Little India Riot COI: Courage under fire

STATION INSPECTOR MUHAMMAD ADIL LAWI

He was among a group of uniformed officers caught on video running out of an ambulance on the night of the Little India riot.

In front of the ambulance was a burning vehicle, and rioters were surrounding the vehicles, some seemingly cheering.

When Station Inspector Muhammad Adil Lawi, of the Traffic Police, appeared before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Thursday, its members grilled him on his actions.

Was it an act of cowardice?

Why didn't any of the law enforcement officers arrest a rioter who got into the ambulance and tried to start the engine?

Also, why did some of the rioters gesture to the officers to get out before burning the ambulance?

In an attempt to answer the questions, Station Insp Adil gave his account of the events on Dec 8 last year.

'BURNT ALIVE'

He was on Race Course Road to help with traffic control after the fatal accident when he realised he was becoming a target of rioters hurling projectiles, which included rocks, fruit and beer bottles.

As the crowd got more unruly, he was hit in the chest, left elbow and right knee by flying objects.

Two police patrol cars were damaged and a police motorcycle was toppled.

Station Insp Adil gathered other officers and took cover near an ambulance at Race Course Road.

The paramedics inside asked them to get in but he turned them down.

After being hit incessantly, he decided the men should board the ambulance for their safety.

A projectile then shattered a window, injuring a female Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officer.

They used blankets to cover the broken window and the woman's head.

As the senior officer on board, Station Insp Adil took charge and radioed the police for instructions. There was no response.

Throughout, Station Insp Adil said he held onto the rear doors in case the rioters tried to get in to hold the group hostage.

An SCDF officer said he could hear rioters outside planning to burn the ambulance. By then, the patrol car in front was in flames.

Calling it a tactical decision, Station Insp Adil said he told the group - which comprised two traffic policemen, two auxiliary police officers and four paramedics - that they would have to evacuate the ambulance and run towards Bukit Timah Road, where he knew other officers had been deployed.

He said that they "would have been burnt alive" if they had remained in the ambulance.

WAS IT COWARDICE?

In a video of the incident shown during the hearing on Thursday, a group of rioters could be seen opening the ambulance doors and gesturing to the officers to get out.

Behind them, some rioters could be seen running up to the ambulance to throw objects at the running officers while others were cheering at the burning police cars in front.

Station Insp Adil said he had no idea whether the group who opened the doors was trying to help because he "couldn't risk it at that time".

COI member John De Payva said: "If (the rioters) were so bold as to assist you to get out knowing you were uniformed persons with arms, they would have known you were not going to attack them. How does that reflect on the police force?"

He then asked if the rioters in the video had been identified, and State Counsel Sharmila Sripathy said only one of them had been found.

"So is it fair to say the rest could still be here in Singapore, in Little India, or could have gone back to India?" Mr De Payva asked. Ms Sharmila said "yes", adding that the men's whereabouts are unknown.

Former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba asked if the officers' actions could be perceived as cowardice, which would have emboldened the rioters.

Station Insp Adil agreed, but maintained that he was thinking about the safety of the others in the ambulance. Rioters torched the vehicle moments after they ran out, and it exploded.

WHY RUN AWAY?

Ms Sharmila then brought up the account of one of the auxiliary police officers on board, who said a rioter had got into the driver's seat of the ambulance and tried to start the engine while saying in Tamil: "I want you all to die today."

Station Insp Adil said he was not aware of the incident because he was holding on to the rear doors.

Mr De Payva said: "If one of them had gone into the ambulance despite seven or eight law enforcement officers, why was the person not apprehended?"

Ms Sharmila then asked if Station Insp Adil could see the driver's seat and he said he was occupied with holding the rear doors.

He said he was the last to leave the ambulance after ensuring the rest had got out safely.

While fleeing, they were pelted by projectiles until they reached Bukit Timah Road.

"How can the law run away?" Mr De Payva asked.

Mr Tee also noted that the officers' actions could have played a part in the rioters' lawlessness.

"Your life is threatened... You must react positively.

"They see you running away, there will be more problems. They are in control, you have allowed them to be in control," he said.

