By Andrew Loh / Terry Xu
“What has happened is not acceptable,” Committee of Inquiry (COI) chairman, former judge GP Selvam, told Deputy Police Commissioner, T Raja Kumar, last Friday.
Mr Selvam made those remarks during the COI hearing into the Little India riot at the Subordinate Court.
Mr Raja Kumar was the only witness for the day, which started at 10am and ended at almost 5pm. He is also the first police witness to take the stand since the 6-weeks COI hearings started on Thursday.
The day began with Mr Raja Kumar providing a run-through of the timeline of events on 8 December 2013, when the unrest in Little India happened.
While the sequence of events was not much different from the one the police had previously issued, the COI members questioned several aspects of the response by the police that night. In particular, they pursued the questions of how many security personnel, especially police officers, were on the ground on 8 December at different stages of the unrest, and the response time it took for the special operations command (SOC) force to arrive at the “theatre of operations”, or Race Course Road, where the riot was occurring.
The COI also focused on the question of whether alcohol and public drunkenness played a part in the riot.
Alcohol and drunkenness – “Police have done nothing”
When asked by the COI chairman, Mr Selvam, what he thought was the cause of the December riot, the deputy commissioner listed 3 things:
- The accident itself.
- The fact that the crowd saw the body of Sakthivel Kumaravelu pinned under the bus which could have made them more emotionally charged.
- The presence of alcohol, which he said made things worse.
Mr Selvam queried Mr Raja Kumar on the third point, highlighting that the problem of public drunkenness has been around for a while in Little India. Mr Selvam said that even the timekeeper, Ms Grace Wong, and the bus driver involved in the accident, had observed that the number of drunk foreign workers has increased in Little India. Mr Selvam also observed that even Members of Parliament have raised the issue. Drunk workers were going into the void decks, urinating, vomiting, and being generally unruly, he said and added, “The police have done nothing.”
He then passed a copy of the Miscellaneous Offences Act to the deputy commissioner and asked him to read Section 18 out loud in the courtroom.
The Section says:
Drunkenness in public places
18. *Any person who is found drunk and incapable of taking care of himself, in any public road or in any public place* or place of public amusement or resort, or in the immediate vicinity of any court or of any public office or police station or place of worship, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months.
“If this Section was really enforced, you would save the residents, and yourself, a lot of trouble,” Mr Selvam told Mr Raja Kumar.
The deputy commissioner, however, explained that there was a difference between being drunk and being drunk and incapable. And depending on which, the police’s approach would be different, he said. Drinking too much, he explained, is not an offence – unless one is incapable.
Mr Selvam, however, advised that the police should take a hardline approach against those who were drunk. He suggested that they be warned or threatened with repatriation if they were caught drunk.
“Holding the line”
The COI focused particularly and extensively on the decision by the police for its officers on the ground – the first responders, in effect – to “hold the line” until the SOC arrived on the scene that night.
This decision was severely criticised by the COI members, particularly Mr Selvam and Mr Tee Tua Ba, who is a former police commissioner himself.
Mr Raja Kumar explained that the police officers on the ground at the time had withdrawn to several potential exit points to block them off, to prevent the violence from “spilling over” to other areas, before the SOC arrived.
However, Mr Selvam said that by doing so, they effectively left the actual scene of the rioting, and gave the rioters “a good protected area” and “full freedom to do what they wanted”, including destroying government property..
Mr Selvam noted that at this point, there were only “20, 25 active rioters”, while there were more than 100 police officers along Race Course Road itself.
Mr Raja Kumar explained that the decision not to engage the rioters directly at this point was because Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC), Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, had decided that there were not enough officers at the time to “dominate the ground.”
“It was a matter of judgement,” Mr Raja Kumar said.
Mr Selvam replied that it was “poor judgement” to make such a decision as it gave the rioters the impression that what they were doing was alright. “The police had arrived,” Mr Selvam said. “They stood there and did nothing. Ah, the police approve of what I am doing,” he said, suggesting what the rioters would or might have been thinking then, as they continued to hurl projectiles at the bus and at the officers, and eventually setting security vehicles and an ambulance on fire.
“[The rioters] had full freedom to do what they wanted – namely, to burn the bus, burn the vehicles, attack you,” the former judge said.
To this, Mr Raja Kumar said that while all the officers were armed, they “chose” not to respond with force because they felt the situation “was not life threatening.” But Mr Tee pointed out that there were others there whose lives were at risk, such as civilians, diners and bystanders.
He read out a copy of the police’s internal protocol when handling such situations. The protocol, among other things, said the police’s response must prevent public disorder; to preserve life and property; its actions must be based on moral high ground and be publicly defensible; and that its response must be proportionate.
Mr Selvam pointed out that there was nothing the police did to protect the lives of innocent people then.
“Police vehicles were burned,” he said.
He suggested that the police officers on the ground that night could not do anything to deter or stop the rioters because they were not allowed to use their pistols, or guns.
However, Mr Raja Kumar explained that the use of firearms at the time in fact would put the lives of innocent bystanders at risk too.
“If you open fire at a time like this, there could have been loss of innocent civilian life,” he said.
Furthermore, Mr Raja Kumar said, the police officers “didn’t have the numbers, the equipment, the training” to deal with such a situation.
But Mr Tee and Mr Selvam pressed home their points and urged the deputy police commissioner to consider the consequences of the police’s decision not to engage the rioters directly in the initial stages of the riot.
“A lot of things were wrong,” Mr Tee said. “Are you showing weakness and emboldened them? That could be the reason why they became more violent.”
Mr Selvam said, “They were rioting. What did you do?”
The deputy commissioner looked a little flustered at the criticism.
