Little India Riot Inquiry: Crowd believed police were taking sides

The Little India riot investigation team appointed by the Committee of Inquiry (COI) has engaged a psychologist to analyse the behaviour of the crowd during the Dec 8 incident.

Dr Majeed Khader, 47, is a senior consultant psychologist with the Home Team Academy and has worked for 20 years as a forensic and criminal psychologist.

He said he spoke to police and Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers, foreign workers and experts in the field, taking just under a month.

He and his team pieced together the final report of his findings, which was submitted on March 1. On Thursday, Dr Majeed appeared before the COI to present his findings.

DID THE POLICE EMBOLDEN THE RIOTERS BY HOLDING THE LINE? SHOULD OFFICERS HAVE MOVED IN AND TAKEN ACTION?

It is not what the police should have done, but the way they should have done it, Dr Majeed said.

While their lack of action could have emboldened the rioters, had officers moved in without proper training, equipment and numbers, the outcome may still be the same, he added.

Dr Majeed said that for police officers to be effective when moving in, they must be able to differentiate rioters from onlookers, have a proper tactical plan, communicate well and have the necessary resources.

WHY DID THE RIOTERS TARGET THE BUS DRIVER AND TIMEKEEPER INITIALLY, BUT TURN THEIR ATTENTION TO THE POLICE LATER?

When the accident first occurred, the crowd expressed their anger by targeting bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Geck Woon, said Dr Majeed.

These two were perceived to be responsible for the death of fellow Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu, he said.

But the crowd shifted their attention to the police and even the SCDF, whom they believed to be taking sides with Mr Lee and Madam Wong.

WHY DID THE CROWD ATTACK POLICE OFFICERS WHO WERE IN GROUPS BUT NOT INDIVIDUAL ONES?

Dr Majeed said behaviour evidence showed that rioters did let officers pass through without touching or hitting them.

But when the officers started to form up in groups, the rioters saw them as an "out-group" which was there to thwart their actions and prevent them from seeking justice for their dead countryman, he said.

"There was this sense of 'us' versus 'them' that was being formed in the minds of the rioters," Dr Majeed elaborated.

WHY DID THE RIOTERS ONLY ATTACK POLICE OFFICERS IN RIOT GEAR?

When officers appeared in riot gear, shields and batons, it may have appeared as if they were preparing to use violence against the rioters, he said.

 
 
 

WHY WERE SCDF VEHICLES ATTACKED?

First, the SCDF officers, upon arriving at the scene, responded to the crying timekeeper without noticing the body of Mr Sakthivel under the bus.

The foreign workers therefore felt that the SCDF officers were unsympathetic towards their countryman and they became frustrated. They may have also perceived the SCDF and the police as "one united group against them", Dr Majeed said.

WHY WAS THERE DESTRUCTION OF PROPERTY, SMASHING AND BURNING?

Destruction of property is commonly seen in rioting, based on cases around the world, said Dr Majeed. This includes throwing of items, breaking of windows and setting things on fire.

"So what we saw that night... is actually not unusual," he said.

WHY DID THE RIOTERS DISPERSE AND RE-ASSEMBLE SUBSEQUENTLY?

Dr Majeed conceded it was difficult to conclude how the crowd actually behaved.

"It was a dynamic situation. It is theoretically possible that some of them were instigators and perpetrators, but later became just observers.

Observers may had taken up other roles later on," he said.

DID ALCOHOL INFLUENCE RIOTERS' BEHAVIOUR?

Dr Majeed said there were not many pieces of behavioural evidence which showed that the people involved were intoxicated. "It's indirect evidence that we had. People smelled alcohol... (and there were) alcohol bottles on the floor," he said.

Earlier, Dr Majeed also said that alcohol was not the sole influence, even though it might have played a part.

WHY DID THE RIOTERS SET FIRE TO POLICE CARS AND THE AMBULANCE?

It was not a very difficult act with a relatively high rate of success, Dr Majeed said. Plus, it did not require sophisticated equipment or special skills, he said.

He added that the police vehicles and ambulance were left unguarded, prompting committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam to call them "sitting ducks".

ARE THERE GROUNDS THAT INDIAN WORKERS ARE MALTREATED?

Dr Majeed said he did not think there was a case for maltreatment. Complaints of unhappiness and rudeness do not constitute systemic maltreatment, he said.

"We have also read some of the reports (by (non-government organisations), but this appears... to be more anecdotal rather than (being applicable to the) whole of Singapore," he added.

WHAT THE POLICE CAN DO

1 Differentiate the crowd: Do not assume the group is mindless and irrational. Take action against the main perpetrators. Communicate, negotiate and use warnings if possible.

2 Obtain information about the crowd early: Collect background intelligence to understand their social identities, motives and goals. This can be used to de-escalate the violence.

3 Find out what they want: This will allow the authorities to appreciate how to deal with them.

4 Have a hierarchy of tactics starting with non-lethal approaches: If violence escalates, more forceful measures must be in place to quell the violence. A tactical protection unit with full protective equipment should be on standby, but out of sight until necessary.

rloh@sph.com.sg


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