The hearing continues on Friday with SCDF officers likely to take the stand.

STAFF SERGEANT KAMISAH HANAFI

Getting hit by a flying beer bottle on her left forearm did not stop Staff Sergeant Kamisah Hanafi from continuing her duties.

She helped a fellow cop who had been hit on the head before going on to help another group who was under attack.

Then someone hurled a concrete slab that hit her in the stomach.

"I fell to the ground and Sergeant Chin (Chai Yang, her partner) shouted to the other officers for help," she testified on Thursday.

Her colleagues dragged her away before helping her into an ambulance at Race Course Road.

She was treated by paramedics in the ambulance before some 20 other officers, including Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Jonathan Tang, came on board.

ASP Tang told the ambulance driver to drive away from the scene and the group evacuated to Bukit Timah Road.

While other officers went out to help contain the rioters, Staff Sgt Kamisah remained in the ambulance. She was later taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital in another ambulance.

Asked by the committee why she had not gone out to help her colleagues, Staff Sgt Kamisah said her left arm was swollen from being hit by the beer bottle and she could not move it. She also had a bruise on the right side of her stomach after being hit by the concrete slab.

"I knew if I fought on, I would be a liability. My men would have to look after me. Let the nurses in the hospital do that, my men needed to fight on," she said.

Staff Sgt Kamisah later said that in the beginning, she believed the rioters did not intend to kill anyone, but just wanted to show their anger.

Police officers who did not carry shields were not targeted with projectiles, she said, citing the example of ASP Tang who managed to walk around for quite a while without being attacked.

"They kept hitting the vehicles because they knew it (the vehicles) won't feel any pain. It probably gave them a sense of 'I did something'," she said.

SERGEANT FADLI SHAIFUDDIN MOHAMED SANI

The Traffic Police officer had been deployed to the scene of a fatal traffic accident in Little India.

But when Sergeant Fadli Shaifuddin Mohamed Sani, 28, and his partner got to the area on the night of Dec 8 last year, they could see glass bottles and other projectiles being thrown.

Parking their motorcycles at the junction of Buffalo Road and Race Course Road, they then helped to direct traffic out of the area, which was fast becoming congested.

That was when Sgt Fadli noticed a group of about 50 rioters at Kerbau Road throwing things at him and his partner.

"Instinctively, I charged at them with my baton drawn as I wanted them to know that the police were still in control of the scene.

"I also wanted to institute some law and order before the situation got more out of hand," he said.

He moved around the area with his baton drawn, hoping that it would stop the rioters from damaging police vehicles.

"It worked, as the rioters would retreat when I neared them," he said.

But he later had to stop because he realised he was "grossly outnumbered". By then, there were more rioters and the crowd seemed even more agitated.

A group of rioters near Little India MRT station then targeted Sgt Fadli and he was hit on his right thigh.

"This agitated me and I again charged towards the rioters with my baton drawn," he said.

After the rioters retreated, he told his team leader that he had been injured, but was asked to continue for as long as he could.

That was when he was hit again, this time on his left shin.

He was told not to go near the rioters any more because they had become very rowdy and safety was a concern.

Soon after, Sgt Fadli saw a rioter topple his motorcycle before running back to join the mob.

As the crowd got more violent, he was told to take shelter in a nearby police car, which later drove to Bukit Timah Road, where other uniformed officers had gathered.

From there, he saw his team leader and a few other officers abandoning an ambulance and running towards the main road. Moments later, rioters torched the ambulance, which exploded.

After officers from the Special Operations Command arrived, Sgt Fadli and his colleagues remained at the scene to redirect traffic, only leaving at 2am to have their injuries treated at Alexandra Hospital.

Former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba, who is part of the committee, said that what Sgt Fadli did was "a very brave act".

When he asked Sgt Fadli if he had any concerns about the crowd attacking him, the officer said: "For myself, I know how to protect myself and guard myself."

Sgt Fadli added that "you don't need 100 officers to disperse the crowd, just a few who are trained".

Committee chairman G.P. Selvam agreed.

"Yes. A few good men."

lawsm@sph.com.sg

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