Thursday 13 March 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 13

COI chairman clarifies remarks on property and life
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

THE chairman of the ongoing Committee of Inquiry into the Dec 8 riot yesterday clarified remarks he made last week that might have been taken by some to imply that he valued property over life.

Mr G. Pannir Selvam and committee member Tee Tua Ba had disagreed with a senior police officer's comments last Tuesday that police actions during the unrest be judged on the outcome of the incident in Little India that night.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lu Yeow Lim said during the public hearing last Tuesday: "Nobody died, we didn't have to use our firearms, no shot was fired, there was no serious injury... the outcome speaks for itself."

But Mr Tee disagreed and pointed to the burning of the police patrol cars by the mob that night.

That, however, drew a stern rebuke from Mr Selvam, who said to the Tanglin Police Division chief: "No, no. That is not the philosophy of riot control."

To which DAC Lu replied: "I said this earlier, and I'll repeat it; I think it is morally wrong to prioritise property over human life. The preservation of human life must be paramount."

But Mr Selvam said: "The loss of human life was not the priority issue at that stage, not on that day, in the circumstances of everything that happened."

Yesterday, Mr Selvam raised the matter again, this time asking migrant workers group TWC2 president Russell Heng - who was appearing before the inquiry - if he was under the impression that the retired judge had indeed valued property more than life.

"A lot of people (have) asked me that. I never said that. What I said in the proceedings was, on that day, it was not a life-threatening situation. That means these rioters weren't after the lives of anybody," said Mr Selvam.

"So what the responders were faced with was a simple rioting situation, where rioters were burning property, overturning cars. They never threatened the life of anybody, so there was no justification to pull out the gun and fire."

The retired judge agreed that if the police had pulled out the guns, it could have changed the situation. "(But it was) not a life threatening situation, so no point in saying: 'I handled the situation without a loss of life'," he said yesterday. "The situation you have was purely confined to property damage, not life damage. Fact of the matter is, there is no evidence of them wanting to kill anybody.

"It's not a situation of someone trying to kill somebody, and you were trying to prevent it. They were even quite conscious of the fact that they were targeting police vehicles."

Mr Selvam said what he meant by his remarks last Tuesday was that "the priority of life was not the situation they were facing on that day... What they were facing was not a threat to the life of anybody, but the property... So it should be handled in the sense that property damage should have been prevented... None of us, I think, would be bold enough to say, or stupid enough to say, property is more important than life."

'You don't know, you don't live here'
Little India resident tells of problems faced every weekend
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

YOU don't live here and don't know what we have had to put up with.

That was one Little India resident's response yesterday to non-government organisations (NGO) that have been calling for people who live and work in Little India to be more tolerant of foreign workers who congregate in the area on Sundays.

"To put it very bluntly, I understand where the NGOs are coming from but it's very hard for me to sympathise with their cause because they don't stay here," said Mr Martin Pereira, a long-time resident of Klang Lane, just a stone's throw from the epicentre of the Dec 8 riot.

The 44-year-old air traffic controller was testifying at yesterday's Committee of Inquiry (COI) as chairman of the Tekka Residents' Committee. He told the inquiry that while he appreciates the efforts of NGOs in integrating foreign workers, they too need to recognise that residents just want to feel safe and not have their neighbourhood intruded by "hordes of men in a drunken stupor" every weekend.

There are "uncomfortable activities" happening right under residents' noses, Mr Pereira added. "We do have ladies who come and accost them (and) Indian community members tell us that these Indian ladies are not normal ladies," he said, referring to transsexuals soliciting for sexual services.

Besides vice activities, Mr Pereira said he has also received feedback from residents of fortune-telling and illegal moneylending activities at the void decks on Sundays.

"When you don't face the problems on a weekly basis, I don't think you will understand the true feelings of residents who live there," he said.

Other NGOs have told the COI earlier that many foreign workers were unfairly chased away from void decks by auxiliary police officers even though they were "just sitting there... and not really doing anything", said COI member and West Coast Citizens' Consultative Committee chairman Andrew Chua.

But Mr Pereira, who has lived in the estate for more than a decade, said workers heavily utilised the HDB void decks on Sundays to have a picnic, consume alcohol and sleep.

"To a person who doesn't stay in this area, it will seem an inconvenience and a disamenity," said Mr Pereira, when asked by the committee if he had "anything more serious" than complaints of loitering and drunken workers.

"But if you were living here... it wouldn't be something that you would feel is a disamenity or an inconvenience - you would feel it's an invasion of privacy."

Mr Pereira said he hopes more enforcement powers would be given to the auxiliary police, who he felt were not strict enough in dealing with the workers because their "hands are tied".

For instance, current laws do not make it illegal for workers to crowd around in common areas under Housing Board flats, he noted.

But shouldn't Little India residents already know what they are in for when they moved into the ethnic enclave, asked Mr Chua?

