SINGAPORE: While a confluence of factors led to last December’s riot in Little India, alcohol played a key role in causing the situation to escalate, said a lead investigator.
He was the last witness to testify on Wednesday at the end of a five-week public hearing into the riot.
The riot was sparked by a fatal bus accident involving Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu.
And there were several reasons why the rioters reacted as strongly as they did.
Though most did not witness the accident, they blamed bus driver Lee Kim Huat. They mistook Lee’s decision not to move the bus to free the trapped worker as being unsympathetic.
Timekeeper Madam Wong Geck Woon’s poor relationship with the workers also did not help matters, and the incident became an opportunity for them to vent their anger and frustration against her.
These factors were put forward by lead investigator Adam Fashe Huddin, who is also Director of Investigation at the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB).
The Committee of Inquiry (COI) for the Little India Riot requested the public prosecutor to appoint a team of investigators from CNB to conduct independent investigations into any matter relevant to the inquiry regarding the riot.
The CNB team was appointed as it is a neutral party to the incident, and the investigators have the expertise and experience to aid in investigation matters pertaining to the COI.
Mr Adam said: “Our findings were established following a thorough investigation process, supported by a combination of objective evidence, as well as information gathered from various sources.”
He emphasised that it was a small number of workers who had rioted initially, but the group had gathered strength and others were instigated to join in.
He added that in shielding the bus driver and timekeeper from the crowd, first responders from the Police and Singapore Civil Defence Force could have been perceived by the rioters as “protecting their own”, instead of helping the dead man pinned under the bus.
“The very fact that most of the attacks were focused on the police officers without any show of aggression towards the members of public and damage or looting to the nearby shops, reinforced that the foreign workers were unhappy with the police officers,” he said.
Mr Adam said investigations had concluded that alcohol was a “major contributory factor” to how the riot unfolded.
He pointed to video footage showing workers who appeared drunk that night, as well as the many beer bottles that were used as projectiles.
“We also took a look at the demand of alcohol by comparing the difference before and after the riot. One of the shopkeepers had reported a loss of $20,000 to $25,000 of revenue every Sunday since the alcohol restriction was in place, while a major liquor distributor shared that a supply of beer and liquor to the shop located at Little India had decreased from 300 cartons to 30 to 50 cartons a month after the riot,” he said.
Mr Adam said these are clear indications of the amount of alcohol that had been consumed within Little India where the sales are generated mostly from the South Asian workers.
But no evidence had been found to suggest the riot stemmed from the mistreatment of foreign workers by employers.
In closing the public hearing, Senior State Counsel David Khoo said it’s hoped the evidence presented will lay to rest any allegations that foreign workers in Singapore are ill-treated, as well as correct any misconceptions about the bus accident involving Indian national Sakthivel Kumaravelu – which led to the riot.”
The investigation team’s reports also offered suggestions to help the committee to make its recommendations, including closing some roads to traffic on Sundays and extending the bus services in Little India to Saturdays and Sunday mornings – which could help ease overcrowding.
It is estimated some 100,000 workers visit Little India on Sundays.
The team also said more efforts can be channelled to educating foreign workers about actions that are considered unacceptable in Singapore, such as urinating in public.
Cultural differences should be explained to the foreign workers at the onset.
“The bus association should provide training to timekeepers and coordinators to equip them with better skills to minimise friction between them and the foreign workers,” said Mr Adam.
The Committee of Inquiry will submit a report of its proceedings, findings and recommendations to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean by June.