Riot police cordon off the area. Pic: AP.

December 8, 2013 was a day that entered Singapore’s history books. The Little India district in Singapore was the scene of a riot, the first in Singapore in 44 years.

The riot was precipitated by the death of a foreign worker from Tamil Nadu from a road accident. Fifty-four security officers from various agencies and five civilians were injured. Twenty-three emergency vehicles were damaged, six overturned and four set on fire. The damage to property was estimated to be SGD 530,000. Newspaper reports put the number of rioters at around 300.

On 13th December, the Home Affairs Minister set up a Commission of Inquiry to study how the riot started, establish how the event unfolded vis-à-vis the response of both the authorities and the rioters, and to make recommendations.  The committee was chaired by an ethnic-Indian former Supreme Court judge, an ethnic-Chinese former police commissioner, a Eurasian former Unionist and an ethnic-Chinese grassroots leader.

The Committee held 24 days of public hearings between 19th February and 26th March this year, a series of hearings that kept Singaporeans rapt in attention.

The Committee submitted its report to the government on 27th June and the report was made public on 30th June. The government responded this week in parliament by accepting 8 recommendations made by the committee.

According to the Committee, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a 33-year-old construction worker, was drunk and ran beside bus. In his drunken stupor, he fell onto the path of the front left wheel of the bus and was crushed, dying instantly. In the committee’s view, “Mr Kumaravelu was principally the author of his own demise.” He was reported to have had 217 mg of ethanol per 100 ml of blood, indicating levels of extreme intoxication. “It was in this state that Mr Kumaravelu attempted to make contact with a moving and turning bus. The COI is not making a moral judgement of Mr Kumaravelu. It was an incident all would sympathise with. However, we must acknowledge that Mr Kumaravelu was primarily responsible for the accident.”

The driver and supervisor were trapped in the bus and were attacked by some persons in anger.

The accident however was compounded by a sense of street justice, cultural differences and intoxication. The officers at the scene removed the body and escorted the driver out of the bus, which struck the South Indian workers as an injustice. This sparked the riots, and observers said the rioters attacked emergency vehicles and largely left civilians and property unharmed.

Worker dissatisfaction?

In the immediate aftermath of the riots, some critics alleged that the rioters were a result of the boiling over of tension against the police and government for ill-treatment. The committee in its report refuted this allegation, stating “Nearly every foreign worker who the COI spoke to testified emphatically that they were happy with their jobs and living quarters in Singapore and condemned the riot. The COI nevertheless acknowledges that there is always room for improvement in the treatment of foreign workers”. The Minister of Manpower presented a survey of 4000 foreign workers that showed that satisfaction was high.

However, this data was criticised in some quarters. Lim Hong Yi wrote, “if they presented dissatisfaction, their employers would be forced to send them back home. They aren’t so silly to not know that.” Andy Goh was more direct: “I don’t trust government surveys”. An anonymous commenter going by the moniker Swimmer Sg furthered the argument, writing “[the survey results do] not address the fact that after the riot, we found out that many places had bed bugs and crowded sleeping areas for these poor workers. Have these been resolved? Have those companies been punished? Will it reoccur? Are new laws required to protect these poor workers who end up being in a worse condition than back home but have no choice but to stay as they cannot afford to pay to go back?”

The Minister of Manpower announced in parliament today that the construction speed of self-contained foreign worker dormitories was increasing. There are currently four such centres, and the idea is to prevent mass clustering of workers in one particular area by spreading out the crowd. Minister Tan Chuan-Jin argued that while there was no systematic ill treatment of foreign workers, there might be errant employers.

Eight recommendations

The Committee reserved praise for the junior officers, who first responded at the scene, “It was clear that the responding officers, led by ASP Tang and LTA Neo, did a commendable job of handling the situation.”

The senior officers however were in for more criticism. One of the main commanders that night was Deputy Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim. DAC Lu had instructed his forces (which the Committee estimated to number up to 100 men spread around the area) to hold the line and was photographed behind a barrage of shields made up by eight  junior officers. During the hearings the committee took issue with DAC Lu and pointed out to him that his junior officers ASP Tang and LTA Neo had no issues walking around the scene. In the report the commission wrote that Lu, “should have made more effort to establish the resources available and find out more about the situation, either by instructing his officers to move around, or doing so himself.” During the hearings, the former police commissioner (Tee Tua Ba) was more direct, “Are you really minimising or escalating the situation when you tell (your men) to hold the line? You, in fact, made the problem worse.”

While mistakes were pointed out, the Committeesaid that, “the lapses in the second phase of the riot were an aberration from the norm. They do not reflect a serious and systemic defect in the police force as a whole…SPF is on the whole an efficient and effective institution, and is one of the finest police forces in the world. The key is to learn from this incident, so that mistakes are not repeated and future responses are improved.”

Eight recommendations were made to increase safety on the island and the responsiveness of the police. The Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister announced that the government accepted all eight recommendations from the committee, and announced that the special operations force in Singapore would be doubled to 600 officers. But not everyone agreed that manpower was the problem. A report by online newsgroup The Online Citizen in May revealed that opposition MP Sylvia Lim had been highlighting the lack of police force numbers for eight years.

Effandi Jasman wrote, “The problem if I remember wasn’t about manpower. I thought the problem was with the traffic as they couldn’t get there quick enough. So solve the traffic problem first.” Others criticised the government as merely reacting to the problem with band-aid solutions and questioned if the real problems were solved at their root. Loke Yu Ming questioned, “[do] any of the 8 recommendations by the COI address the root cause?” Others however felt that the riot had no systematic cause. Loh Wai Poon argued that, “There was nothing systematic about the Little India riot. This is why the riot was not worse than what had happened.” Peter Tan added, “The logic [is] not different from those fights that happen in pub/club/disco… [a bit] of alcohol, ego, herd-mentality… all brew together [leading to violence]”.

The Committee has reported its findings, the government has responded. But the public debate is not settled. All would probably agree with the DPM that “a riot on the streets of Singapore is unacceptable.”