Little India inquiry's fearless duo

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by Tan Bah Bah

So far we have not heard anything much from NTUC’s John   De Payva or chairman of West Coast CCC’s Chua Thiam Chwee at the Committee of Inquiry hearing on the Little India riot.

But the Singapore Police Force and The Straits Times had quite a earful from the other two members- COI chairman former Supreme Court Judge G. Pannir Selvam and former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba.

A  couple of Home Team heroes did emerge from the hearing and their actions earned deserved praise from the committee.

For example, SCDF Lieutenant Tiffany Neo was lauded for her bravery in dealing with a risk-fraught situation. She protected the body of the accident victim against the rioters by moving it into the SCDF ambulance, which was against crime-scene investigation protocol. She also rescued the bus driver and timekeeper from the bus, and stayed to help an injured colleague.

Selvam praised Neo for her courage and commonsense in going against protocol in the face of ground reality, a “very rare commodity”, according to him.

Sgt Fadli Shaifuddin stood his ground and charged at the rioters three times. “Instinctively, I charged at them with my baton drawn as I wanted them to know that the police were still in control of the scene.

I also wanted to institute some law and order before the situation got more out of hand,” he said. The   over-conservative approach of the force, however, came under heavy fire from Selvam and Tee.

The COI focused extensively on the decision by the police to “hold the line” until the Special Operations Command arrived on the scene that fateful Dec 8 2013 night. Tee said: “The rioters are   watching you: how you behave, how you respond, or if you stand there and wait. They may get a perception that you are not going to do anything so it becomes even worse.

A lot of things were wrong.” Deputy Police Commissioner T Raja Kumar explained that the decision not to engage the rioters directly at this point was because Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim,   commander of Tanglin Police Division, had decided that there were not enough officers at the time to “dominate the ground”.

“It was a matter of   judgement,” DPC Raja Kumar said. Selvam shot back and called it poor judgement (and that presumably will go into someone’s performance assessment file this   year).

Apart from the alleged tactical misjudgement, the late arrival of the SOC was regarded as unacceptable by the COI. The first SOC team was activated 18 minutes after the initial request from the officer on the ground.

The first team which had formed up at South Bridge Road that night took 38 minutes to arrive at the scene in Race Course Road. The two highly engaged members of the COI were very professional, exhibiting no fear and expecting no favour.

Selvam even questioned the claim by the police that about 100 were rioting, a figure not backed by the number of people who were eventually arrested. He was also rather puzzled that the police/Home Team had not acted earlier on the problem of alcohol sale and heavy consumption of alcohol in the area:

“Police have done nothing.” Reiterating his point that the police had been too defensive, the former judge repeatedly suggested replacing the current T-baton with the less defensive lathi, a long, heavy wooden stick used by riot police in South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh.

Besides questioning the judgement of police, Selvam told The Straits Times off for interfering with the COI’s work. The newspaper had interviewed the bus driver, a key witness for the hearing, and ran a story before he even gave his testimony in court. Selvam described it as “plain contempt of court”. The newspaper’s editor Warren Fernandez subsequently apologised for “crossing the line”. The hearing has a long way to go yet. But it is in good and fearless hands.