Auxiliary officers deployed at Little India after the riot. (Photo - Terry Xu)

Lack of community policing or alcohol, the major contributing cause to Little India Riot?

On Monday (5 June), Yeoh Lam Keong, Former GIC Chief Economist and academic at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), in response to an article about how budget cuts to UK security might have a part in the recent terrorist attacks, posted his views on how inadequate community policing had played a role in the Little India Riot on his Facebook page.

"Unfortunately we've made the same penny wise pound foolish policy decisions that have resulted in inadequate community policing in Singapore too. Alienation from the police was a big reason for the cause and poor handling of the riots in little India. Alcohol is just a convenient scapegoat.

"This kind of rhetoric may seem persuasive and eloquent but, as so often with politicians trying to avoid blame, it is untrue. It is untrue because it misses a key and huge fundamental point to the protection of our national security: community policing intelligence.

Police officers embedded in the community, there to help, there to listen, there to understand the community they serve. It is in the community where the best intelligence is learnt and gathered, from the people who notice a change in behaviour of their friends and neighbours, allowing early intervention and monitoring.

Theresa May’s cuts have removed these officers from the streets. The intelligence they brought in through local knowledge and community engagement has dried up and collapsed, and the local bobby known to all has gone, replaced by a reactive police “service” that is inadequate – as the press is always so quick to point out when mistakes are made and splashed all over their front pages."

Police: Alcohol found by the COI to be a “major contributory factor” in Little India Riot

A day later on Tuesday (6 June), the Singapore Police stated in a Facebook post that Mr Yeoh’s sweeping statement is not only inaccurate, "it shows a clear lack of understanding of what happened during the Little India riot and an ignorance of our community policing efforts."

It went on to state,

"Firstly, the Committee of Inquiry (COI) had found the primary cause of the riot to be a fatal road traffic accident, and that a confluence of other factors, such as consumption of alcohol and a desire for “street justice” by the rioters, had escalated the violence. Alcohol, in particular, was found by the COI to be a “major contributory factor” in the riot, contrary to what Mr Yeoh had deemed as a “convenient scapegoat”.

Secondly, despite our lean force structure, community-based policing has always been a key strategy in our efforts to keep Singapore safe and secure.

The Police have been regularly reviewing our policing model to meet changes in the community’s safety and security needs. We launched the current Community Policing System (COPS) in May 2012* to bring Police officers closer to the community and strengthen Police presence on the ground. The daily engagement and house visits by our officers in the neighbourhood have resulted in strong networks with community stakeholders to fight crime. Since Apr 2015, COPS has been adopted by all Neighbourhood Police Centres and become an integral part of our policing strategy."

*Note that Little India riot took place in 8 December 2013.

Facts of the case that have been left out from the official narrative

Before we go on to address the one sided interpretation of what resulted in the Little India Riot in 2013, we have to note how the narrative has been skewed to fit the government's agenda of alcohol being the main contributing factor in the riot with a few striking facts from the Commission of Inquiry (COI) for the incident.

Driver was driving "blind" with bus

It was revealed in the hearing that the bus driver who accidentally killed the worker, had been driving the bus for a few months and had no idea that the bus was equipped with video cameras around the bus. It was only during the hearing that he realised that he was supposed to turn on the monitors of the bus to have a good view of the surrounding of the bus. If he had turned on the video cameras, he would have seen the worker running by the side of the bus prior to the fatal accident.

Some passengers desperately pleaded for the bus driver to move the bus so that they can help the worker pinned under the wheel, and became aggressive when the bus driver refused. A few other passengers pushed the timekeeper and the bus driver up for their own safety, with the bus driver locking the bus door.

However, prior to the hearing, the Attorney General Chamber decided to not charge the driver for any driving offence or causing death by negligent act.

Timekeeper was notorious in Little India for being vile in her behaviour towards foreign workers

The timekeeper who was trapped in the bus along with the bus driver, was the target of the rioters wrath as witnesses at the stand attested to.

