Rioters had free rein in critical phase

SINGAPORE - As A riot erupted in Little India last December, a quiet confusion also spread among police officers on the ground.

They were trying to get approvals for reinforcements, even as the riot was spreading.

They were unable to communicate with each other through their jammed radio sets.

The leadership on the ground changed hands. Troops on their way to the riot scene were told to take a detour that cost them 15 precious minutes.

There were sufficient officers on the ground but they were scattered and did not take on the rioters.

The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riots, whose report was released yesterday, acknowledged that the police force did well in the first part of the riot. This stretched from the death of a worker, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, in an accident about 9.20pm on Dec 8, to rescuing the bus crew who were being attacked by other workers around 10.15pm.

But things did not go according to plan between 10.15pm and 10.45pm.

"The second phase was critical," said the COI. "The SPF officers decided to hold their positions. This allowed the rioters to pelt them with projectiles, and overturn and set fire to emergency vehicles. The COI believes that the number of active rioters in the second phase was not large, but they had free rein to do whatever they wanted."

It was then that rioters overturned vehicles and set them on fire.

Officers waited for the Special Operations Command (SOC) to arrive, while not arresting anyone.

The officers' actions, however, may have been "perceived by the rioters as inaction, which could have encouraged and emboldened them to carry out more egregious acts", the COI said.

The decision, the COI said, should have been re-evaluated when the SOC took 50 minutes to arrive.

The activation of the SOC was bogged down both by procedure and a lack of communications.

Layers of approval meant that several calls had to be made before the first SOC troop left for Race Course Road, about 20 minutes after the first call for activation was made.

When the troop was near the area, they were given wrong instructions that landed them in traffic, delaying them.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim, who was then in charge, also did not know how many officers were on ground, and was unaware of the extent of rioting taking place 100m away from him.

"If the police had done more, including arresting the rioters early, they could have prevented the situation from worsening," the COI said.

The primary cause of the riot was the death of Mr Sakthivel, the COI found. Drunk, he had fallen into the path of a bus. His head and torso were crushed.

The rioters were first angry with bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Geck Woon. When they were rescued, the crowd misunderstood the officers' actions.

The rioters were heard saying in Tamil, "You all only look after the local people" and "there is no respect for our lives''.

Rumours that Mr Sakthivel was alive and crying for help also fuelled the rioters' rage, but he had in fact died instantly.

Alcohol was a "major contributory factor" to the nature and escalation of the riot, the COI said.

Alleged underlying poor employment and living conditions did not, however, play any part in the riot, the COI found.

The chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for home affairs and law, Hri Kumar Nair, acknowledged that there are areas for improvement but said: "It is important to remember that the riot was dealt with without any loss of life or shot being fired."

Get MyPaper for more stories.