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Home Team Speeches

20 January 2014

Ministerial Statement on The Little India Riot by Mr Teo Chee Hean, Deputy Prime Minister, Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister for Home Affairs

1.         Madam Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make this Statement. May I have your permission to display slides and ask the Clerk to distribute hand-outs to Members, which I will refer to during my Statement.

2.         A riot took place in Little India on the night of 8 December 2013. The riot was the result of an unruly mob reacting to a fatal traffic accident. This was the worst public order disturbance in Singapore in more than four decades. 23 emergency response vehicles were damaged, of which five were burnt. Another seven private vehicles were damaged. 49 Home Team officers sustained injuries.

3.          I will recount what happened that night, based on what we know so far, the actions taken against those involved, and the immediate and longer-term measures to restore calm and let the community in Little India recover from the riot. I will also address the 21 questions that have been raised by 14 Members on the riot and related issues.

Chronology of events

4.           Let me start with the chronology of events. On 8 December 2013, Police received an emergency call at 9.23 pm informing them that a bus had knocked someone down at Race Course Road. Emergency responders were activated. SCDF despatched an ambulance with three officers which arrived about eight minutes after the call. The first two Police officers arrived about six minutes later.

5.           The first responders found the deceased, Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, pinned under a private bus. By then, a crowd of about 100 persons had gathered. The bus driver and the bus service timekeeper were taking refuge in the bus, as they had been injured by the angry mob. As the crowd was unruly, the first responders immediately requested assistance. SCDF and Police reinforcements started to arrive from 9.38 pm. The Police ground commander also requested for support from Police Special Operations Command, or SOC, at 9.45 pm.

6.           Despite the mob pelting the bus with objects such as beer bottles, stones and drain covers, Police officers created a cordon for SCDF officers to extricate the deceased. At 9.54 pm, SCDF officers extricated the body of the deceased from under the bus, shielded by Police officers.

7.           By this time, the crowd had swelled to about 400, and continued to be unruly and violent. The SOC was activated at 10.04 pm. SOC officers are specially trained in the use of equipment and tactics to deal with large-scale riots and public order threats. At approximately 10.08 pm, the officers also evacuated the bus driver and timekeeper from the bus and shielded them to bring them to the ambulance. At approximately 10.27 pm, the bus driver and timekeeper were conveyed to hospital.

8.         Meanwhile, other Police officers arriving at the scene sought to contain the situation. They closed perimeter roads around the site to prevent innocent persons from venturing into the incident area. But there were still too few Police officers present to prevent the rioters from overturning emergency response vehicles, and setting fire to several of them. The first vehicle was set on fire at about 10.30 pm. While the rioters had the ability and opportunity to cause grievous hurt, Police officers present assessed that there was no immediate threat to lives. That is, no immediate jeopardy to lives. Based on Police doctrine, they assessed that the use of lethal force was not appropriate. It could have worsened the situation, or hurt innocent bystanders.

9.          The first SOC troop of 29 officers arrived at 10.42pm, which was about 40 minutes after their activation and about one hour after the ground commander had first requested for SOC support.  The second troop arrived shortly thereafter. No more vehicles were overturned or set on fire after the SOC arrived. After assessing the terrain, crowd size and mood, the ground commander directed the SOC troops to disperse the mob. The troops formed up at their assigned locations, and ordered the crowd to disperse, in several languages including Tamil.But instead of dispersing, persons in the crowd continued to pelt the SOC officers with various objects. The SOC troops then moved in to disperse the crowd. As they advanced, the crowd backed off, broke into smaller groups and began to disperse. This also facilitated the arrest of rioters by the Police. The entire situation was brought under control within two hours of the start of the incident.

10.       Mr Alex Yam asked about personal safety and security measures for SCDF rescuers against violence. When SCDF rescuers face a threat of violence or danger, the protocol is for Police officers to protect the SCDF officers so that they can carry out their rescue mission. And this is what happened in this incident, where the SCDF and Police officers worked together to carry out their duties to save lives and maintain public order. However, the scale and intensity of the incident were beyond what the initial responding forces were equipped to deal with and to bring under control. Police and SCDF are reviewing the incident to see where improvements to equipment, training or protocols can be made.