Despite giving a statement to the court under oath that she had never been rude to the migrant workers, police and auxiliary officers said that she was notorious at Little India for using derogatory verbal abuse at the migrant workers who take the buses back to their dormitory. Videos from the bus showed that she was the one who called the deceased worker down from the bus. Statements also stated that she was shouting at the crowd gathered around the bus, agitating the crowd further.

AGC never took to charge the timekeeper for perjury.

Only one officer could speak tamil among first responders

Through the hearing, it was discovered that the first responders from the SPF and auxiliary officers could not speak tamil except for one officer who had been working at the site for a couple of years. Also as the first responders did not have loud speakers with them, their communication with the crowd was limited to one to few, making the dissemination of information largely by word of mouth.

Rioters turned violent after police escorted bus driver and timekeeper to safety

From the start of the incident till the point the crowd turned to burning the police vehicles, the crowd had been directing their anger towards the bus by throwing objects such as glass bottles and stones.

It was only at the point where the police escorted bus driver and timekeeper to safety that the crowd turned their anger to the police.

The story which the Judges agreed based on their interviews

So what happened that day? As the police clamped down on workers indiscriminately, implicating anyone who had been at Little India as prime suspects of rioting, many denied being there at Little India or to share their accounts of what happened that day and deleting any videos or information of the scene to prevent implication to the event.

Former Supreme Court Judge G. Pannir Selvam had spent months speaking to hundreds of individuals prior to the Commission of Inquiry in March 2014. When activist and academic, Vincent Wijeysingha presented in court, an alternative narrative of how the riot came about, Judge Selvam said that he agreed with the story as it largely matches the narrative that he got from the interviews he conducted. A narrative which did not contain mention of alcohol.

The short version of the narrative is that a rumor was circulating among the crowd, giving them the impression that the deceased worker was still alive under the bus when the accident happened but died subsequently as the attention was placed on the bus driver and timekeeper instead. Therefore when the crowd saw that the police escorting the time keeper and bus driver away from the crowd, they had the impression that the police will protect the two and justice will not be done. The videos recorded by members of public also showed auxiliary police officers shouting at and shoving the crowd during the incident.

Anecdotal accounts indicated that someone shouted in Tamil something about how the authorities were racially biased. This narrative would explain why only police vehicles were targeted in the riot, no civilian cars were burnt nor shops being looted.

When TOC dropped down for the interview at Little India after the incident, shopkeepers told the website that the "rioters" went in to ask if there is any bottles that they could take. When they were told there was none, they went to search from the trash bins instead.

Now, if the police finds what is said here is hogwash, would they release the transcripts of the hearing to disprove that is written here and not rely on the report that has been watered down?

Read: Alternative story of the little India Riot

What has to be added to the narrative?

In its submission to the COI, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) noted that while the NGO did not note any strong negative feelings against the police among the thousands of workers it deals with over the years. However, it noted that auxiliary police who are quite visible in Little India policing anti-littering regulations and preventing foreign workers from loitering in certain areas, ought to be sensitised to a need to do their jobs without being seen as unnecessarily overbearing.

For example, when the auxiliary police patrol in a group and crowd round a single worker, it can be intimidating. Body language and tone are also key factors in such situations. TWC2 has also noted instances of unfair treatment of foreign workers when it comes to the policing of anti-littering regulations.

"When the uniformed group was finished, we approached the man to ask about the conversation he had with the security officers. He produced a NOTICE TO ATTEND COURT citing him for throwing a cigarette butt in a public place. The fine for this offence is $300.

Our TWC2/NUS group had noticed him earlier when we arrived at the void deck for our discussion, before the auxiliary police did, and we noticed him lounging against a pillar, barely awake and most certainly not smoking. The auxiliary police must have assumed that he was responsible for the cigarette butt on the floor beside him to have issued the notice of the offence. Might the purpose of such aggressive policing and presumption of ownership of the litter, serve to deter men like him from resting in this void deck?"

According to Commissioner of Police, Ng Joo Hee, the Police lack the resources to tackle the increase in population and the potential increase in crime that might result from it.

During the hearing, GP Selvam emphasised the importance of addressing the issue regarding the rising number of foreign workers and its potential problems that come along with it. He said that having “large crowds of foreign workers” might end up in a clash of interests that might escalate into something more serious.

