What he could have been

TNP talks to the hero of the riots that the press has been looking for.

The call

SINGAPORE - It was one of his rare visits to Little india in the 10 years he has been working in singapore.

Mr Thangavel Govindarasu, 38, was happily enjoying his curry dinner at a Dunlop Street restaurant.

It was to be one of the construction worker's last moments of peace that day.

What followed minutes later was the Little India riot.

Then, in less than a week, he went from the heat of a riot to the intense glare of the media.

He found himself under intense scrutiny from a hero-hungry media last night after he called the Tamil Murasu newspaper claiming to be the good Samaritan seen in a video trying to calm rioters last Sunday.

The word spread. Twitter feeds and even some news sites declared that the hero of the video had been found.

But as the minutes of the interview ticked away, I began to feel a nagging sense of doubt.

Was this really the hero?

Mr Govindarasu insisted, at the beginning, that he was, indeed, the man in the video. But there was no one to verify his claim.

He had a friend with him on Sunday night but they had parted ways after dinner, around 9.30pm.

As Mr Govindarasu was walking towards the private bus that would take him to his dormitory at Yishun, he noticed a commotion.

He claimed to have been in the midst of the furious mob following the fatal bus accident on Race Course Road.

Rioters had attacked the private bus that had run over construction worker Sakthivel Kumaravelu, who was from India.

He said: "Men were shouting and throwing stones at a private bus.

"I did not even think about my safety, I knew this was dangerous and I had to stop them."

Mr Govindarasu added that he was also trying to protect the visibly-shaken Madam Grace Wong Geck Woon, 38, the bus coordinator who had earlier got Mr Sakthivel to alight from the crowded bus.

"I spread my arms in front of the bus to stop people from throwing stones at the bus," he said.

He also said that Madam Wong was shielding her face with her arms and stopped rioters from opening the door to the bus.

Mr Govindarasu said that he was there for 20 minutes before he went down the road to catch his bus home.

He said that no vehicles had been set on fire when he left. True?

The confusion

Was he the hero in the video? the clouds of doubt began to gather.

A 57-second video shared online showed a man, dubbed the hero by Singaporeans, actively trying to stop the rioters from damaging the bus.

Tamil Murasu sought the hero through an appeal featuring a screengrab of the man in its newspaper.

Seeing the photo, Mr Govindarasu called the hotline and claimed to be that man.

And so he put himself in the centre of a media scrum, first in adulation, then incredulity - all in less than an hour.

The Singapore media met him at about 6.15pm at Orchid Pharma Care at Kerbau Road.

Mr Govindarasu seemed completely at ease and, I dare say, charming, in front of the cameras.

For someone who claims that he didn't tell any of his friends about his heroic antics, the married father of a three-month baby girl was very open and forthcoming about his experience.

He spoke English quite well, although he was more comfortable speaking in Tamil.

How does it feel, being a hero?

He shrugged. He appeared modest.

"I just went back home to sleep after that. I didn't even tell my wife until Thursday."

About 15 minutes into the interview, he pointed at his shirt proudly.

"This was the shirt I was wearing that day."

Reporters immediately whipped out their gadgets and loaded the video. We gave each other confused looks.

"The shirts are different," we thought, perhaps all at once.

That is when we pressed him: "But this man in the video is wearing a short-sleeved shirt."

He looks at the video. And replies confidently: "Yes, I folded the sleeves of the shirt."

He then folds the sleeves on his wrinkled shirt past his elbows. Even then, I was sceptical. It still looked markedly different.

The shirt of the man in the video had bigger checks.

STORY CHANGES

As the press begins to probe further, this time with more cynicism, his story starts to change.

A friend had called Tamil Murasu's hotline on his behalf, he claimed, and they had, in turn, called Mr Govindarasu to set up an interview.

But a check with Tamil Murasu revealed that it was indeed Mr Govindarasu who called the Tamil daily on Friday morning.

He had also previously told reporters that a friend had showed him the video on Friday morning.

Asked again, he says that he had not seen the videos until reporters showed it to him. His confidence is waning.

And he repeatedly asks if he can leave.

His smile starts to fade and his responses become defensive.

He says to me in Tamil: "I never told you I saw the video."

The clarification

With iPads and iPhones shoved under his nose, he starts perspiring.

Finally, he falters.

I ask him repeatedly in Tamil if he was the man in the video.

He watches the video repeatedly. At first, he maintains that it is him in the video. But after more views, he starts to hesitate.

Finally, he admits it wasn't him.

"No, it wasn't me. But I was definitely there helping."

He continues to insist that he was in the thick of the action, protecting the bus coordinator.

But on Friday night, Madam Wong told The New Paper, after seeing Mr Govindarasu's photo: "No, I do not recognise him. He's definitely not the guy who helped me - (the rescuer) was bigger and taller. This guy is shorter."

So Mr Govindarasu was not the hero in the video. And he is not Madam Wong's hero.

But does that mean he wasn't among those who tried to help?

Should we give Mr Govindarasu the benefit of the doubt?

He may not have been THE hero but he is sticking to his story that he was not a complete zero.


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