I don’t know much about police work. The last time I contemplated being a police officer, I was eight years old. What kid didn’t want to be either a policeman or fireman?

I got a reality check when I was 18 years old. The green uniform was not exactly my cup of tea. I saw some of my friends sign on for the blue uniform. They were officers, but I didn’t get to really see them much thereafter. They couldn’t go to pubs, KTV, discos in the jurisdiction they served in. They couldn’t break the law like we do sometimes. Some don’t have a life – on call 24/7. Not quite the life I relished.

These past two weeks have been a revelation of sort. This COI is not boring at all. The line of questioning against the policemen on duty that day is aggressive. What is at the heart of the debate appears to be whether our police officers are cowards. Not pretty at all. The COI seems to have their mind set on a few things:
1. Police should have “lathi” and “pepper spray” with them all the time.
2. Police should have gone on an offensive with the rioters. It does not matter that they are outnumbered — they don the uniform so they must die for the country to protect the integrity of the force and our nation.
3. Police have guns. What is the use of gun if you don’t brandish them and shoot. Collateral damage is to be expected.

Bertha Henson put it quite well here:

“Still, should we expect acts of individual heroism? That would be nice. It would be great to read about a heroic policeman who charges into the crowd, fires one shot in the air and the rioters disperse. We would have saved several vehicles and stopped more policemen getting wounded. We would put him on stage and given him a medal or two. The COI seems to think that might have happened instead of “holding the ground’’. Of course, the hero could have been trampled upon, a drunk might have wrested his gun from him and started firing. Oooh! More bloodshed. And the hero becomes a target of derision, for not taking “considered’’ decisions and acting rashly. So the boys in blue preferred to be cautious. The COI will have to judge whether caution should have been the order of the night.”


I am in the S3 Branch of an infantry unit. In battle planning, knowing when to pull back, when to assault and where to place your reserves (and preserve the reserve for the final assault) is key. In army they say “kiang jia hor, mai gei kiang” – OK to be smart, just don’t be smart alec. A gung-ho officer may either go down in history books as a hero or an idiot who got all his men killed unnecessarily.

We heard from this young gung-ho chap called Jonathan Tang who would do SAF proud if he wore green – the way he outlined his mission: (a) provide cover for SCDF to extricate body (b) evacuate timekeeper and bus driver to safety and (c) secure the area to prevent the battle from spilling into Istana and surrounding residential area. He exemplified what sound command and control was. His gung-ho attitude was good.

We heard from another hero call Sgt Fadli. He was tasked to direct traffic but ended up charging the rioters – three times. COI praised him. He is a hero. But he also went against orders. While rioters were initially throwing stones at vehicle, they started to throw stones at him, each time more aggressive. On the third time, he decided that it was too dangerous and stopped. He aggravated the rioters (like what the other officers predicted). He could have gotten himself and his supervisor killed. His gung-ho attitude was respectable but seemed to be driven more by emotion than strategy.

We heard the COI chastise Station Inspector Adil Lawi. He was praised by his Police Commissioner for saving the lives of eight people. His same act invited the chagrin of COI members who just stopped short of saying he was a coward. Was he? They were in an ambulance. There was a burning vehicle in front of them. He heard people say they will burn their ambulance and others said they will die. He got everyone out. The ambulance exploded shortly after. If they had died inside just because Adli wanted to be hero, I think they would just be zero. I think Adli deserves better. His decision not to be gung-ho saved the lives of eight officers for which parents, girlfriends and wives will be eternally grateful.

We heard from our star SCDF officer LTA Tiffany Neo. She made good decisions on the ground. She did what she needed to do to save lives. Her NSF were scared s**tless but she persevered. She also made the decision to fall back so as not to be a liability to the police. What more can we ask? She was gung-ho.

If you ask me, it is often more easy to be angry, draw batons, draw arms and fight back. In fear, this is also what our instinct would teach us to do.

Bravery is defined by using common sense, exercising self-restraint, doing the right thing and doing it right. In this instance, self-restraint was a sound decision. It is no different from digging in the foxhole while artillery drop shell after shell, but you hold, you don’t charge. More self-restraint is required to hold the ground and only strike when the timing is right. I don’t think it is easy for officers there to just fob back things hurled at them with no certainty when reinforcement will come. The commander on the ground made decisions on the fly based on what he saw, what he heard and what his gut feelings were.

He made a decision, his decision did not get people killed, reinforcement came, and the riot was quelled at Race Course Road. There were no accusations of police brutality. No other riots were triggered elsewhere.

In war, stupid men get killed.

In this Little India riot, complex decisions were made, and in totality they worked well, and no men were killed in the riot – on both sides. It is a positive outcome. I am not sure whether the same outcome will be achieved using more aggression. And I hope police will NOT, because of this COI, resort to more aggressive tactics just because the post-mortem analysis deemed their actions in Little India inadequate.

Calvin Kok Ying Hui

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