Sunday 23 March 2014

Little India Riot COI: Day 21

Tear gas and baton charges 'are old tactics'
Ex-police commissioner tells COI riot troops now take calibrated approach
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

THE way riots are handled in Singapore has evolved from a force-first approach using tear gas and baton charges decades ago to one that is more calibrated.

Still, "there is no textbook solution", according to former police commissioner Khoo Boon Hui, who submitted a six-page report to the Committee of Inquiry (COI) looking into the Little India riot.

The 59-year-old Senior Deputy Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry said yesterday: "You have to use your head, use your judgment. Doctrines and manuals cannot be exhaustive and should not preclude the innovative use of strategies and tactics."

Tracing the evolution of riot doctrine, he explained how riot squads - the predecessor of the Special Operations Command (SOC) - were first formed in 1952, after the Maria Hertogh riots.

In the early years, aggressive tactics were needed because of extreme violence seen in incidents like the 1960s communal riots.

But strong-arm tactics such as the use of tear gas and baton charges would no longer be deemed acceptable today, said Mr Khoo, who was police chief from 1997 to 2010.

Passive resistance tactics have been adopted by the SOC, following studies of measures taken up overseas, said Mr Khoo, who also served as Interpol president from 2008 to 2012.

Today, police commanders approach public order incidents with three objectives in mind.

First, riots should be quelled "with minimum casualties, especially to innocent bystanders, responders and, of course, the rioters themselves". While minimising any spillover or escalation of the riot, the police must be seen to take "resolute but appropriate" action. Lastly, the police have to instil public confidence by decisively resolving the incident.

"At the end of the day, you can't just stand by and then in the end let the rioters escape. You have to bring people to justice," said Mr Khoo.

He prefaced his testimony yesterday by saying he would not judge police actions taken on Dec 8 because he was then in Qatar on official duties, and had not been involved in the active management of the incident since.

During the inquiry, committee members have questioned how the police responded at the scene. They pointed out that the decision to hold the ground instead of facing rioters head on could have emboldened troublemakers, who ended up damaging 23 emergency vehicles. The incident also left 49 Home team officers injured.

How much force to use is a controversial issue, said Mr Khoo. "But my sense is that it must be commensurate with the level of public order threat, (be) fair and even-handed."

Using insufficient force could embolden the crowd, but excessive force can inflame the situation, he said, citing foreign examples to prove his point. In the London riots of 2009, a newspaper vendor trying to make his way home died after he was pushed over and hit by the police. "It gave the British police a very, very bad image," he said. "In the heat of things they did something (that) brought the whole police force into disrepute."

Also critical are the capabilities and size of the force deployed. "If you have the numbers, do you have people who are well-trained?" said Mr Khoo. "If you don't have numbers, you risk escalating the level of violence because you resort to lethal force when it may not be necessary because you are threatened."

A riot in Hong Kong in 2005 involved the use of 2,000 troops to deal with a sit-in involving more than 900 people. All the protesters were arrested, but they were later let off because officers could not distinguish the role of each suspect. "In the end all the evidence got mixed up and people just got away," said Mr Khoo.

The use of warning shots, too, could backfire. COI chairman and former Supreme Court judge G. Pannir Selvam noted: "Firing a warning shot in a big congregation is a real problem."

Mr Khoo agreed: "People in front may know what is happening, but people behind don't. Some may be running back, some may be surging forward."

Mr Selvam added: "The other psychology is (that) if you are going to kill me and I'm going to die, I might as well die fighting you."

Mr Khoo in his report, which was praised by the committee, concluded: "It would be a Pyrrhic victory should the police use excessive force to quell a riot, only for heightened tensions and unrest to erupt in other parts of Singapore."

The inquiry resumes on Tuesday, with Police Commissioner Ng Joo Hee expected to testify.

Rumours 'can affect police bid to quell riots'
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

FORMER police commissioner Khoo Boon Hui was in Qatar for a work trip when he received a text message claiming that his son, an officer with the Singapore Civil Defence Force, was injured in the Little India riot while his son's friend was killed.
This turned out to be false, and Mr Khoo, who is currently the Senior Deputy Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry, quickly replied to prevent the rumour from spreading.

He told the Committee of Inquiry looking into the Dec 8 riot yesterday: "I quickly checked, and said: 'No, no, please stop this. It's not true. No one was killed'."

He highlighted this to illustrate how easy - and how dangerous - images and rumours could go viral in the age of technology.

"If you look at this message, there's so much credibility, you know, (it says that) my son was injured and his friend was killed," Mr Khoo, who was police chief from 1997 to 2010, said. "That means it's quoting a very primary source."

The potential "spillover" effects of such rumours mean there could be "wider ramifications" for the police in quelling public order incidents.

If unfounded rumours - such as police taking excessive action against the rioters - spread, they could heighten tensions and inflame violence in other areas, added Mr Khoo.

He said: "In this day and age, it's even worse because you can WhatsApp, SMS with photos, and there's no context. Someone sees something, (they) react."

From yesterday's exchanges
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

Not panel versus police

Committee chairman G. Pannir Selvam to Senior Deputy Secretary Khoo Boon Hui on the point of the inquiry: This commission is not a commission against the police.

We are not merely investigating the police, we are investigating a larger incident, so it is not us against the police.

We are together in this and it is a common force against the rioters.

So it is our duty to investigate and find out whether there are any lapses within us and, if it is so, it must be remedied, it must be put right.

So it must be seen in that respect.

Mr Khoo: Yes. I don't see you as against me because I am also not in the police and I do hope that you can convey this message to the current Commissioner.

I'm sure he will appreciate this, and, yes, we all want to know how to do better.

Looking at the facts

Former police commissioner Tee Tua Ba on the reason behind the robust questioning of Home Team officers: It's not for the committee to hold anyone accountable.

Mr Khoo: Of course.

Mr Tee: We are just looking at the facts and the circumstances and the evidence.

It's very painful to pinpoint anybody, but if the facts present themselves, we have to look at them in that light.

So that's why we are asking you to review now in the light of what has happened.

Eatery owner must testify: COI chairman
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 22 Mar 2014

POLICE Commissioner Ng Joo Hee and the Central Narcotics Bureau's lead investigator Adam Fashe Huddin will take the stand at the public hearing into the Little India riot, which is due to end next week.

However, Committee of Inquiry (COI) chairman G. Pannir Selvam said the public hearing will not end without the evidence of Mr Ramakrishnan Ponnaiah, the owner of Kodai canteen. His eatery near the junction of Kerbau Road and Chander Road was used by some rioters as a staging point during the violence.

Mr Ponnaiah was originally due to give evidence on Monday but State Counsel Tan Soo Tet told the committee that day that the witness was overseas.

He was then scheduled to appear on Wednesday but State Counsel David Khoo said he was still out of the country and is due to return today.

"If he doesn't come back (on Saturday)... even if it means next month, he must be made to give evidence," said Mr Selvam. "Otherwise, we are sending a wrong message."

Ninety witnesses have already testified before the COI over the last 22 days.

So far, five Indian nationals have each been sentenced to between 15 and 18 weeks' jail for failing to disperse when ordered to do so by police on Dec 8 last year.

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, Day 13, Day 14, Day 15, Day 16, Day 17Day 18Day 19, Day 20

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