The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot in Little India last December has released its report – 3 months after the 5-week public hearings ended in March.
The 4-member COI, headed by former judge, G Pannir Selvam, concluded that the “primary or triggering cause of the riot was the occurrence of the fatal accident” in which Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu was killed.
The committee also found “three other contributory factors”, namely:
Misperceptions about the accident and response: The committee felt that the situation fowlloing the accident “could have been aggravated by the misperception” that the police officers intended to protect Mr Lee Kum Huat, the driver of the bus which killed Mr Sakthivel, and Ms Wong Gek Woon, the timekeeper, by escorting them from the bus, rather than arresting them.
Certain cultural and psychological elements present in the crowd: The COI heard evidence from experienced psychologists and other witnesses that the rioters could have a desire for “street justice”, or even a counter-culture of heroism in disobeying law enforcers. The COI said it accepts that this could have contributed to the riot, with the qualification that such men constitute a very small minority of Singapore’s foreign worker population.
The consumption of alcohol by some members of the crowd: The committee felt that alcohol consumption “was a major contributory factor to the nature and escalation of the riot.” The COI said that “many of the foreign workers the COI spoke with who had been present at the scene of the riot admitted to having consumed alcohol that night.”
The committee also debunked the claim that the underlying cause of the riot was the allegedly poor employment and living conditions faced by foreign workers in Singapore.
“Based on the evidence, the COI does not think that the riot was a result of dissatisfaction among foreign workers with their employment and living conditions in Singapore,” the COI report said. “Nearly every foreign worker who the COI spoke to testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore and condemned the riot. The COI nevertheless acknowledges that there is always room for improvement in the treatment of foreign workers, and has recorded some observations relating to this in the main report.”
Turning to how the security forces handled the riot, the COI commended the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) for performing its duties well that night. However, the committee felt that “SCDF resources should have remained deployed in the vicinity in case they were needed.”
The report also commended the Singapore Police Force (SPF) for responding to the unrest “relatively swiftly and efficiently.”
“The responding officers did a commendable job of handling the first phase of the riot,” the COI said.
However, the COI found several lapses in the actions by the police during the second phase of the riot.
These, it said, were mainly in three areas:
Communications failure leading to inability to marshal scattered forces and exercise command: The report said “SPF officers faced severe communications problems that night.” The officers could not, for example, clearly speak into or listen to their radio sets above the noise of the crowd. “This made it very difficult for commanders to establish proper command and control and to co-ordinate the arrival of additional officers and the SOC.”
Decision taken to hold position and not to arrest rioters: The committee felt that “holding positions at the two ends of the riot area was inadequate to prevent the free movement of rioters in and out of the area through other routes, and the perceived inaction could have emboldened the rioters.”
It said the decision to hold the ground could have been “re-evaluated” when the Special Operations Command (SOC) was late in arriving on the scene.
The COI said is of the view that there were sufficient officers on the ground before the SOC arrived to take action had they been marshalled and directed to do so.
Prioritising dispersal over arrest: The COI observed that after the arrival of the SOC, “the SPF forces focused primarily on dispersing the rioters, and secondarily on arresting the rioters.”
The committee felt that by then the number of rioters was already dwindling upon the SOC’s arrival. It said “making arrests is imperative when violence is threatened or is taking place, and in particular, when the number of rioters is not large.”
“Nevertheless, the above being said, the COI’s view is that the lapses in the second phase of the riot were an aberration and do not reflect a serious and systemic defect in the police force as a whole,” the report said.
It then made 8 main recommendations for the authorities to look into, with the first 5 suggestions for improvements having to do with the security forces.
It called on the SPF to improve its communications, command and control capabilities; to train its frontline officers in defusing such large scale unrest situations; to increase manpower resources in the SPF, including the SOC; that the SCDF and the SPF continue to improve its co-ordinated responses to such situations; that the SPF would cut red tape so that response to such situations would improve.
The COI also recommended that “better basic facilities” be made available to foreign workers, and that amenities and services be made available to them “outside of congregation areas”.
It finally urged the authorities to “more strictly enforce against public drunkenness” and to introduce “alcohol restrictions s in hotspots where large crowds typically indulge in heavy drinking.”
This, the COI said, is to prevent future incidents which “could spark a breakdown of public order.”
Read the full COI report here: Report of the COI into Little India riot.
Vote on Public Opinion: “Little India riot – influx of foreigners also contributing factor.”