team got to Race Course Road, another team with a Red Rhino vehicle had arrived and were getting ready the hydraulic spreader to lift the bus, so that accident victim Sakthivel Kumaravelu's body could be extricated.

He had been pinned under the left wheel.

Using her torch to look under the bus, Lt Neo, 26, saw that half of the man's head had been crushed.

She set her men to work while she tried to push the unruly crowd back, together with some other auxiliary police officers at the scene.

After a while, some police officers arrived and joined the effort.

"There were also some Indian nationals who came to join us and helped to keep the crowd away. However, after a while, they were also pulled back into the crowd," she said.

As the crowd started to throw things, she calmly directed her men. After the bus had been lifted, one of her officers managed to pull the victim's legs away from under the wheels before the bus fell onto its wheels again.

The officer managed to duck just in time.

By now, the crowd was also pelting the bus with objects, which "bounced off the bus and flew past us". Some fell near her officers. But she was unfazed.

After consulting Assistant Superintendent of Police Jonathan Tang, who was the ground commander of the incident, they agreed that the body should be taken away.

She called for her officers to bring two blankets and a stretcher so they could move the body into an ambulance.

On why she had covered the body, Lt Neo said: "The sight of the body was not very nice. As responders, we are quite used to this. But if members of the public saw it, they could get quite emotional.

"Also, it was out of respect."

2. PROTECTS BODY AT ALL COST (9.56PM)

Three SCDF officers loaded the body onto a stretcher and carried it towards a nearby ambulance. But the crowd was surging forward and they had to go round the back of the bus.

Lt Neo and a few police officers escorted the body through the crowd, with Lt Neo pushing people away to make room for the team.

A man rushed up to her claiming that the victim was his brother, and wanted to pull up the blanket to see the body.

"I pushed him back and told him to move away," she said.

She was also hit on her back twice, but she did not turn around "because I was focused on getting the body to the ambulance".

3. BREAKS RULES TO PREVENT ESCALATION (9.59PM)

At the ambulance, there were paramedics treating injured first responders and they refused to allow Lt Neo to load the body because it was "against protocol".

SCDF responders usually extricate dead accident victims before handing the bodies over to the police, who will deal with them.

The group then placed the stretcher by the road while they surrounded it, planning their next step.

When she saw most of her officers gathered around the ambulance and rioters still hurling things, Lt Neo decided to break the rules and put the body in the ambulance.

This was because other emergency response vehicles did not have space to house the body with the stretcher. She also did not want others to grab the body or to take pictures of it, she said.

4. SAVES BUS DRIVER AND TIMEKEEPER (10PM)

After the body had been put in the ambulance, ASP Tang told Lt Neo that there was a female victim trapped on board the bus.

Lt Neo returned to the vehicle and found timekeeper Wong Geck Woon sitting on the steps inside the bus.

All the glass in the front doors of the bus had been shattered.

"I asked her if she was okay, and told her 'don't worry, the ambulance is on its way'. Some simple things in Mandarin," Lt Neo said.

It was during this conversation that she found out bus driver Lee Kim Huat was still on the bus.

When he did not respond to Madam Wong calling out to him, Lt Neo boarded the bus to look for him.

The door was jammed, so she squeezed through the door frame where the glass had been broken.

Inside, it was dark and there was debris all over the aisle, including a rubbish bin that Mr Lee was hiding under.

Stepping on the seats, she called out: "Uncle, uncle, where are you?"

Only when she turned around did Mr Lee come out from under the rubbish bin.

As she was guiding him out of the bus, a projectile flew through the window and Lt Neo shielded Mr Lee with her hands.

Later, another object flew into the bus and Lt Neo shielded Mr Lee with her body while he crouched to the floor.

At the door, she told fellow SCDF officers to "open the door by any means", and to get helmets for the driver and timekeeper.

"Since we couldn't bring the ambulance nearer to minimise their exposure to the group, the least we could do was to protect their heads," she told the committee.

The men managed to get a construction helmet, which she gave to Mr Lee.

SCDF officers then surrounded Madam Wong and Mr Lee, guiding them towards a nearby ambulance while police officers protected them with shields.

5. STAYS BEHIND FOR FALLEN COLLEAGUE

Along the way to the ambulance, one of the SCDF officers, Corporal Muhammad Mahadhir, was hit in the ribs by a projectile and he crouched in pain.

Lt Neo, two SCDF officers and two policemen with shields stayed with him while the rest of the group continued moving to the ambulance.

By now, the pain was so intense that Corporal Mahadhir could not stand up, and the mob was still pelting the officers.

At that moment, she saw a passing police car and she stopped the vehicle, which was driven by ASP Tang.

The other two SCDF officers carried Cpl Mahadhir to the car, and she helped them put him in before telling ASP Tang to drive the man to safety.

It was then that she decided the SCDF officers should leave the scene since "we were done with our duty".

"We already did the tasks we were supposed to do. And I felt that staying there would compromise our safety. So I decided to pull out," she said.

The SCDF officers would have been a hindrance more than help at the scene because it would mean police officers, who were already stretched, would have to protect the SCDF officers too.

When asked what was going through her mind during the entire incident, Lt Neo said she could not understand why the rioters would attack first responders, who were there to help.

She said: "It was quite confusing and a bit disheartening because we're there to help. So, yes, I just couldn't make sense of why they were throwing the projectiles."

lawsm@sph.com.sg

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