By Mary Lee
Since 1992, Singapore no longer has a Riot Squad. The squad – or police tactical force (PTF) – was formed in 1952 to respond to the Maria Hertogh riots. (Over a few days, the Muslim community rose up to protest a judicial decision to return a Dutch girl, raised by a Malay family in Indonesia during the Japanese invasion, then in Kelantan, to her parents in Holland.)
The PTF then became the Special Operations Command in a bureaucratic combination of police divisions, but the police website still gives it a special mention, and describes it as made up of “officers specially trained to tackle dangerous and volatile situations. They are called upon to restore public order in times of riots and demonstrations. Backed by technologically advanced equipment, these officers form a formidable force capable of quelling any civil disturbance”.
Unfortunately, at the SOC’s first real test — on Dec 8 2013, when rioting broke out in Little India after an Indian worker was run over by a bus and killed — it arrived an hour late. As Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean told Parliament on Jan 20: “The first SOC troop of 29 officers arrived at 10.42pm, which was about 40 minutes after their activation and about one hour after the ground commander had first requested for SOC support. The second troop arrived shortly thereafter.”
Was inexperience a problem? Perhaps. Said Teo: “Because we have enjoyed peace for so many years, almost none of our Home Team officers, especially our national servicemen, had experienced riots before.”
The effectiveness of the SOC’s presence, when it eventually turned up, was however, evident. Said Teo: “No more vehicles were overturned or set on fire after the SOC arrived. After assessing the terrain, crowd size and mood, the ground commander directed the SOC troops to disperse the mob. The troops formed up at their assigned locations, and ordered the crowd to disperse, in several languages including Tamil.
“But instead of dispersing, persons in the crowd continued to pelt the SOC officers with various objects. The SOC troops then moved in to disperse the crowd. As they advanced, the crowd backed off, broke into smaller groups and began to disperse. This also facilitated the arrest of rioters by the Police. The entire situation was brought under control within two hours of the start of the incident.”
Good, right? Not according to Justice Pannir Selvam, chairing the Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot.
Deputy Commissioner of Police Raja Kumar explained to the inquiry that the police officers on the ground at the time had withdrawn to several potential exit points to block them off, to prevent the violence from “spilling over” to other areas, before the SOC arrived.
However, Justice Selvam said that by doing so, they effectively left the actual scene of the rioting, and gave the rioters “a good protected area” and “full freedom to do what they wanted”, including costing $650,000 worth of damage by burning five police cars and burning an ambulance and damaging a public bus and other security vehicles.
Justice Selvam noted that at this point, there were only “20, 25 active rioters”, while there were more than 100 police officers along Race Course Road itself. Raja Kumar explained that the decision not to engage the rioters directly at this point was because Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC), Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, had decided that there were not enough officers at the time to “dominate the ground”.
The judge described this “matter of judgment”, as Raja Kumar put it, as “poor”.
One might say the police were caught between a rock and a hard place: It gave the rioters the impression that what they were doing was all right by standing there and doing nothing. “[The rioters] had full freedom to do what they wanted – namely, to burn the bus, burn the vehicles, attack you,” the former judge said.
Two auxiliary policemen who were the first to arrive at the scene told the COI that had the few rioters been arrested at the start, the situation would not have got out of hand the way it did. One of them told the inquiry: “In my opinion, the police reacted too slowly… More police officers should have been sent to the scene much earlier… The riot would not have got out of control had the police arrested the troublemakers early.”
(DPM Teo had told Parliament: “SCDF despatched an ambulance with three officers which arrived about eight minutes after the call (at (9:24pm). The first two Police officers arrived about six minutes later…. But there were still too few police officers present to prevent the rioters from overturning emergency response vehicles, and setting fire to several of them. The first vehicle was set on fire at about 10.30 pm. While the rioters had the ability and opportunity to cause grievous hurt, police officers present assessed that there was no immediate threat to lives. That is, no immediate jeopardy to lives. Based on Police doctrine, they assessed that the use of lethal force was not appropriate. It could have worsened the situation, or hurt innocent bystanders.”
Raja Kumar said that while all the officers were armed, they “chose” not to respond with force because they felt the situation “was not life threatening”. But COI member former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba pointed out that there were others there whose lives were at risk, such as civilians, diners and bystanders.
He read out a copy of the police’s internal protocol when handling such situations. The protocol, among other things, said the police’s response must prevent public disorder; to preserve life and property; its actions must be based on moral high ground and be publicly defensible; and that its response must be proportionate.
Judge Selvam pointed out that there was nothing the police did to protect the lives of innocent people then. He suggested that the police officers on the ground that night could not do anything to deter or stop the rioters because they were not allowed to use their pistols, or guns.
So the first week of the hearings has revealed that the civil activists who were against the passage of the Public Order Added Temporary Amendments law were right: the amendments were unnecessary. What is necessary appears to be, quite simply, use what you’ve got and use it to good effect.