Investigations and legal action taken

11.          After the riot, Police immediately commenced investigations that same night to identify those involved. They also checked on workers returning to their dorms to identify persons, and to maintain security in the dorms. Within two weeks, Police interviewed about 4,000 persons. More than 400 persons were called up for further investigations. Action has been taken against 295 persons who can be categorised into three groups:

a. The first group of 25 persons includes instigators and those actively involved in egregious acts of violence. They had damaged property, defied police orders or incited others to do so. They have been charged in court.

b. The second group of 57 persons had knowingly joined or continued to participate in the riot, despite being ordered to disperse by Police. In doing so, they had impeded riot control and emergency rescue operations. These persons were given stern warnings by Police and repatriated. They will be banned from returning to Singapore.

c. The third group of 213 persons who were present but their involvement was assessed to be passive and incidental were issued formal Police advisories in the presence of their employers. They can continue to remain and work here. No further action will be taken against them as long as they abide by our laws.

12.          Mr Christopher de Souza and Mr Laurence Lien asked about the process of investigation, and the basis for our action against the persons involved.

13.         Madam Speaker, I had stated earlier on the 9th of December that anyone who commits an offence will face the full weight of the law, and that we will deal with all the persons involved strictly, firmly, and fairly according to our laws. And this is exactly what we have done. Police relied on evidence from forensic examination, video footage, photographs as well as officer and witness accounts to determine the culpability of various individuals. Evidence against each person was reviewed by the Attorney-General’s Chambers before decisions were made.

14.         Members may recall that we had originally arrested and charged 35 persons, but charges against 10 persons were eventually withdrawn after the Attorney-General’s Chambers reviewed further evidence  and this shows due process at work.  All 25 persons facing a court trial have been offered pro-bono counsel under the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. I understand that all the accused have engaged counsel, most of them pro-bono under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme while several have hired their own lawyers.

15.          Madam Speaker, under our laws, foreigners do not have an inherent legal right to work and stay in Singapore. They can only do so with the permission of the State. In the last three years, on average 13,000 foreigners were repatriated annually. Foreign workers must know that if they flout our rules they do face repatriation. We need to be strict about this, to maintain the safety and security of our society.

16.          In this case, our investigations showed that the 57 persons had continued to participate in the riot despite Police’s orders to disperse. This is an offence under the Penal Code1.   The Attorney-General’s Chambers reviewed the evidence in each case, and decided to administer a stern warning to each of the 57 persons. I, as the Minister for Home Affairs, then decided (based on the statutory powers vested in me under the Immigration Act) that they should be repatriated. Their visit passes were then cancelled by the Controller of Immigration and they were so repatriated2

17.          The High Commissions of India and Bangladesh have been given full consular access to their nationals who were charged or served with repatriation orders.

18.           Madam Speaker, as for the fatal traffic accident that immediately preceded the riot, investigations are on-going. The Traffic Police has obtained cogent evidence of what happened. An independent expert has been engaged to reconstruct the accident, and to provide an opinion as to how the accident happened.

Committee of Inquiry

19.           Madam Speaker, Ms Irene Ng, Mr Christopher de Souza, Mr Gerald Giam and Ms Sylvia Lim asked about the Committee of Inquiry.

20.           The Committee of Inquiry, or COI, which I appointed on 13 December 2013, five days after the riot, is chaired by former Judge of the Supreme Court, Mr G Pannir Selvam, and has three other members. The COI members are respected persons with many years of experience in the fields of law and security. They are familiar with worker issues, as well as relations between foreign workers and the local population. I refer Members to the terms of reference of the Committee which are shown on the screen and provided in page 4 of the hand-out.

21.          Since the appointment of the COI, the members have met several times. Just five days after their appointment, on 18 and 20 December 2013, COI members visited the immigration depot, which held persons pending their repatriation. Twenty of the 57 persons who were repatriated agreed to be interviewed by the COI.

