News

Under fire

tnp@sph.com.sg

WHY TAKE SO LONG?

The standard operating procedures for activating the riot police came under fire yesterday because of their slow response to the Little India riot.

It took 18 minutes for Special Operations Command (SOC) forces - equipped to deal with a riot situation - to be activated from the time the call was made by the first police responders to the riot.

It took 59 minutes for the first SOC troop to arrive at the scene. They were at Bukit Timah Road, near the junction of Race Course Road, when they were diverted to Hampshire Road.

They made a U-turn and got caught in a traffic jam on Kampong Java Road. Three vehicles had to revert to their original route to get to Race Course Road. (See report at opposite page.)

Deputy Commissioner of Police T. Raja Kumar said: "We think that the time taken is too long and we have been reviewing our procedures."

He explained that this was because SOC troops are "precious in our limited resources" and senior officers have to approve the SOC's activation.

When the committee asked why the SOC is still a scarce resource even after world events like 9/11, Mr Raja Kumar said the nature of security threats has changed over the years.

In the past, large-scale responses were needed to deal with communal tensions, but today's threats require a different form of response. He added that the police are currently facing "a manpower constraint".

"Over the years, the size of SOC has come down in terms of number."

At its peak, the SOC consisted of 12 troops. There are eight troops now.

The number of people in a troop has also dropped, Mr Raja Kumar said. To make up for the shortfall, the capabilities of each troop have been enhanced.

Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam, a former Supreme Court judge, commented on the manpower crunch: "Singapore, being a rich country, is a prime trophy target for terrorists.

"We don't know where they are hiding or where they will target. If we do not have a dependable resource (like the SOC), we are in trouble. This is what I am worried about."

WHY WAIT?

The committee asked Mr Raja Kumar why police officers on Race Course Road waited for the SOC to arrive instead of engaging with the rioters.

Mr Selvam and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba noted that the police should have looked at the situation from the rioters' point of view.

Mr Tee said: "(The police officers) just stood there and waited. Do you agree that in an emergency, every minute counts? The rioters are watching you, how you react."

He said auxiliary police officers and social media also noted that the police did not seem to be doing anything.

Not true, said Mr Raja Kumar. Officers had in fact re-grouped at various junctions to prevent the riot from spilling into other parts of Little India.

They had to wait for the SOC because the ground officers were outnumbered and were not trained to handle large public-order situations. So they used the tactic of "holding the ground".

"But the tactic of holding the ground should be reviewed," Mr Tee said, highlighting the 2011 London riots.

The British police had used the tactic of holding a line to contain the riot from spilling over to other areas, but did not do much to arrest the rioters or to break them up. This emboldened them, he said.

"A lot of things are not working very well... I'm glad you're going along the line that things can be reviewed," Mr Tee said.

WHY NO WARNING SHOTS?

The committee asked whether officers were armed and why no warning shots were fired to disperse the crowd.

Mr Raja Kumar said that the first commanding officer on the scene felt that he did not want to rile up the crowd any further and also because the officers were outnumbered.

He explained that under the police doctrine, three elements must be present before the officers would open fire:

1. The opponent's ability to cause harm,

2. The opponent's opportunities to cause harm, and

3. Threat on police officers' lives.

Police officers had said the first two elements were present that night but they did not feel their lives were in danger. There were also many curious bystanders standing very close to watch the drama, and firing a warning shot could have have injured them.

"(The officers) were dealing with a crowd that was not even thinking clearly. (Taking any drastic actions) could escalate the violence," he said.

Mr Selvam also said that "had pepper spray and guns been used, there would be a very different outcome".

Pepper spray is standard issue for riot police responders in most countries and the ground commander had asked for permission to use tear gas.

The request was granted but they did not see a need to use it.

Asked about the difference between tear gas and pepper spray, Mr Raja Kumar said pepper spray is more organic and our police force will be buying it soon.

The hearing will continue on Monday, with bus passenger Ganesan Thanaraj likely to testify.

If we do not have a dependable resource (like the SOC), we are in trouble. This is what I am worried about.

- Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam, a former Supreme Court judge

What held up the SOC troop

10.30PM

Special Operations Command (SOC) troop PTT KA convoy of four tactical vehicles arrives at Bukit Timah Road and is about to turn left into Race Course Road when it is instructed to turn around to link up with Tanglin Police Division Commander DAC Lu Yeow Lim at Hampshire Road.

AFTER 10.30PM

The convoy makes a U-turn at the junction near Sim Lim Square and heads back to Kampong Java Road, but gets caught in a traffic jam.

10.35PM

Three vehicles are ordered to make another U-turn to return to the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Race Course Road. The remaining vehicle, carrying the commanding officer, continues down Kampong Java Road and the troopers are told to alight and proceed on foot to Hampshire Road.

10.42PM

The three vehicles arrive at Race Course Road and the troopers alight to form a cordon line. The other troopers coming from Hampshire Road arrive at 10.45pm.

TIME TAKEN: 
41 MINUTES
(10.04PM TO 10.45PM)

SOC troop PTT KA was on patrol at City Hall area at 10.04pm when it was activated.

IN LITTLE INDIA TIMELINE THE POLICE

9.27PM

9.33PM

9.46PM

10.04PM

10.15PM

11PM

10.42PM

10.45PM

10.48PM

9.23PM

Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu is run over by the bus he was following.

An angry mob smashes the bus door.

Mr Sakthivel's body is extricated and carried to a private ambulance.

Singapore Civil Defence Force officers enter the bus to check on its driver and timekeeper. 
The bus driver and timekeeper are escorted to an ambulance.

Patrol car QX5270B is flipped onto its side at Hampshire Road and is set on fire 12 minutes later.

Patrol car QX216S is flipped onto its side at Race Course Road.

Patrol car QX642U is flipped onto its side at Race Course Road.

Traffic Police motorcycle TP45 is toppled. It is set on fire three minutes later.

Patrol car QX504K is flipped onto its side and is set on fire seven minutes later.

Patrol car QX 851H is flipped onto its side. It is set on fire four minutes later.

Officers in ambulance AB111 abandon it and run towards Bukit Timah Road. The ambulance is set on fire. It explodes.

Rioters start to disperse after seeing Special Operations Command (SOC) troops.

The last group of rioters is dispersed.

A "999" call is made: "A bus has knocked down someone here. Ambulance required."

Auxiliary police officer calls Kampong Java Neighbourhood Police Centre, which is under the Tanglin Police Division, to report accident and rowdy crowd gathering.

Two police officers in the vicinity are told about crowd gathering around the bus. They are the first police responders, arriving four minutes later.

The ground commander at the scene calls for SOC troops.

The first SOC troop, PTT KA, is activated.

The second SOC troop, PTT KG, is activated.

The first three columns of PTT KA arrive at the scene.

The last column of PTT KA arrives.

PTT KG arrives.

The main SOC force forms up and begins securing the area.

9.20PM

9.29PM

9.54PM

9.58PM

10.08PM

10.18PM

10.28PM

10.29PM

10.32PM

10.34PM

10.35PM

10.39PM

10.54PM

11.25PM