Little India Riot: The police officer who braved the odds

Testifying before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) for the Little India riot on Tuesday, Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP), Jonathan Tang, was one of the first few police officers who responded to the accident at Race Course Road on 8th Dec 2013. As he was the highest ranked officer on site, he became the ground commander on scene by default.

ASP Tang was at Kampong Java Neighbourhood Police Post when he heard a call for backup at 9.27 pm.

When he arrived at the scene at 9.40 pm, he had to wade through the mass of people that had gathered, pushing them aside to get pass the crowd.

By then, an estimated crowd of 100 people had gathered around the bus. He noticed the bus was damaged and objects were being hurled towards the bus. The scene was noisy as some in the crowd were shouting, but he did not know who they were shouting at then.

He saw four Certis Cisco officers on site but did not see any other police officers. He also noticed a Chinese lady who was standing by the stairs of the bus and advised her to move inside the bus instead.

ASP Tang assumed that the crowd was angry with this lady as a large portion of the objects thrown were directed towards her and the crowd would responded every time she pointed and shouted at them.

At 9.42pm, ASP Tang requested for backup.

His priority was clear – to allow time and space for the SCDF to extricate the subject pinned under the bus and to help the female Chinese who was still in the bus.

To form the human barrier around the SCDF officers, he gathered the four Cisco officers and used a safety rope to secure a perimeter for a wider working space. In the video shown during the inquiry, it is noted that 2-3 South-Asian nationals joined in to form the human barrier.

He felt that without the barrier, the SCDF officers would not been able to carry out their duties.

Despite projectiles being thrown at him, he did not feel the crowd was hostile as their anger seemed to be directed at the bus.

Nonetheless, ASP Tang became more concerned as the crowd grew bigger. He estimated the crowd to be around 200 at this moment in time.

He met up with two other police officers who were at the rear of the bus and went to retrieve 2 riot shields from the police car.

When ASP Tang was informed by SCDF LTA Tiffany Neo that the subject has been successfully extricated from underneath the wheel of the bus, he felt that it was too risky to leave the subject at the scene as the crowd was still very emotional over the accident and it would be very disrespectful to just leave the subject there. And since the subject has not been officially certified dead, he felt that he had the duty to ensure the subject received medical treatment.

At this point, the subject was laid on a stretcher and covered with a white cloth.

He then alerted the police officers and Cisco officers to prepare to escort the SCDF officers to carry the subject to the ambulance. He also had the SCDF ambulance driven nearer to the bus. As the stretcher was carried in front of the bus towards the ambulance, the crowd grew more agitated.

After the body was placed in the ambulance, he then informed LTA Tiffany Neo that there was still an injured Chinese lady inside of the bus.

As he anticipated further agitation from the crowd with the emergence of the Chinese lady, he made his way to the rear of the bus to look for more officers but he could not find anyone else. When he returned to the side of the bus, the SCDF officers were already being escorted by the police towards the ambulance.

ASP Tang decided to drive a police car at the scene to escort the Chinese lady away but as he drove towards the ambulance, he was notified that there was an injured SCDF officer. They decided to use the police car to take rescue this officer first and drove off towards Bukit Timah Road.

At this point, projectiles were targeted at uniformed officers.

Arrests might agitate the crowd

Explaining why did he did not effect any arrest, ASP Tang said that to his knowledge there were only four police officers and four Cisco officers available for deployment and he had estimated the rioting crowd to be around 100 to 150 people.

He could not use the radio sets as the air wave was jammed with calls for backup by other police officers. His phone too failed to work. Therefore he had no idea how many police officers were there in the vicinity.

To make an arrest would mean he would have to take officers away from the human barrier which would jeopardize the task to protect the SCDF officers from carrying out of their duties. Furthermore, he also could not identify who were the troublemakers as projectiles were coming from everywhere and concerned that officers effecting the arrest might be seized by the crowd and have their firearms taken away as they were over-numbered.

ASP Tang said he did consider firing a shot, but decided against the move as it might “agitate the crowd”. He was also worried that it would remind the crowd that the police officers are in possession of firearms and that they might try to seize the revolvers.

When quizzed about the use of the T-baton which officers are equipped with, ASP Tang said that the baton was more of a defensive weapon and was not suitable for a situation like this.

He also consider the use of the water hose of the Red Rhino but it had no water. (SCDF later explained that the Red Rhino was used to jack up the bus and not connected to a water hydrant and therefore there was no water available.)

Overwhelming odds

In an attempt to gain control of the situation with the limited police resources available to him, he resorted to traversing the area around Tekka Lane where the riot was taking place, risking being hit by projectiles thrown to the bus to seek out other officers who might be in the area. His intention was to consolidate the strength on site. He was also looking for any lone officer who might be left stranded, as he was also concerned that the firearm would be seized by the crowd.

While he was on the move, he got struck at his head by a rock, and was bleeding from the wound.

He then came to a group of 10 officers who were seeking shelter between a fire engine and an ambulance. Two officers were seen to be injured. In view of the risk of being overwhelmed by the crowd, they sought refuge in the ambulance.

Not an act of cowardice

He disagreed with the suggestion that he was being afraid of the crowd and therefore hiding in the ambulance. He explained that he was in the ambulance to regroup and plan the next course of action with the other officers.

After the crowd cleared the path of the ambulance which they were in by overturning a police car blocking their way, “It is now or never”, told ASP Tang to the ambulance driver. The ambulance then sped forward towards Bukit Timah Road where they formed a police line, to prevent the rioters from progressing beyond Bukit Timah Road as they waited for the SOC to arrive.

The special operations command (SOC) force arrived soon after at about 10:30pm and commenced with the dispersal of crowd.

ASP Tang said that he did not make any arrest and to his knowledge, no arrest were made by other police officers as well.

“Missing” ground commander and police officers

When asked by COI chairman, GP Selvam, if he had seen the E Division commander, Deputy Assistant Commissioner (DAC) Lu Yeow Lim, ASP Tang said that he did not see DAC Lu anywhere while he was at the scene apart from seeing him at Hampshire road with a group of officers and that he did not receive any instructions from DAC Lu at any point during the riot.

It was only when the two committee members, Mr Selvam and Mr Tee, highlighted to ASP Tang that he knew that there were more than a hundred police officers in the area at the time. ASP Tang said that he was not aware of that and he could not have known that as the communication system was down.

Committee member, Mr Andrew Chua Thiam Chwee, brought up the story of Certis Cisco officer Srisivasangkar A/L Subramaniam, who testified earlier that day, that he had arrested four Indian foreign workers for throwing bottles by grabbing them from behind, one at a time and handing the arrested to the police officers.

Mr Chua said Mr Srisivasangkar went into the crowd and arrested the rioters despite being equipped with a revolver and a baton and stopped arresting rioters only because his supervisor told him it was too dangerous to continue to do so.

ASP Tang could not comment on this as he did not see this himself on that night, he said.

On the point of the police being grossly outnumbered by the number of rioters. Former police commissioner, Mr Tee Tua Ba said that the Police Tactical Troops – which make up the SOC – only consist of 20 persons per troop and yet are still able to handle a crowd of two hundred and said it “is not the numbers, it is the training”. ASP Tang agreed and said, “We are not trained, not equipped.”

In his closing remarks, Mr Selvam said that if he could, he would recommend a medal to ASP Tang for his actions that night.

(Photo of ASP Jonathan Tang from ST)
By Terry Xu
February 26 2014 00:25