By Andrew Loh
When rescuers from the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) arrived at the scene in Little India, what they saw were an angry crowd and foreign nationals pelting the bus with whatever they could find.
Still, the SCDF officers had a job to do – to extricate Indian national, Sakthivel Kumaravelu, from under the wheels of the bus which had run him over just minutes earlier.
In order to do so, the officers used a hydraulic jack to raise the bus as other police officers provided cover for them from the projectiles being hurled in their direction by the angry mob.
Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) Jonathan Tang, the most senior police officer on the ground then, had instructed some of his policemen to use a rope to try and keep the crowd at bay as the rescuers did their job. However, this was futile as the crowd continued to surge forward.
Some in the crowd started to bang on the bus and to push it from the opposite side, perhaps hoping to overturn it. But in doing so, they were also placing the lives of the SCDF rescuers in danger. Indeed, as a SCDF officer crawled under the bus to pull out the body of the Indian national, the bus slipped off the jack twice as the crowd continued pushing the bus from the opposite side. Fortunately, the officer managed to come out of underneath the bus just in time, with the body of the deceased.
The Committee of Inquiry (COI) into the riot which occurred last December was hearing the testimony of Senior Station Inspector (SSI), Akhbar Ali, of Tanglin Police Division. He was one of the first responders to arrive at the scene in Race Course Road of what was initially reported as a traffic accident.
Once the body of Sakthivel Kumaravelu was extricated, it was covered with a white cloth and carried away by the SCDF officers who were still being protected from the boisterous crowd by the policemen who were carrying shields.
But on seeing the body being carried away, the crowd became more hostile, SSI Akbar said. “They wanted to see the body,” he told the COI, adding that the mob became even more violent, and continued to throw more projectiles at the rescuers as they carried the body to the ambulance.
When asked if he knew that his commander was on the ground at the time, SSI Akbar replied, “Not at any time was I aware that my commander was around.”
Later, he saw that the mob had started to overturn police cars, including the one he had driven to the scene. “I was frustrated,” he said, when asked how he felt on seeing this.
The perpetrators were clapping, jumping and shouting when they flipped the vehicles, he said.
However, not all in the crowd were hostile or were involved in the violence. For example, he said some had tried to stop the rioters from setting the cars on fire.
COI member Tee Tua Ba said, “Some of them were trying to help the police.”
In a video shown to the COI of a motorcycle being set on fire, a man was seen approaching the flaming bike and dancing in front of it, until another man came to pull him away.
When asked if the police were able to identify the two men, the State Counsel replied that they were not able to.
COI member Andrew Chua remarked that at this point there were no police at all in the area, as the vehicles were being overturned and burned.
SSI Akbar replied, “Yes, sir.”
The special operations command arrived soon after and dispersed the crowd and brought the situation under control.
COI chairman, GP Selvam, asked:
“Did you arrest anyone?”
“No,” replied SSI Akbar.
“Did you see other officers arrest anyone?”
“What about after the SOC arrived?”
“Yes, I saw them arrest four or five people then.”
Police officer, Staff Sergeant Kamisah Binte Hanafi, who took the stand at the COI next, related how she was injured after being hit in the stomach by a rock, and was asked to withdraw from further participation in the operation to bring the riot under control.
She had earlier been injured on her arm and which had been bleeding.
When queried by Selvam why she “did not fight on”, SSgt Kamisah said she was still at the scene despite her initial injuries. “I was hit a second time and fell to the ground,” she said. “My arm was bleeding very badly. If I had gone on, I would have been a liability to the team. We were already outnumbered. I didn’t want them to have to worry about me.”
SSgt Kamisah, together with another 19 officers, had taken refuge in an ambulance at one point. As the violence grew in intensity, with vehicles being set on fire, the decision was made to leave the ambulance.
“We knew we were in danger of being burned alive,” she said.
All 20 officers in the ambulance then ran out and headed towards Bukit Timah Road. The scene was captured on video and had been circulated online in December. It was also shown at the COI hearing on Thursday. It led to some accusing the officers of running away from the heart of the unrest.
COI member Tee Tua Ba asked if she agreed that it might have emboldened the mob when they saw the 20 officers running away.
“Yes,” she replied, “they may have been emboldened.”
Selvam said that the “net effect” was that when the officers left the scene, it let the rioters do what they liked until the SOC arrived.
The COI then asked SSgt Kamisah if she was frightened as events took a more dire turn.
“None of us were frightened,” she replied. “We came on the scene to assist ASP Jonathan Tang. We came in with a sense of purpose. No one was frightened.”
Despite all the projectiles thrown their way and being injured herself, SSgt Kamisah however said the anger of the crowd was not directed at them.
She said the mob’s intention was not to “kill us.”
“They did not hit the officers who didn’t carry shields,” she said.
ASP Jonathan Tang was able to walk around without any shields, she added. “They didn’t throw things at him.”