By Andrew Loh
It was undoubtedly the most adversarial session the Committee of Inquiry (COI) has had since it started its hearings last Wednesday into the Little India riot.
On the stand for four hours on Tuesday, 4 March, was Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) of Police, Lu Yeow Lim, the ground commander of police forces on 8 December 2013 as the riot in Race Course Road unfolded.
The 4-men COI, led by former judge GP Selvam, launched into an attack on the slate of decisions made by DAC Lu that night which, the COI said, “made the problem worse.”
Ironically, at the start of Tuesday’s hearing, Mr Selvam told DAC Lu that the inquiry was not looking to “persecute, prosecute and punish him.” But things soon took a confrontational turn as the COI members, especially Selvam, and former police commissioner, Tee Tua Ba, tore into DAC Lu’s containment strategy that night.
Returning to the questions which they had asked other officers who had taken the stand, the COI focused on whether the police’s inaction towards the riot and rioters themselves contributed to the escalation of violence.
DAC Lu had commanded his forces to “hold the line” and wait for the arrival of special operations command (SOC). This was even as the rioters overturned cars and set police vehicles and ambulances on fire.
The COI questioned why DAC Lu had not done more to stop the rioters, or at least to display a show of force to deter the violence.
“Let me ask you again,” Mr Tee said. “At the time you arrived, the record says 130 men were on the ground.”
DAC Lu replied that that was not accurate. He explained that although there were more than 100 officers on the ground at the time before the SOC arrived, only 47 were actively involved in dealing with the riot.
And because these officers were scattered across an area the size of “three football fields”, it was difficult for him to command them. The failure or breakdown of radio communications also added to the problem.
DAC Lu said the number of officers who were by his side was 11, and only eight of these were armed with revolvers and T-batons. He said it would thus be folly for him “to lead his only reserves” to find out what was happening as it may make the situation worse.
DAC Lu decided to stay put, to “hold the line” at Hampshire Road, a street away from the unrest which was taking place mainly around Tekka Lane where the bus accident which killed Indian national, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, had occurred.
Police doctrine did not allow commanders to go into the heart of a battle, DAC Lu said.
But Mr Selvam told him, “Nobody is asking you to go into the centre of action. We are asking you to go around the periphery. You, admittedly, stayed put where you were in a protected place and did nothing.
“You didn’t know what was happening and didn’t bother to find out.”
Mr Tee too was having none of DAC Lu’s explanations.
Mr Tee cited earlier testimonies of police officers who had taken on the rioters directly, even when they are alone, such as Traffic Police officer, Sergeant Fadli Shaifuddin Mohamed Sani, who had charged into a crowd of about 50 rioters that night and caused them to disperse.
Senior State Counsel, David Khoo, also highlighted how Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Johnathan Tang, who was the most senior police officer before DAC Lu arrived on the scene, had been able to walk the ground commanding the other officers to carry out certain tasks.
It was also pointed out to DAC Lu that Deputy Superintendent Lim Sin Bin, commander of the first SOC troop to arrive on the scene, had walked to meet DAC Lu with just six men.
DAC Lu did not do any of this but was instead protected behind a shield of policemen at Hampshire Road.
“I considered stepping out of the shield,” DAC Lu said, “but was constantly being pelted.” Although he was not in uniform, he said the rioters nonetheless knew who he was. “That was my assumption after being struck twice,” DAC Lu told the COI, “and I knew they were targeting me. If I was knocked out, there would be a command gap.”
But COI member, John De Payva, pointed out to him that although ASP Tang was in police uniform, “he could walk around (gathering information). You were not wearing your uniform. You were in disguise, you were in plainclothes.”
And this was also another issue the COI took with the Deputy Assistant Commissioner – that he had not put on his uniform that night when he went down to the scene.
DAC Lu said he received news of the riot while he was in his home in Balestier. He said he wanted to get to the scene as soon as he could, and thus did not put on his uniform.
“My priority was to go to the scene,” he said. “It was important to be on the ground as soon as possible.”
However, Mr Selvam questioned if this was wise, as the uniform is a “symbol of authority” and without wearing it, officers on the ground might not be able to identify him as an authority figure.
“A uniform is important if you have to command forces which include men of other divisions,” Mr Tee said.
DAC Lu disagreed that not wearing his uniform would impede his ability to command the troops. He also said he did not want to “waste precious time” changing into uniform.
The most scathing criticisms from the COI members, however, were focused on the strategic decisions DAC Lu made that night, particularly on his decision for his troops to “hold the line”, and his situational awareness of the incident as it unfolded and escalated.
For example, the COI grilled him on why he did not know how many men he had that night. DAC Lu said he had tried to ask the officers around him on the number of officers on the ground then, but they did not know. And as communications lines were down as well, it was difficult for him to establish this. “The truth is I did not know how many men I had that night,” DAC Lu admitted. This was also why he did not take action against the rioters.
“You did not know (the situation on the ground) because you chose not to know,” Mr Selvam said.
“So whose fault is it,” asked Mr Tee. “Was it your failure or the system’s failure?”
“I’m not in a position to make that judgement,” DAC Lu replied. “The reality that night was that we had eight (armed officers).”
But Mr Tee pressed him further, and asked why he did not take action for almost 30 minutes before the SOC arrived.
“You had almost half an hour before the arrival of the SOC,” Mr Tee told him.
DAC Lu shot back, “It was not a case where I was drinking coffee at that junction. I was gathering info about my people, trying to get the operations room, trying to estimate the number of rioters and their intent, and was in contact with the combined operation room to find out about the SOC troops.”
He decided to “hold the line” because he said his “objective then was to not let the riot escalate.”
But he was castigated by Mr Tee for this decision which, as he and Mr Selvam had pointed out in earlier sessions of the hearings, had possibly emboldened the rioters and allowed them free rein to do as they pleased. Mr Selvam had earlier described this decision as “poor judgement, wrong decision.”
“Look from the perspective of the rioters,” Mr Tee told DAC Lu. “(When they see) each car being overturned and the police are still not moving, the impression the rioters have is you are not going to do anything.
Mr Selvam told DAC Lu that the COI did not accept that he could do nothing until the SOC arrived.
Mr Tee said, “We believe you read the crowd wrongly.”
But DAC Lu said unlike the COI, he did not have the benefit of hindsight.
“I read the crowd based on what I saw that night,” he said. “Everything I saw suggested that the crowd would retaliate.”
Referring to the COI’s citation of Sergeant Fadli’s action in charging into the crowd and dispersing them, DAC Lu said, “If the intention was to quell the riot and bring justice, to be as brave as that single officer, what would be the point? He did not make any arrests.”
Mr Tee, raising his voice, said, “It shows that police are taking active action to assert control! We heard (Sgt Faldi) say ‘you don’t need hundreds to disperse a crowd of hundreds.”
He added, “Some of (what had happened) you conveniently say you don’t know, but what action have you taken about it? You must at least show that you are asserting control. The public is looking. What impression they have is from the perspective of the rioters, and if no police actively arrest them, they’ll say (the rioters) had free play.”
The COI told DAC Lu that he “held the ground at (the) wrong place”, referring to his position at Hampshire Road. But DAC Lu defended this by saying that if he had retreated from there, the riot would have spilled into other areas.
Moving from his position would mean they would get surrounded by the rioters, as there were two crowds of about 150 people at the time in Race Course Road and Hampshire road.
But COI chairman Selvam rebutted this.
“It was meaningless to hold your ground there because the real action was flowing in and out of Kerbau Road.”
Mr Tee asked, “Are you really minimising or escalating the situation when you tell (your men) to hold the line? You, in fact, made the problem worse.”