Channel NewsAsia

No arrests as police were "grossly outnumbered", says ASP Tang

It would not have been feasible for first responders to make arrests when they arrived at the scene of the Little India riot as they were "grossly outnumbered", said Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang on day five of the Committee of Inquiry hearing.

SINGAPORE: It would not have been feasible for first responders to make arrests when they arrived at the scene of the Little India riot as they were "grossly outnumbered", said Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang.

Taking the stand on day five of a Committee of Inquiry hearing into last December's riot on Tuesday, he also outlined his immediate priorities which he assessed were necessary to contain the situation.

Since the hearing began last week, there have been questions as to why the police did not engage the rioters sooner, or made quicker arrests which could have prevented the riot from spiralling out of control.

On Tuesday, ASP Tang explained that when he got to the scene of the bus accident that killed Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a crowd of some 200 people had already gathered.

Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers were trying to free Sakthivel's body from under the bus, while about four auxiliary police officers were trying to keep an increasingly emotional and boisterous crowd back.

ASP Tang said he was aware that there were two other police officers at the scene, though he could not locate them in the large crowd.

ASP Tang, who was the first senior officer at the scene, did not immediately order arrests as he needed the few officers to form a human barrier around the SCDF officers who were being "harassed" by the crowd.

"My priority was to give SCDF that space and the time to extricate the person from under the bus... so it was critical for SCDF to do their work without hindrance, and extricate the subject in case he needed medical attention," said ASP Tang, adding that the crowd was targeting its projectiles at the bus.

He said another priority was to get timekeeper Madam Wong Gek Woon, who was taking refuge in the bus, to safety as he realised her presence further agitated the crowd.

ASP Tang said that he wanted to carry out arrests but did not have enough men to do so while still forming a barrier around the SCDF officers.

An auxiliary police officer, Srisivasangkar Subramaniam, also told the committee that he had arrested four men for throwing bottles, and handed them over to police officers.
He said he was told by his supervisor to stop doing so as it was "unsafe".

This was before police vehicles were flipped on their sides and burnt.

The arrests could not be confirmed by ASP Tang.

"I can't say when this happened actually," he said, when asked if he could comment about this point.

He also reiterated that the officers had not retreated at any point during the riot.

At one point, he and his officers entered an ambulance to regroup and formulate tactics to handle the crowd.

ASP Tang said that every decision he made was a considered one depending on the circumstances, and never out of fear of the rioters.

He also explained why officers did not fire warning shots, or use their T-batons.

He said that a warning shot could have indicated to the crowd that the officers were armed, and the rioters might try to take their weapons. The T-batons which officers carry on patrol are not meant for crowd-control, but are designed for defensive purposes.

Realising that the situation could become a major public order incident, he then requested the activation of the Special Operations Command troops.

ASP Tang estimated that of the 400 people who had gathered at Race Course Road that night, 150 of them were active participants -- which means they hurled projectiles, shouted, and instigated the rioters.

The committee also heard that there were less than 90 able-bodied police officers on the ground at the height of the mayhem.

A communications breakdown in the network also made it difficult for the officers to receive instructions.

Radio airwaves used by the police as well as mobile phone networks were jammed.

"The communications breakdown was a key problem... if not it would have been much easier to coordinate," said ASP Tang.

He added of the first responders: "We have some training for riots, but for riots on a much smaller scale than what happened in that particular area on 8 December." 

Tweet Photos, Videos and Update on this Story to  #cna