Yeoh vs Police over COPs – revisiting Little India riots

Yeoh vs Police over COPs – revisiting Little India riots
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Police is right – and wrong

You should check your facts and not be commenting on areas you have little knowledge of, says the Singapore Police Force, in a blunt rebuttal to academic Yeoh Lam Keong.

The Police was responding to academic Yeoh Lam Keong’s Facebook page post in which he criticised the “inadequate community policing in Singapore.”

The SPF says its Community Policing System (COPs) is “an integral part of our policing strategy” and which, since 2015, has been adopted by all Neighbourhood Police Centres.

Mr Yeoh, the former Chief Economist of the Government Investment Corporation of Singapore (GIC) and currently an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had also said, “Alienation from the police was a big reason for the cause and poor handling of the riots in little India.”

He said “alcohol is just a convenient scapegoat”, referring to the belief among some that intoxication was the cause of the riots in 2013.

The SPF’s rebuttal of Mr Yeoh’s criticisms is correct, and wrong, depending on which period of time you are looking at.

There is no doubt that pre-riot the community policing in Little India was inadequate. This was Mr Yeoh’s main point of contention. And he is right.

According to news reports, parliamentary speeches, and even the findings of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the riot itself, the SPF lacked the manpower to provide any substantial presence in the area pre-riot.

This was highlighted by the Commissioner of Police during the COI.

Straits Times 2014

A TODAY report at the time of the inquiry said:

“Commissioner of Police Ng Joo Hee closed his testimony before the Committee of Inquiry (COI) yesterday with a plea — not for more money, but for more bodies as he sought another 1,000 more officers to be added to the police’s ranks.

“The extra manpower is needed so the men in blue “can acquire a much-needed strategic depth” and better police hot spots such as Geylang and Little India, he told the inquiry into the Dec 8 riot in Little India.

“With Singapore’s total population of 5.4 million, that means one regular police officer for every 614 people, which is an “exceedingly low ratio” compared with other cities such as Hong Kong, London and New York.”

Mr Ng told the COI:

“The truth is that the Singapore Police Force has not grown significantly in size, while Singapore’s population has grown by two million in the space of two decades.”

His views were shared by the Commander of Special Operations Command (SOC) who said that he “didn’t have enough officers to contain rioters.”

The SPF statement on its Facebook page also said:

“We launched the current Community Policing System (COPS) in May 2012 to bring Police officers closer to the community and strengthen Police presence on the ground. The daily engagement and house visits by our officers in the neighbourhood have resulted in strong networks with community stakeholders to fight crime. Since Apr 2015, COPS has been adopted by all Neighbourhood Police Centres and become an integral part of our policing strategy.”

While that statement is true generally, it may not be so in the context of Little India, given that a lack of manpower resources was a clear problem at the time, as we have seen above, and from remarks by Members of Parliament (such as Denise Phua, Fatimah Lateef, and Sylvia Lim) and statements from ministers. (See here: “Lack of police resourcs – how Sylvia Lim tried to sound the alarm for 8 years“)

The question here for the SPF is: when exactly was the COPs programme adopted and implemented in Little India? The answer will tell us if police patrols and community policing was adequate.

What is also worth noting is the rebuke from COI chairman directed at the Superintendent of the SPF, Victor Ho, during the hearing when speaking about the police patrols by the auxiliary officers:

According to a TODAY report:


“COI chairman G. Pannir Selvam had harsh words for him. “(They) ticket for littering and things like that, but the major problems of (foreign workers) going into these void decks, nothing was done. It seems that you go for the smaller thing but you ignore the major things.”

So that is the situation pre-riot 2013.

Since then, there have been changes made to operational resources, including recruitment of more manpower and the enhanced use of technology such as CCTVs in the area.

For example, in 2014, about 6 months after the riots, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Government will add 300 officers to the SOC, doubling its current strength of deployable front-line troopers. “We will commence the build-up immediately, and progressively build up its capabilities over the next two to three years,” he said.

TODAY reports:

“Currently, the SOC deploys two Police Tactical Troops (PTTs) on round-the-clock standby duty. Mr Teo, who is also Home Affairs Minister, said the Government intends to increase the number of troops from eight to 12 so that the third SOC troop can be placed on standby.

“This additional troop will be configured for rapid development on lighter and more mobile platforms,” he said.

“He added that the Government will increase the number of officers in each troop from 35 to 44 and provide them with additional equipment to improve their sense-making and operational capabilities.”

In 2016, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, Desmond Lee, said that MHA “has worked with agencies, grassroots leaders, residents and business owners to steadily implement a comprehensive series of measures to keep foreign worker hotspots secure and orderly.” (CNA)

“These measures include improved lighting, installation of additional police cameras, and daily deployment of Auxiliary Police Officers (APOs) and private security officers at Little India and Golden Mile,” he said.

So, it is fair to say that the authorities have responded to the riot and improved things, although it took a riot and 8 years of Ms Sylvia Lim consistently highlighting in Parliament the manpower shortage in the SPF.

Whatever it is, the COPs programme is an important one, especially with the threat of terrorism looming in the air.

The Police is to be commended for implementing the COPs programme across the island.

“In 2013, Singapore recorded its lowest crime rate in 30 years,” said Mdm Halimah Yacob at the opening of the media launch of the Community Policing System (COPS) for Bukit Batok Neighbourhood Police Centre (NPC) in November that year, just a month before the riots.

“This achievement was made possible because of a successful community policing strategy,” she said, adding that “nearly four out of 10 arrests are made with public assistance”.

That rate of success may be higher now.