By Gaurav Sharma
The Little India riots of last Sunday have sparked much debate about the role of the Singapore Police Force and its decision not to use undue force, service revolvers and anti-riot equipment such as the tear gas to quell the violent mob.
So much so that the police had to clarify the position on its Facebook page yesterday. “Police officers displayed maximum restraint and did not fire any weapon throughout the incident. This also prevented the incident from escalating further,” it said.
Minister S Iswaran said explained on TV last night: “Use of force to calm a riot situation is a double-edged sword. While some would argue that it might have helped in controlling the situation much earlier, the counter-point can always be that it would have lead to further loss of property and even lives. Thus, what to do is a decision that had to be taken by the officers on the ground and I am sure the police took the right call.”
And if past experiences of similar such incidents around the world are anything to go by, the law agencies in Singapore did the right thing.
Internationally, what happened during the Arab Spring in the last three years and during the riots seen early this year by one of the most peace-loving nations in the world, Sweden, are a proof of that.
The riot in Little India was essentially a rampage, an impulsive reaction, by an angry mob on seeing one of their colleagues being crushed to death by a private bus.
As Lu Yeow Lim, commander of Tanglin Police Division, elaborated on TV yesterday: “When the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the initial lot of police personnel arrived at the scene, the gathered crowd was not violent. It’s just when our people moved to extricate the deceased’s body from below the vehicle, the mob turned violent.”
The police told the media yesterday that even during the riot, the mob while using metal rods and cement blocks to damage the vehicles on the scene, was only hurling projectiles at the officers. Since no close-range weapons were used, there was no “imminent danger” to its officers, the spokesperson added.
Imagine what would have happened if police had used firearms to disperse the crowd and some more lives were lost.
Chances are this would have angered the mob even further and the commotion would have spread to the neighbouring Serangoon and Buffalo Roads. My own experience of covering riots and violent protests as a journalist in India substantiates this theory.
What is even more remarkable in this episode is that this restraint was shown by a police force whose majority officers have not faced anything of this nature ever before. It was almost four decades ago, during the infamous racial riots of 1969, that police in Singapore had to respond to such lawlessness.
Sanity demanded that instead of rioting and destroying public and private property, people present at the scene of the accident should have called the police and handed over the driver to them.
The law would have taken its own course afterwards, including sentencing of the driver and compensation for the victim.
Rather, the story is now about rioting.
The mob frenzy has pushed into background the fact that a life, probably of a sole breadwinner from a poor family, was lost.
Let us not forget this as we continue to debate the whys and hows of the riot.