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Committee of Inquiry: What caused the Little India riot?

Committee of Inquiry says misunderstandings about the accident and response; the culture and psychology of the crowd; and alcohol and intoxication led to the riot of Dec 8, 2013.

SINGAPORE: A Committee of Inquiry (COI) identified three factors contributing to the Little India riot of Dec 8 last year: Misunderstandings about the accident and response; the culture and psychology of the crowd; and alcohol and intoxication.

In preparing its report, released on Monday (June 30), the committee conducted interviews with convicted rioters and foreign workers who had been repatriated following the riot; visited the scene of the riot as well as worker dormitories and congregation areas; solicited submissions of evidence from the public; and conducted a public hearing in open court in February and March this year.

The committee comprises former Supreme Court Judge G Pannier Selvam, ex-Commissioner of Police Tee Tua Ba, NTUC President Emeritus John De Payva and Mr Andrew Chua Thiam Chwee, the Chairman of the West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee.

MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT THE ACCIDENT AND RESPONSE 

The COI found that the construction worker who was killed, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, from Tamil Nadu, had lost his balance and fell face-down on the road, into the path of a private bus hired to transport foreign workers from Little India to their dormitories at Jalan Papan. The committee said that bus driver Lee Kim Huat and timekeeper Wong Gek Woon would not have been able to have seen Mr Kumaravelu, who was killed instantly.

"The COI's view is that Mr Kumaravelu was principally the author of his own demise," the committee said, due to blood alcohol levels which would have led to a loss of control of bodily movement and poor judgment.

However, the COI said that video footage made it clear that the crowd held Mr Lee and Ms Wong responsible.

The sight of first responders shielding the bus employees - rather than in handcuffs - may have further aggravated the crowd, said the COI, who had "a very emotional reaction" to the accident. Supporting this view, Tamil-speaking officers quoted some of the rioters shouting "Are our lives worthless?" and "You all only look after the local people!"

Untrue rumours circulating in the crowd - that Mr Kumaravelu had been crying for help from beneath the bus; that Ms Wong had pushed him off the vehicle; and that officers were kicking the body - may also have further distressed and provoked the rioters, the committee said.

CULTURE AND PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CROWD

The COI quoted a Home Team Behavioural Analysis Group as suggesting that the rioters may have felt that the responding authorities were acting against the foreign workers.

"The events of the night had violated their expectations that the responding agencies ought to be fair and respond to the deceased first, rather than to the locals," it said in the report. Elements of such "cultural psychology" could be evidenced by the fact that police and SCDF vehicles were targetted, but comparatively little damage had been done to private property.

The Behavioural Analysis Group's suggestion that the rioters were fuelled by a desire for "street justice" or "retributive justice" - taking the law into their own hands - was supported by witnesses from India, the COI said. One witness, an Indian citizen living in Singapore, suggested that clashing with the police was a sub-culture among some working class men in Tamil Nadu.

However, the COI stressed that the South Asian migrant worker population should not be unduly viewed as a threat to public order, noting that workers here are largely law-abiding individuals, and many in the crowd that night had attempted to help the responding officers.

ALCOHOL AND INTOXICATION

Alcohol was not a direct cause of the riot, the COI said. "However, it was a major contributory factor, among others, to the nature and escalation of the riot," it added, with many present at the scene admitting to having consumed alcohol that night. The four workers who have pleaded guilty and been convicted of rioting all admitted to having consumed alcohol, with one unable to remember his part in the riot until he was shown video footage.

The COI also cited the effects of intoxication, according to psychological and forensic experts: Impaired attention and cognitive processing; aggression when frustrated; and overreacting to perceived threats of injustice. "Some studies have shown that, in stressful situations, an intoxicated person may be primed to behave in a more confrontational manner when authority figures are present," it said.

"As long as it may be an aggravating factor in outbreaks of violence, alcohol is (a relevant consideration)," the committee said in its report.

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