Mr Pereira agreed, particularly for those who moved into the area since about 12 years ago, as the problem started some 15 years ago. "But this is still Singapore, sir," he added. "My point is this... When in Rome, you should do as the Romans do, not expect the Romans to adjust to you."

On India street culture and 'law of underdog'
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

CROWDS in India have a tendency of ganging up to take on bullies and a "law of the underdog" may have escalated the violence during the Dec 8 riot.

This was according to a projects director who was born in India and said he often witnessed such altercations in his homeland.

Mr Rintu Chakravarthy, who is now a Singapore citizen, told the Committee of Inquiry yesterday that he had experienced several riots when he was growing up.

There was usually a "hierarchy" of reaction where passers-by would gather and gang up on the perceived bully, he added.

"In street culture in India, a pedestrian crossing the road wrongly, if hit by a scooter, the mob would attack the scooter," he said.

"If the scooter is... hit by a car, the mob would attack the car. If the car is hit by a bus, the mob would attack the bus."

This meant the riot was neither pre-meditated nor a result of any pent-up frustration among foreign workers here, but rather an expression of what Mr Chakravarthy calls "the law of the underdog".

The 47-year-old projects director at Lum Chang Building Contractors said such incidents were common in India - where most of the workers in the riot here were from - and could be explained by the mob mentality that night.

"There is this huge wave of sympathy towards a fellow brother or a comrade, and whether the other people know him... it becomes immaterial," he added, stressing that his views were a "personal feeling".

Touching on other matters, Mr Chakravarthy suggested that regulations on noise pollution here could be relaxed to allow for "minimal work" to be done on Sundays and public holidays. This will keep workers occupied as his experience showed many workers were keen to do overtime.

"My general impression is, those workers who come for the first two to three years, they are very keen to make money," he added.

Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam asked Mr Chakravarthy if Lum Chang retained its workers' passports - a common practice among employers of foreign workers here but one that angers the workers, according to the evidence given by a union representative to the inquiry last week.

Mr Chakravarthy said his company does so to prevent workers from absconding, noting that besides forfeiting a security bond, the firm would suffer a "bad impact" on work permit allocations if an employee was found moonlighting.

But none of the workers from Lum Chang have raised any objections to the practice so far, he said, adding that a worker's passport is promptly returned when the man informs the company of an emergency, a policy that remains even though seven workers have lied in the past and did not return.

"That should not make us pessimistic in depriving the eighth worker of not handing him a passport in an emergency, because his may be a real case," he added.

'Do more to help workers fit in'
Migrant workers group chief calls for empathy from S'poreans
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 12 Mar 2014

MAKE an effort and we can all get along - that was the message migrant workers group Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) president Russell Heng had for locals who deal with foreign workers in Little India.

Addressing the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the Dec8 riot, Dr Heng yesterday said workers in general are respectful of authority, but more can be done to make them feel at home here.

That involves recognising the importance of Little India to them - as a place where "they feel they fit in", unlike other areas of Singapore where "they feel out of place", he added in a report submitted to the COI.

"One should not underestimate what it means to somebody leading a hard life in unfamiliar surroundings far from home."

Pointing to how bus services for these workers now end at 9pm, he explained that instead of restricting access to Little India and erring "on the side of caution... we should just tweak here and there... to improve things for everybody".

Shopkeepers, auxiliary police officers and bus drivers in Little India, for instance, can be trained to better communicate with the foreign workers.

This did not mean learning Bengali or Tamil, but picking up a few key words. Even "learning how to smile and empathise" could go a long way, he said, and can help prevent a repeat of the violence that erupted three months ago.

Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam said such education could also be done "the other way round", suggesting that Dr Heng consider helping foreign workers to set up an organisation to teach them local languages.

While Dr Heng agreed this could be done, he maintained that Singaporeans who deal with workers should also "fulfil their share of the equation".

He told the COI that he and TWC2 volunteers have seen instances of foreign workers being roughly handled as they wait to board private buses taking them back to their dormitory.

"Drivers and conductors behave in ways that could be improved," said the 63-year-old, who has a PhD in political science from the Australian National University.

Mr Karuppaiah Sankar, one of the two foreign workers to testify yesterday, said he had heard his friends talk about how time keepers on buses used Hokkien vulgarities when dealing with workers.

But the Indian, who has been working here for the past 14 years, added that he has not experienced this himself.

Dr Heng also noted how patrolling officers in Little India can at times seem intimidating, when they, for instance, crowd around a single worker. He called for more sensitivity.

The report was put together by TWC2 based on information gathered from its staff and volunteers, who interact with more than 300 foreign workers a day. The report has been handed over to the COI.

While Dr Heng called the riot an "aberration", he also suggested that tougher enforcement against errant employers, who for instance are involved in salary disputes, can help keep similar unrest at bay.

"Foreign workers generally like Singapore... They are not disrespectful of our laws nor defiant of authority," he wrote in the report, adding that the country should cherish this and build on it.

Little India Riot COI: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10, Day 11, Day 12

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