Police quizzed about decision to 'hold the ground'

The police were accused of "poor judgment" yesterday, with the Committee of Inquiry (COI) saying the Little India rioters "had full freedom to do what they wanted".

Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam told Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar - the Acting Commissioner on Dec8 - that police strategy, coordination and action that night had been found wanting.

A decision was made by Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, for officers stationed at roads around the scene to "hold the ground" and contain the rioters until Special Operations Command (SOC) troops arrived.

But Mr Selvam said this gave the mob "a good protected area" where they could destroy government property with impunity. The former Supreme Court judge also pointed out that there were over 100 police officers along Race Course Road that night and only about 25 active rioters.

Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar admitted the force had learnt lessons from the riot in Little India.

Mr Raja Kumar explained that it was "a matter of judgment" by ground DAC Lu, who had decided there were not enough officers at that point to "dominate the ground".

But the retired judge hit back: "It was poor judgment."

He said the rioters "had full freedom to do what they wanted - namely, to burn the bus, burn the vehicles and attack you".

Police riot suppression tactics were also called into question by former police commissioner and COI member Tee Tua Ba.

Besides the lack of training to deal with public-order situations, Mr Tee said the decision to hold the ground, rather than to try to engage or arrest the rioters, showed lessons had not been learnt from three riots in northern England in 2001, where a study showed such a strategy actually emboldened rioters.

"The rioters are watching you: how you behave, how you respond, or if you stand there and wait," said Mr Tee. "They may get a perception that you are not going to do anything so it becomes even worse."

Mr Raja Kumar admitted the force had learnt lessons from the riot in Little India and put in place changes to the protocol involved in activating the SOC.

On the night of the riot, it took 12 minutes to approve the ground commander's request for the specialist troops to be activated. The first troop then took another 38 minutes to arrive at the scene due to traffic congestion.

Mr Raja Kumar also noted that officers had difficulty communicating with base using their radios while phone lines were jammed with members of the public calling with information.

The police are now "fast-tracking" the introduction of mounted cameras for officers and vehicles to improve communication with the operations centres.

Mr Raja Kumar emphasised that the first officers to reach the scene were not trained to deal with large-scale riots. While all officers were armed, they chose not to respond with force - despite being pelted with projectiles - as it was not felt to be a life-threatening situation.

"There were not just rioters, there were many curious onlookers... people having their meals around the restaurants there," he said. "If you open fire at a time like this, there could have been loss of innocent civilian life."

Saving lives was also among the priorities of the police that night. Those first on the scene were focused on shielding officers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) who were trying to get Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu onto an ambulance. The 33-year-old Indian national was killed after he was run over by a bus, sparking the riot.

The SCDF team also did the same for the bus driver and timekeeper. "The officers had a mission focus - they had certain imperatives that occupied them," said Mr Raja Kumar.

He was later asked by Mr Selvam whether harsher policing of drunkenness in Little India could have done "a lot of favours to the residents, and yourself".

Mr Raja Kumar pointed out that auxiliary officers have been empowered to deal with such issues in Little India and should revellers become disorderly, the police would be called in.

When Mr Selvam said foreigners who drink should be sent a message, Mr Raja Kumar replied: "Your Honour, we'll take that on board."

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