By Howard Lee
On 17 December 2013, local media reported on the announcement made by the police on the repatriation of 53 foreign workers, for their alledged involvement in the Little India riot. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean was referenced as saying, “those who were to be repatriated had “impeded the riot control and emergency rescue operations” and that “their actions and conduct had threatened public order, thus making their continued presence in Singapore undesirable”.”
In total, 57 workers were repatriated along with 4 workers who have been acquitted from their initial charges of rioting.
But if we were to put together the videos that TOC recorded individually with three of the foreign workers who where deported following the riot. – Ashok Kumar, Subbiah Muruganantham and Sri Rangan Pandiyan – we begin to see certain common traits that raise some concerns.
More importantly, what they seem to point to is a possibility that of the 53 who were repatriated for their alleged involvement in the riot, not all might have been involved in the riot in any capacity. Hence, how were they selected? Did we repatriate the wrong workers?
Two-day delay, and lack of direct match
The affirmative way in which the police announced the repatriation suggests that they have indeed ascertained that all the deportees were arrested for their involvement in the riot. Most would presume that they were arrested on the spot, the very same night or immediately thereafter.
However, it now appears that the likelihood of immediate arrests were slim. The three deportees interviewed actually managed to return to their lodgings for the night. Also, there was at least a two-day delay for all three deportees from the time they returned from Little India, to the time when they were called in for the investigation. Was it necessary to wait that long and risk losing any evidence, such as memory of witnesses, in the process?
Moreover, the method by which they were selected for investigation does not seem to have a direct link to the riot. Ashok’s account suggested that his fellow workers and him were selected from the security camera footage at his dormitory that showed him clocking in at a certain time that night.
In other words, the assumption by the police in making the arrests seems to be that any worker who arrived at their lodging late is presumed to be still in Little India during the riot, and were hence suspects. Might such a rounding-up method and subsequent investigation seem a tad arbitrary?
Involvement and statements
This random selection of suspects is further compounded by the lack of any clear evidence that any of the three interviewees were involved in the riot. Or to be more specific, the police did not seem to find it necessary to show them any evidence available, such as video footage of the rioting, during the investigation.
Rather, it appears that the investigations for these three cases had one common trait: Identifying them as returning late to their dormitory, and having consumed alcohol while they were in Little India. They were specifically asked to indicate the later, and this was recorded in all their statements, but they were not told definitively how their consuming of alcohol led to their participation in the riot. Why was the fact that they consumed alcohol of such paramount importance, such that the question was featured in all three cases?
Subbiah actually challenged his first recorded statement, where the police wrote that he was drunk and unconscious of his actions. Only after he insisted that he had consumed alcohol but was still sober, did the police decide to change his statement. Despite pleading consistently that he was not involved, he was still repatriated.
Indeed, all three interviewees have denied that they were ever involved in the riot, even if they might have witnessed it as bystanders. All three have indicated as much to the police during the investigation, but it seems not to have mattered during the investigation process.
To add to the complexity, not all seemed to have had sight of their statement. Sri Rangan signed his without having had it translated and read to him. Perhaps he saw no reason to have sight of the document, as he genuinely believed that he had done no wrong and answered all questions truthfully.
Ashok apparently asked the officer in charge to show that they were indeed involved in the riots, and they would gladly go to jail for it, but the reply he received from the officers in change suggests a reluctance to show them such evidence. Indeed, is there clear and unrefutable evidence that points to the guilt of these three men?
Lack of opportunity to appeal
Unfortunately, it would seem that they did not have the luxury of time to discover this. Once their statements were signed, the movement to repatriate them was swift. As evident in media reports, they had only days before they were repatriated. From the interviews, we gathered that they were only given time to empty their bank accounts, send money home to their families, pack their belongings and leave.
Sri Rangan also wished to return to Singapore to work, and asked one of the accompanying officials if it was possible to do so. The official apparently said yes, although no guarantees were made and the chances of that happening are logically remote.
Nevertheless, at no time was there an opportunity given for the three to appeal their deportation and plea for innocence. It was also clear that none of the three were offered or allowed to have legal assistance.
Debatable due processes?
The interviews with Ashok, Subbiah and Sri Rangan, if read separately, would not have mattered much. Indeed, the old saying that “any guilty person would always claim to be innocent” would likely be the response to dismiss the claims of the three men.
However, when put together, a certain pattern emerges, and questions need to be raised about the due processes involved in tracking down, apprehending and repatriating the suspects of the Little India riot.
Why was there a delay between the riot and the call to investigation? How did the police decide on who to call in for investigation? Were such calls based on empirical proof, or on gauged calculations about where thousands of foreign workers would likely be at the time of the incident? Were all those who were charged and eventually repatriated for “impeding the riot control and emergency rescue operations” given a proper reading of their statements? How did statements that likely indicate nothing more than their whereabouts during the night and what they consumed led to them being identified as wrong-doers in the riot? Were they given the opportunity to appeal their cases?
In pure numbers, 50-odd repatriated is no more than a drop in the ocean of foreign workers currently in Singapore. But if there is any reason to believe the accounts of these three men, there is even more reason to believe that the actual rioters might still be amongst us. Are the guilty still running free?
And there is a broader issue. The processes involved in getting to the bottom of the Little India riot affects not just those repatriated, but all of us. We citizens are bound by the same Riot Act as they are, and we need to be completely confident that we will be given the same justifiable due process that should rightly be extended to the foreigners in our midst. Have we witnessed justifiable due process for Ashok, Subbiah and Sri Rangan?
View the interviews here.
Interivew with Ashok Kumar
Interview with Sri Rangan
Interview with Subbiah Muruganantham