22.          The COI is supported by a team of experienced investigators from the Central Narcotics Bureau. These officers and the agency were not involved in the incident. State Counsel from the Attorney-General’s Chambers will lead the evidence. The Chairman of the COI is empowered to decide whether any part of its hearings will be open to the public. The COI has asked interested parties to send in written submissions and intends to continue its work with hearings from 19 February 2014. I have asked the Committee to complete its inquiry and submit its report within six months from its appointment in December 2013.

23.         Ms Foo Mee Har and Mr Seng Han Thong asked if the frontline response was adequate and whether there will be any changes to procedures following the incident. Madam Speaker, I’ve described the events that night and what the responders did but this is an area that the COI will look into. Hence it is not appropriate for me to pre-empt the COI’s conclusions. However, my Ministry, Police and SCDF are in parallel looking into areas that can be improved, and will proceed to make these improvements where we assess that it is necessary.

Immediate measures to restore law and order

24.           Following the riot on 8 December 2013, MHA together with other government agencies took immediate measures to calm the ground and stabilise the situation. A designated part of Little India was proclaimed as an area in a state of danger to public order under the Public Order (Preservation) Act. Proclamations have been effected on weekends, as well as on public holidays and their eves, and when large scale events are planned. Let me elaborate on the measures taken.

25.          First, restrictions on alcohol. For the first weekend after the riot, Police imposed a total ban on the sale and public consumption of alcohol in the proclaimed area. Subsequent to this, Police have calibrated the measures. On days covered by the proclamation, the ban on consumption of alcohol in public areas remains. Alcohol can be sold at licensed retail outlets up to 8pm. This is curtailed from the original licensing provisions of up to midnight, or later. The sale and consumption of alcohol within licensed premises is no longer banned, and these premises can sell alcohol in accordance with their licensing conditions.

26.           In answer to the question from Mr R Dhinakaran, since the imposition of these measures and as of 19 January 2014, Police have detected 38 incidents of violations involving 10 business operators and 57 individuals. Business operators will be investigated and prosecuted if the case is substantiated. Police will consider what further action to take against those who have been convicted, including the revocation of their liquor licences. For cases of individuals consuming alcohol in public areas, Police have issued advisories to the offenders. Where such offenders held work passes, the advisories were administered in the presence of their employers.

27.            Second, transport. The Little India Bus Services are run by two private operators with a total of some 260 buses ferrying foreign workers between their dormitories and Little India on Sundays. These services were suspended on the first weekend following the riot. The bus services resumed operations at 50% capacity from 22 Dec 2013 and more buses were subsequently added. The drop-off and pick-up operations were also improved to maintain order.

28.           Third, presence on the ground. Ms Sylvia Lim asked about policing arrangements, and whether there were changes post-riot. Prior to the riot, measures had already been put in place to improve the physical environment of the Little India area, such as the installation of backlane lighting, additional railings along Serangoon Road to prevent spill-over of pedestrians onto the road and jay-walking, and the deployment of auxiliary police officers to prevent anti-social behaviour and to address the concerns of local residents. Following the incident, Police have stepped up presence. Police have deployed an additional 20 to 30 police officers, as well as SOC troops, in Little India, on weekends and on public holidays and their eves. This is supplemented by 81 existing auxiliary police officers and private security officers who are engaged to help project a strong uniformed presence and mitigate social dis-amenities on weekends. This level of presence requires considerable resources. Police will continue to review the requirements, to balance the deployment level with sustainability. Police have also initiated other measures to improve security. It has installed more CCTV surveillance and is building stronger community partnership programmes.

29.           Fourth, outreach to foreign workers. Three days after the riot, Minister Shanmugam and Minister Iswaran as well as Mr Vikram Nair and Mr Dhinakaran, commenced a series of visits to foreign workers in their dormitories. They impressed upon the foreign workers that they must abide by the laws of Singapore, while reassuring them that those not involved in the riot need not worry. These visits were very helpful. During these past weeks when restrictions have been in place in Little India, the operators of the recreation centres and foreign worker dormitories have been encouraged to organise more programmes such as movie marathons, bazaars and sports events for the workers.