Asking if the Mr Ng is aware of the bust-up which occurred in Little India in March 2013 involving a group of 40 -50 foreign workers of two rival gangs, Mr Ng replied that he is aware of the incident. Mr Selvam said that most of the public offences are by non-indigenous individuals and that the trend of growing numbers of foreign workers is a serious concern for the country.

“This is what we are worried about,” Selvam said.

While Mr Ng said that he understood Selvam’s concerns and worrries, he said the fact is that there simply is “not enough resources” to help the police force tackle the challenges at hand.

“To have a truly visible police presence," he said, "we will require 100-150 police officers in each locality. We do not have these numbers.”

How the Little India COI was conducted

Quoting from the Workfair Singapore's statement on the findings of the COI,

"Evidence was led on behalf of the Committee by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, itself a state agency. The same concern arises in respect of its ability to detach itself from the government’s interpretation.

Evidence was not tested in cross-examination by an independent counsel. All evidence was taken at face value and, therefore, findings do not carry a robustness that would have been achieved by cross-examination. For example, when examining Ms Wong Gek Woon, the supervisor of the bus that killed Mr Kumaravelu on 20/1/14, Mr Selvam told the Senior State Counsel that he could lead the witness.* This is worrying in the context of there being no opportunity to test the witness’s evidence in cross-examination. In addition, the rumour that the deceased man had dropped his pants, given by the bus supervisor, was not corroborated by the video evidence.

Evidence of widespread and excessive alcohol consumption was also neither adduced in evidence nor corroborated in cross-examination. The only evidence of alcohol consumption was in respect of the deceased man who, of course, cannot be considered as having initiated or contributed to the riot since it was his injury that sparked it. No other forensic evidence was adduced that the protagonists were inebriated except by way of the smell of alcohol on them, and the evidence of one person involved in the riot. The Report noted that four workers who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the riot admitted to having consumed alcohol. However, no evidence was obtained that they were intoxicated.

Evidence given voluntarily by twenty of those who were deported also claimed there was alcohol consumption. However, since this evidence was also not examined because the immigration authorities deported these men before the COI sat, their evidence could not be tested for hearsay, external pressure, or any other concern.**

Additionally, no evidence was given as to why they volunteered to give evidence and why more than half of those deported did not. Furthermore, there was no attempt to establish how the dormitories that were visited by the Committee were selected."

Was alcohol a large contributing factor to the riot?

So was alcohol a large contributing factor to the Little India Riot, as what the the police is insisting in its statement?

If one were to follow the COI hearing from start till finish, one would probably come to a conclusion that it is the perceived lack of justice to migrant workers that spurred the violence against the authorities. That migrant workers suffer injustice in terms of wage theft, deprivation of freedom, overwork, discrimination, verbal abuses and etc, Little India Riot was just a perfect storm with all the right conditions in place.

So going back to Mr Yeoh's points, where he state that "alienation from the police was a big reason for the cause and poor handling of the riots in little India."

Can the police rebut Mr Yeoh's point by answering the following questions?

  • How many police officers are permanently stationed at Little India for policing? Even neighbouring police station nowadays do not have permanently stationed officers due to lack of personnel.
  • How many auxiliary officers do SPF engage to police the area?
  • Other than SPF, National Environment Agency also hire auxiliary police officers to escort their enforcement officers. How many are being hired and how much fine has been collected from workers at Little India over the years?

As what Mr Yeoh has stated in his Facebook post, alcohol is just a convenient scapegoat to explain how the Little India Riot took place, by racially stereotyping a group of individuals to act violently without any cause or reason. Instead of acknowledging that there are underlying social issues which led to the outbreak of violence.

If anything is to be of a proof of that, just look at the measures that the government have been taking after the incident, other than the restriction of sale and consumption of alcohol at Little India and Singapore as a whole.

Given the understaffed police force against the ever-rapidly growing population in Singapore and amidst the growing divide between society and unresolved issues faced by migrant workers, Little India Riot is just a preamble to what the city-state have to face in the near future.