Little India Riot Inquiry: Language barrier in transport 'may be cause for concern'

BUS shelters and queueing areas will be set up in Little India for workers waiting for a ride back to their dormitories, the public hearing into the Dec 8 riot heard.

These permanent facilities will replace temporary pick-up points that have been used there since 1999, a Land Transport Authority (LTA) officer told the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Monday.

The upgrading works will be completed in phases starting next month, said group director for public transport Yeo Teck Guan.

They will include signs in languages that foreign workers understand, added Mr Yeo, who acknowledged that the language barrier between employees of bus service operators and the workers who use the service on Sundays "may be a cause for concern".

Since bus services resumed a fortnight after the riot, private buses have no longer been allowed to wait at pick-up points along Tekka Lane and Hampshire Road.

Instead, buses are now summoned from a holding area to the pick-up point only when the queue reaches 80 per cent of the bus' capacity. This was meant to improve traffic flow and safety, said Mr Yeo.

"What we intend to do is to operate more like a traditional bus stop," he said. "So... we need structures, waiting areas, perhaps shelter and also queue facilities so that the foreign workers can queue in an orderly (manner) and they can board the bus easier so that the bus can go off faster."

Asked by committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam if more buses could be provided to eliminate wait times completely, Mr Yeo said there will always be at least some waiting time, but that the LTA will try to minimise it.

Bus operating hours, reduced after the riot from 2pm till 11pm to 2pm till 9pm, was also a strategy to "clear the area for residents" earlier, said Mr Yeo.

He said the authority has also been keeping tabs on unlicensed transport operators. It has sent enforcement officers to Little India "almost every week" and worked with the bus associations to identify unlicensed lorries and buses.

Sixty such cases were uncovered in 2012 and last year.

 

COI member John De Payva asked whether the crowd of workers remaining after the cut-off time of 9pm was a problem waiting to erupt - an issue raised by witnesses last week.

"Be careful how you answer this, because you are going to be held personally responsible if anything happens," said Mr De Payva, a former National Trades Union Congress president.

Mr Yeo estimated that about 200 to 300 last-minute passengers streamed in just before 9pm most Sundays, and that buses continued to arrive regularly, with the crowd cleared by 9.15pm.

This estimate varied from the evidence of representatives of the Singapore School Transport Association (SSTA), one of two associations that run the service, who testified that the crowd could swell to as many as 800 people after 9pm and take up to 9.45pm to be cleared.

The SSTA witnesses said the sizeable crowd could grow agitated owing to longer waits, and called for their fleet size to be fully reinstated.

However, a representative of the Singapore School and Private Hire Bus Owners' Association - the other association that offers the weekly bus service - provided the same crowd numbers as LTA, and said the crowd has been manageable.

"(LTA) has on three occasions given us more buses, and things are quite fluid," said the association's committee member Michael Tan, with more buses allowed to run on the Sunday after workers' payday and for the return leg from Little India to the dormitories.

"Whether it is 9 o'clock or 10 o'clock, they will always be overshot, because human beings... they have the tendency of turning up at the last minute."

Mr Yeo estimated that about 200 to 300 last-minute passengers streamed in just before 9pm most Sundays, with the crowd cleared by 9.15pm.

This varied from the evidence of representatives of the Singapore School Transport Association, who testified that the crowd could swell to as many as 800 after 9pm and take up to 9.45pm to be cleared.

The SSTA witnesses said the sizeable crowd could grow agitated owing to longer waits.

yanliang@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.