Longer-term measures for Little India

30.            Madam Speaker, later today, I will be introducing a Bill which seeks to enact a temporary law to provide Police with powers to continue to take calibrated measures to maintain public order and calm in Little India post-riot. The new law will allow Police and other agencies to enforce the alcohol restrictions and regulate the movement of persons. This new law is scoped more tightly compared to the wide-ranging powers that come into effect when the Public Order (Preservation) Act is invoked, and provides only for the additional powers needed for the purposes I have stated earlier, compared to the POPA. The Bill proposes that the law will be valid for one year. This will provide sufficient time for my Ministry to enact longer term legislation to take into account the findings and recommendations of the COI, and recommendations arising from public consultations on the review of the liquor licensing regime.

31.         Ms Irene Ng asked about measures to prevent a recurrence of the riot. As the COI goes about its work, the Government has concurrently been looking into longer-term measures for managing foreign workers. My colleague, Acting Minister for Manpower Mr Tan Chuan-Jin will speak about these later. For the security-related measures, government agencies have installed additional CCTVs and enhanced the street lighting at Race Course Road and its immediate vicinity. We will be further expanding CCTV coverage in Little India.

32.          LTA is planning to take measures to facilitate the Little India Bus Services. These include providing waiting areas in Hampshire Road and Tekka Lane, and providing queue heads and shelters. LTA will also regularly review the operating hours and capacity of the Little India Bus Services to support efforts to restore and maintain order in Little India following the riot.

33.         Mr Ang Wei Neng asked about further measures to mitigate jaywalking. We share the Member’s concern. Better management of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in Little India is important to enhance road safety and improve orderliness. And that is why LTA has made improvements and installed barriers to discourage jaywalking and to make space for pedestrians. LTA will continue to enhance measures to ensure pedestrian safety. The Traffic Police will also continue to deploy enforcement resources to detect and deter jaywalking in Little India.

34.        Associate Professor Fatimah Lateef, Ms Denise Phua, Associate Professor Eugene Tan, Mr Png Eng Huat, Mr R Dhinakaran, Mr Laurence Lien and Ms Foo Mee Har asked about liquor licenses in Little India, and if the government will consider implementing similar measures to restrict sale and consumption of alcohol in other parts of Singapore. The number of liquor licences in Little India has remained stable in the last five years. This information is in page 5 of the hand-out.

35.            Before the incident, MHA had already embarked on a comprehensive review of the liquor licensing regime in Singapore. Industry and public consultations on proposals to restrict sale and public consumption of alcohol commenced on 29 October 2013. We are also reviewing our regulatory levers and processes to tighten liquor control at specific places where we need to do so, for example where there may be large congregations of foreign workers. In our review, we will draw on the experience with measures taken in Little India, and take in views of stakeholders, as well as any findings and recommendations from the COI. The full set of liquor control measures will be announced when they are ready and where laws are needed, we will come to Parliament.

Public Communications

36.             Ms Irene Ng asked about putting out accurate, comprehensive and timely information. The riot took place in the heart of a bustling community. Hence personal accounts and footage of the incident were circulated quickly via social media and word of mouth. Police confirmed the incident officially via a press statement at 11.30 pm on the night of the riot. Shortly after, the same message was disseminated via Police Facebook and Twitter. There has been feedback that Police could have issued short alerts and updates earlier. I agree and have asked Police to review its information-dissemination processes.

37.             After visiting the incident site at 11.57 pm that night, I chaired a media conference with Minister Iswaran, the Commissioner of Police and the Deputy Commissioner of Police at 2.15 am on 9 December 2013. Thereafter, over the course of the subsequent days and weeks, regular media conferences were held and media releases were issued to put out information on the arrests, investigations and legal action taken, the appointment of the COI, as well as action taken by various ministries and agencies to manage the post-riot situation.

38.           Madam Speaker, in any crisis, timely and accurate information needs to be disseminated. This is always a challenge as events unfold very quickly, and not all the facts may be immediately known to the authorities. It is also important that we separate fact from fiction and not contribute to undue speculation and alarm, for example by spreading rumours that may not be true. This is why after the initial media statement from Police, we have provided regular updates to the local media.

