SINGAPORE - It started like any ordinary Sunday evening for 33-year-old Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu: a trip to Little India for dinner and drinks with friends.

But, by the end of the night, the scaffolding-company worker was pinned under a bus, his death sparking off Singapore's worst riot in decades.

Yesterday, police revealed that he was drunk when he attempted to board an already-full chartered bus to his Jurong dorm. He even dropped his trousers.

Forced off the vehicle, he wandered off and was later knocked down. The driver has since been arrested for causing death by a negligent act.

But just how the accident turned into a violent riot remains a mystery. At first, the anger was directed at the bus staff. Then its focus shifted to police and rescue officers, 34 of whom were injured while 16 police cars were damaged.

Did the crowd take offence at being asked to keep their distance while the officers tried to do their job, as some speculated online?

A police spokesman said extricating the body was made "extremely difficult" as the crowd had become "boisterous".

A committee of inquiry will be convened to get to the bottom of the matter, promised Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday. It will look into the factors that contributed to this "very serious incident" and how it was handled on the ground.

Many are attempting to make sense of the situation.

Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who is the MP for the area, said that, based on what he observed on Sunday night as some who were taken into custody, "alcohol could have been a contributory factor". He noted that beer bottles and cans were among the objects hurled at vehicles during the riot.

Did the human congestion that occurs in Race Course Road every Sunday night trigger a mob mentality? The stretch is often used as a drop-off and pick-up point for foreign workers. Many picnic in the area because it has large green spaces, with pedestrians spilling out into the street.

Calling it "an accident waiting to happen", 55-year-old Buffalo Road resident M. Gwee said: "It can get very crowded, they will jostle and push all the time. It's very rowdy. Sometimes, the police will have to come in to disperse the crowds."

Yesterday, PM Lee said the committee of inquiry will look into measures to manage foreign-worker congregation areas, including whether they are adequate and how they can be improved.

Last night, the Workers' Party said the committee should also study the riot's "underlying causes", without elaborating.

Mr Alex Au, vice-president of migrant-worker group TWC2, said that, while the riot appeared to be spontaneous, "underlying conditions such as grievances can play a big role in how things escalate". TWC2 has seen cases of workers paid incorrect salaries or not paid at all, and injured workers denied medical treatment or repatriated without compensation.

Professor D. Parthasarathy from the National University of Singapore said it is common to see an angry crowd forming after a traffic accident in India. These crowds can get violent and direct their rage at the drivers.

"It shows a lack of faith in the state and the police to do justice. Many in the crowds are poor and feel that the car owners are richer and more powerful, so it is a class issue as well," said the Indian Council for Cultural Relations chair professor of Indian studies.

But the Singapore case saw the crowd attacking police and rescue staff, which he said was unusual. "There may be deeper frustrations at play here, given that they are migrant workers," he said.


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