Mr Selvam added, “You must spook them or you will get spooked. The entire psychology must be one of fear.” He said that if the rioters saw the police “running away”, they would be emboldened.
The COI members suggested that the police have not learnt the lessons of three riots in England in 2011, where it was later found that the strategy of holding the line during a riot in fact emboldened rioters.
(See report:http://www.statewatch.org/news/2011/dec/uk-hmic-review-august-2011-riots.pdf )
Mr Tee noted that the police were not arresting any of the rioters and he questioned the police’s tactics to withdraw and guard the exits until the SOC arrived.
“The rioters are watching you: how you behave, how you respond, or if you stand there and wait,” Mr Tee said. “They may get a perception that you are not going to do anything so it becomes even worse.”
Mr Selvam also relayed what a Cisco officer had told him, that the police should have done something. “If the police had done something, the situation would have been different,” Mr Selvam said, repeating what the Cisco officer told him.
Mr Selvam described the decision to hold the line as “poor judgement, wrong decision.”
Mr Selvam later requested the Senior State Counsel, David Khoo, to provide him with a timeline of events along with the number of police officers present on scene that night. (Area that lies between Bukit Timah Road, Race Course Road, Serangoon Road and extending till Farrer Park Mrt)
This is TOC’s timeline according to what was revealed in court:
|Time||Event||Number of Officers/Cisco APOs|
|09:37:00 PM||1st Team of police officers arrive||2 officers/ 62 APOs|
|10:00:00 PM||2nd Team of police officers arrive||4 officers / 62 APOs|
|10:31:50 PM||Smoke emitted from 1st police car||111 officers / 62 APOs|
|10:35:46 PM||Smoke emitted from TP motorbike||113 officers / 62 APOs|
|11:00:39 PM||5th vehicle burning after catching fire from the ambulance just beside it||146 officers / 62 APOs|
It was also revealed that the police officers on the ground were unable to communicate with the command centre with their radios. The police’s phone lines were also jammed because of calls from the public.
Mr Tee observed that as a result the police officers on the ground were essentially on their own, without knowing what other officers were doing.
Turning to the part the SOC played in quelling the unrest, the COI members praised the riot police.
“The SOC did a good job,” Mr Tee said.
However, he expressed disappointment that it took the SOC more than an hour to arrive at the scene. In the meantime, he said, the police officers on the ground were left exposed to attacks from the rioters. “Some of them were in flux,” he said. “They ran from the ambulance.”
The COI learned that the first SOC team was activated 18 minutes after the initial request from the officer on the ground. And that out of those 18 minutes, 12 were because Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Koh Wei Keong, the 2nd Deputy Director of Operations that night, wanted do his “due diligence” by consulting various other officers to be sure that activation of the SOC was required.
“We have since reviewed the protocol,” Mr Raja Kumar said, after being questioned by the COI members on the length of time taken to approve the request. “We think the time taken is too long and should be abbreviated and it has been abbreviated.”
Mr Raja Kumar also explained that the SOC is made up of eight troops, called Police Tactical Troop (PTT), and each troop has 20 men and four “smaller” vehicles with it. These troops are more commonly called the “riot police.”
On 8 December, each of these troops was assigned a code name – PTTKA, PTTKB, PTTKC, and so on.
The first team, PTTKA, which had formed up at South Bridge Road that night, took 38 minutes to arrive at the scene in Race Course Road. When asked why it took so long, Mr Raja Kumar said, “Traffic conditions were one of the factors which led to the delay.” He explained how the team had had to make two u-turns – at Bukit Timah Road and then at Kampong Java Road – because it was stuck in traffic.
Mr Raja Kumar revealed that in normal circumstances, the PTT is given four hours to form up, but that on 8 December, the PTTKA team had been on duty and was deployed at City Hall and Boat Quay. When the riot happened, the team was going off-duty but was activated and redirected to Little India instead.
The second PTT team was activated at 10:15pm, and it took 33 minutes for it to arrive at Little India from Queensway.
Mr Raja Kumar The SOC was a “scarce resource”, Mr Raja Kumar said. He explained that the force has decreased in size – from 12 troops to the present eight troops. The number of team members in each individual troop too has decreased, he said.
“We have not had the luxury of resources to be able to put one SOC troop every weekend [in Little India],” he said. Still, in 2013, the SOC was deployed 16 times in the area.
Mr Raja Kumar praised the SOC’s effectiveness in quelling the unrest. He said the incident started out as a traffic accident and was reported to the police as such. Thus, the first people on the scene were the traffic police. As events escalated and when the SOC finally arrived on site, Mr Raja Kumar said they were “clearly effective.”
“[They brought] the riot under control, 15 minutes to an hour.”
Mr Tee described the SOC as being “very professional”. However, he said that taking more than hour to be at the scene “is a long time.”
Mr Raja Kumar said the police “will definitely learn” the lessons of 8 December, and that it will build up its capability.
Fewer charged than were rioting
Mr Selvam observed that despite the deputy commissioner saying that the number of 100 rioters was an “underestimation”, there were less than that who were actually and eventually arrested for rioting. He wondered if this meant that there were those who were guilty but who have escaped scot-free.
The number charged in court for their involvement in the riot is 25, with 3 having so far pleaded guilty to failure to disperse charges. The cases of the others are presently before the courts.
Mr Raja Kumar responded by saying that there were also some who were deported, but he was cut short by Mr Selvam, who said that Mr Raja Kumar cannot claim that more than 100 people were rioting when the police have only arrested and charged a much smaller number for it.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Mr Selvam told the commissioner. The riot of 8 December was a “wake-up call” for the police, the chairman said.