39.            Most reports in the international media have been factual and neutral. Where there has been misreporting in the foreign media, our overseas Missions have highlighted the erroneous points to the relevant media agencies. One example was Indian television station Sun TV which apologised for the misreporting and corrected its news bulletin. Unfortunately, not all foreign media outlets have done so or acted responsibly in spite of our efforts.

40.          Mr Christopher de Souza asked if the incident has dented our core value of multiracialism. Based on what we know from Police investigations, this incident was not related to race. It is, however, a timely reminder that we should never take good order, and our safety and security for granted.

Conclusion

41.             Madam Speaker, I have given an account of what happened that night, but it is also important for us to consider what did not happen that night.

42.           The riot, though serious, did not spread to the surrounding neighbourhoods, or other parts of Singapore. It was contained within a particular area in Little India, in the immediate vicinity where the traffic accident took place. Foreign worker dormitories that night, and workplaces the next day, remained calm and peaceful. Not a single shot was fired that night, and there were no fatalities amongst the rioters, innocent bystanders, or our Home Team officers. Police completed their intensive investigations at the incident area overnight, and by 6.45 am the next morning, Race Course Road was re-opened to the public. All was calm at the Little India MRT train station, adjacent to the incident site too. In short, the riot did not spread in time or space; and was contained.

43.           The riot on the night of 8 December was the first in several decades. Because we have enjoyed peace for so many years, almost none of our Home Team officers, especially our national servicemen, had experienced riots before. Nonetheless, they performed their duties under difficult circumstances, contained a rapidly developing situation and restored order within two hours. Our officers then acted expeditiously to identify and deal with the persons involved, and worked closely with other agencies to put in place measures to maintain law and order and restore calm in Little India.

44.             Madam Speaker, Singaporeans did not expect a riot to disrupt their lives, but I am heartened that they responded rationally when the unexpected happened. Several came forward to help. Business owners gave their support despite being affected by the restrictions imposed following the incident. Grassroots leaders in the Little India area stepped up to reassure residents, and helped the community to recover.

45.             I am confident that we will draw useful lessons from this experience and emerge more prepared and stronger - as one Home Team, as one Singapore.

46.            We can try to anticipate every eventuality, and plan and prepare for every one of them. But it is not possible to predict to the last detail what can happen, nor can we set aside dedicated resources for every single eventuality all of the time, and all at the same time.

47.           Instead, we must be resilient and adaptable so that when the unexpected happens, we are able to adapt and respond effectively. This is how our Home Team officers are trained and prepared, to ensure that they have the capabilities, resources and flexibility to deal with various contingencies. The same should be true for our community. We must be resilient and be able to deal with unexpected crises. We cannot be crisis-proof, but we can and must strive to be always crisis-prepared.

48.           Madam Speaker, the majority of Singaporeans recognise that foreign workers are generally law-abiding and do contribute to our society and economy. As many foreign workers told Minister Shanmugam and Minister Iswaran, Mr Dhinakaran and Mr Vikram Nair during their visits to the dormitories, they want to continue working here, appreciate our rules and laws, and want to continue to live in peace and not be tarred with the same brush as the few who had done wrong. Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin will touch on our overall approach to manage foreign workers, after which, with Madam Speaker’s permission, we will both address any matters that Members may wish to raise.


  1 The 57 persons were found to have either committed offences under Section 145 of the Penal Code (“Joining or continuing in an unlawful assembly, knowing that it has been commanded to disperse”) or Section 151 of the Penal Code (“Knowingly joining or continuing in any assembly of 5 or more persons after it has been commanded to disperse”).
  2 The 57 persons were determined to be “undesirable immigrants” under Section 8(3)(k) of the Immigration Act. They thus became “prohibited immigrants,” under Section 8(1) of the Immigration Act. Their visit passes were then cancelled by the Controller of Immigration under Regulation 17 of the Immigration Regulations, and they were repatriated.
Any person liable for removal from Singapore may appeal to the Minister against his or her removal, in writing within seven days of receiving the notice of cancellation. The Immigration Act specifically provides that an appeal shall not serve as stay of removal, but the appeal will still be considered after the person has been repatriated.
 

 

 

 

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