We didn't have enough officers to contain rioters
In his two decades as a police officer, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) David Scott Arul thought he had seen it all.
He had undergone many training sessions which simulated riots.
But the deputy commander of the Special Operations Command (SOC), which is equipped and trained to handle riot situations, said he was shocked when he arrived at the scene of the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year.
DAC Scott Arul, who was in charge of the SOC troops that night, said: "Visually, it was a familiar scene. What was not familiar was the scale of it all. I have never witnessed anything of this scale before."
The roar of angry people, the sound of breaking glass and the thud of concrete pieces and rocks as they hit police officers and vehicles were new to the commander.
Even the fires from the burning police and emergency vehicles were much bigger than what he was used to. During training, when vehicles are burned, the fuel would be removed first for safety reasons.
"Drain covers were being thrown around like frisbees. I was very worried about those (as they could injure severely)," he said.
This is his account to the Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday:
VIOLENCE AIMED AT POLICE
DAC Scott Arul was home when he was notified of the riot by a phone call from Acting Inspector Ramadas Ramachandra, who also testified yesterday.
He recommended the activation of a second SOC troop before heading for the scene by car, arriving at Race Course Road through Owen Road.
There, he saw rioters throwing projectiles at police officers holding the line with their shields.
Said DAC Scott Arul: "The vehicles that I could see in front of me were all on fire. My vision was obscured by the light and smoke of the burning vehicles."
He assessed there were around 200 to 300 people, with 60 to 100 behaving violently. They were standing near the shophouses and away from the burning vehicles.
The violence was directed towards the police, he said.
ARREST ONLY THOSE WHO RESIST
When two SOC troops of 48 men arrived, he decided to disperse the rioters in the general direction of Serangoon Road to force them to break up into smaller groups.
When committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam asked if he had considered making arrests, DAC Scott Arul said: "In any public order situation, the mission given to tactical forces is to return the situation to normal in the shortest possible time."
He added that in such cases, they could either contain, arrest or disperse the rioters.
"I recommended that we should disperse the rioters and arrest only those who resisted.
"This was because the rioters were very violent and mobile and we did not have enough forces on the ground to contain and arrest large numbers," said DAC Scott Arul in his conditional statement.
ENDED RIOT IN 30 MINUTES
Mr Selvam pointed out that many of the rioters had already started to disperse as the SOC forces formed up at 11pm.
Said DAC Scott Arul: "The gear that we had, such as shoulder pads, shields, ballistic helmets - these can have an intimidating psychological effect.
"The other reason is when we hold the line for short periods at the beginning while projectiles are being thrown at us, we do not react. Sticks and stones have no effect on us.
"And when we advance, we are sending the message that we are coming."
As they advanced, they "took down" rioters who became a threat and allowed divisional officers following behind them to make formal arrests.
Along with the divisional officers and canine units, they swept the Little India area and cleared the streets of rioters, effectively ending the riot within 30 minutes.
Said Mr Selvam: "We don't have the impression that (the SOC) is ineffective. In fact, you are so effective that when people see you, they will run.
"The only problem was, due to the circumstances of the day, you didn't come earlier."
Officers at risk if they acted
The Committee of Inquiry asked Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) David Scott Arul if the frontline police officers at the riot had been capable of tackling the mob before the arrival of the Special Operations Command (SOC) unit.
On Tuesday, Tanglin Police Division Commander DAC Lu Yeow Lim, who was the ground commander that night, was asked the same question by committee members, who felt his inaction could have emboldened the rioters.
DAC Scott Arul, echoing DAC Lu's rebuttals, said: "I am of the view that the police officers would have been at risk if they had tried to do something."
He gave four reasons for his answer:
DAC Scott Arul said: "When we take action, it is possible that our action will escalate the situation. My greatest concern was if they had tried, made an attempt, but failed."
He also pointed out the possibility that the crowd would be further emboldened if they succeeded in taking down an officer.
This was similar to DAC Lu's reply that he feared the rioters might get hold of their firearms and start a firefight.
Repeating DAC Lu's point on Tuesday, DAC Scott Arul said the issue was simply about numbers.
He said he had 48 SOC troopers and other personnel at his command, compared to the small pockets of police officers who were scattered at different places.
"With the initial number of frontline officers on the ground, frankly, I was quite proud of the fact they managed to hold the line without being overrun," he said.
SOC officers are more confident in dealing with a riot-control situation, DAC Scott Arul said.
"As a commander of tactical forces, I can say that we arrive at the scene with a certain amount of cockiness. We have been training for this.
"The level of training we have allows us to deploy without much instruction given.
"The officers know what to do, how to defend themselves and the steps they need to take to disperse a crowd."
DAC Scott Arul said his biggest concern was the frontline officers' inability to escalate their force. Their only options were to advance with their shields or use their firearms.
"The SOC has a lot of intermediate options. We are trained with our baton, designed for riot control. The next option is the CS gas, which allows us to disperse the rioters," he said.
The level of protection available to the SOC also makes a difference. (See report above)
"Our (SOC) officers are very well protected. Only one of our officers who was engaging the crowd was injured, compared to the 37 frontline officers who were injured even when they were not engaging."
Detour delays troops getting to riot scene
They were on Bukit Timah Road, about 100m from turning into Race Course Road where the riot was taking place.
But Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Lim Sin Bin, the officer commanding one of the two Special Operations Command (SOC) troops, then received a call from the central operations room.
He was told to turn around to link up with Tanglin Police Division Commander Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim at Hampshire Road.
It was about 10.20pm and there were "many traffic jams along the way", said DSP Lim, who appeared before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday.
The resulting U-turn and detour meant his vehicle arrived at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Kampong Java Road only at about 10.30pm - almost half an hour after the SOC was activated.
Even so, further traffic congestion forced DSP Lim and his seven men to make their way on foot to where DAC Lu was stationed.
When committee member John De Payva asked him if he found out the rationale for making the detour, DSP Lim said he did not question the instructions given.
Earlier, DSP Lim had said that there might have been an emergency situation at Hampshire Road that required him and his SOC officers to be there.
Once his men were assembled after arriving, they proceeded to disperse the rioters until about 11.30pm, when they regrouped and moved to Rochor Neighbourhood Police Centre.
Also testifying yesterday was Acting Inspector Ramadas Ramachandra, the officer-in-command of Intelligence at the SOC, who said he was injured when "an Indian-looking national attempted to strike my head with a whisky bottle and I had to block it".
He suffered a muscle contusion and was given two days' medical leave.
On a normal day in Little India, the foreign workers are "well behaved and they do not go and disturb the public", he said.
He added that he often visits Little India and interacts with the workers there.
"The foreign workers appreciate what the Government is doing for them, especially after the riot," he said.