Why I decided against firing warning shot
As one of four team leaders at the Kampong Java Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC), he was on duty on the night of Dec 8 last year when a riot broke out in Little India after a fatal traffic accident.
Assistant Superintendent (ASP) Jonathan Tang was at the NPC counter when he overheard a call about the accident at Race Course Road.
Thinking it could be a potentially complex situation, he decided to respond to the call.
This is his account to the Little India Riot Committee of Inquiry (COI) hearing yesterday on what took place, and the sometimes difficult decisions he had to make.
When ASP Tang got there, a crowd of nearly 200 people was surrounding the bus that had run over Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a foreign worker from India.
Four auxiliary police officers from Certis Cisco were trying to hold the crowd back while Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers were trying to extricate the victim's body, which was pinned under the left wheel of the bus.
But the mob was getting agitated and people were shouting at the timekeeper, Madam Wong Geck Woon, who had taken refuge in the bus. Whenever she stuck her head out of a window and said something, the crowd would jeer at her.
ASP Tang roped in the Cisco officers to form a human barrier between the crowd and the SCDF rescuers.
"Problem was (the SCDF officers) were being harassed by the crowd. My mission was to give them the space so they could extricate the body," he said.
"Without the barrier, there would have been no extrication. The crowd would have got to the body and we don't know what would have happened. There are a lot of 'what ifs'."
When more police officers arrived, ASP Tang, the most senior officer on the scene, asked them to retrieve a rescue rope from a police car.
They improvised by holding the rope, usually used to save drowning victims, up as a sort of barrier to hold the crowd back even further, allowing the SCDF rescuers more space to work.
Throughout, the crowd was pelting the bus with a variety of objects, including glass bottles.
"When the objects hit the bus and the glass shattered, it rained down on us," ASP Tang said.
He tried to radio for Special Operations Command (SOC) back-up to deal with the mob, but failed because the crowd was too noisy. Phone lines to the operations room were also engaged.
NO WARNING SHOT
ASP Tang noted that there were two distinct groups in the crowd: Curious onlookers at the front who wanted to see and take pictures of the accident, and troublemakers near the periphery who were shouting, throwing things and inciting others.
"As the situation was deteriorating, I considered firing a warning shot with my revolver. I decided against it, however.
"I recognised that a warning shot might further agitate the crowd. Second, (firing a shot) would remind the crowd that police officers were armed and I was concerned that the crowd might attack the officers and seize their firearms," he said.
After the body was removed, police and Cisco officers formed a human shield to protect SCDF officers as they moved the body to an ambulance.
By then, SCDF officers had also gone into the bus to rescue Madam Wong and bus driver Lee Kim Huat. So ASP Tang thought he would drive a police car over to help evacuate them.
But as he got into a nearby car, he saw an injured SCDF officer. The SCDF officer-in-charge asked him if the man could be put in the car.
As the officers helped their colleague into the car, the man, who seemed to have a rib injury, was "crying out in pain", ASP Tang said.
He drove them to a nearby ambulance on Rotan Lane while other officers escorted Madam Wong and Mr Lee to an ambulance.
To ensure there were no solitary police officers who might be attacked by the rioters, ASP Tang walked back to the accident scene where he noticed the mob had now dispersed to the fields beside Race Course Road.
He decided that with the limited resources on hand, it would be best to try to contain the crowd in the area while waiting for the SOC, rather than attempting to arrest them.
As he was looking for stray officers, ASP Tang was hit by a rock. The left side of his head started bleeding.
When he did not find any other officers, he joined a group of police and SCDF officers taking cover between a fire engine and an ambulance at Race Course Road.
The group of 15 later boarded the ambulance when they realised they were becoming targets of the mob, which was throwing larger objects with more intensity.
After boarding the ambulance, they realised its front windscreen was shattered and the windows had been completely broken.
Among the group of 15 was the ambulance driver who said he could drive it, but needed a helmet and a shield for protection.
But the ambulance was blocked by two police cars in front and one at the back. As ASP Tang was about to tell the driver to ram into one of them, the mob overturned the car, creating space for the ambulance to get out.
"I told the driver: 'Go, go, go. This is your chance'," he said.
The ambulance took the group out to Bukit Timah Road, where they regrouped with other officers and formed a new line at the junction on Race Course Road while waiting for the SOC to arrive.
Towards the end of ASP Tang's testimony, COI chairman G. P. Selvam commended him.
"I think you did a wonderful job in the position that you did. All your judgments and decisions were correct," the former Supreme Court judge said.
"In fact, I was telling my fellow committee members that if I had the power, I would have granted you a medal."
The hearing continues today.
OTHERS WHO TESTIFIED Rioters were 'highly emotional'
The crowd gathered around the bus was "fast becoming uncontrollable", said Senior Staff Sergeant (Staff Sgt) Mydin Sahul Hameed.
He and his partner, Staff Sgt Mak Chung Kit, were the first police officers to reach the scene as they were nearby at the time.
He said at least 100 people were crowding around the bus, and some said their friend had been killed by the driver and they wanted the police to bring him to justice.
"I told them that we would if they allowed us to do our job. I then told them to move back and to allow me to handle the situation," he said.
But they did not heed his advice and told him in Tamil that they were not respected in Singapore.
The mob, who were "highly emotional", continued crowding around the bus. Many had slurred speech and seemed to be drunk.
Later, Senior Staff Sgt Mydin joined the human barricade at the bus. As the situation worsened, several officers, including himself, were hurt by projectiles thrown by the rioters.
In same ambulance as dead victim
Staff Sergeant (Staff Sgt) Mak Chung Kit and his partner were among the first police officers at the scene of the riot.
While joining other police and auxiliary police officers to keep the crowd away from the bus, he was hit on the forehead with a glass bottle.
As he was bleeding, he sought help from a paramedic who treated his wounds and told him to sit inside an ambulance.
Staff Sgt Mak said: "About five minutes later, the accident victim (Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu) was also placed inside the ambulance.
"I saw that the victim was an Indian man and he was already dead as he was covered up."