‘I thought I’d never see my daughter again’: Little India riot survivor
Cowering under a rubbish bin, she saw a pair of black boots coming towards her as she peeked through the gap between her flimsy shelter and the floor of the private bus.
She had just been hit in the face by a brick that had smashed through the windows of the vehicle she was hiding in.
Hundreds of foreign workers were shaking the bus, screaming for her to be punished after one of their countrymen had been run over by the vehicle and died.
Her left contact lens had fallen out and blood was streaming into her eye from the wide gash on her left eyebrow.
Hardly able to see anything, she did not know if the approaching feet belonged to friend or foe.
Knees to her chest, body trembling, she kept silent and waited for death to come.
Even though the Little India riot happened 10 years ago on Dec 8, 2013, Madam Grace Wong Geck Woon, the bus timekeeper, still remembers everything vividly.
As timekeeper, she was responsible for the movement of buses transporting foreign workers from Little India back to their dormitories in Jalan Papan in Jurong.
She woke up that morning thinking that day would be like any other.
But a traffic accident at 9.21pm which killed Mr Sakthivel Kumaravelu, a construction worker from Tamil Nadu, changed her life.
Within minutes of the accident, she found herself taking cover in the vehicle because of rumours surrounding Mr Sakthivel’s death.
Speaking to The Sunday Times in her Potong Pasir flat on Sept 27, Madam Wong, 48, whose only child was four years old then, recalled in Mandarin: “I don’t know exactly how long I was hiding in the overturned rubbish bin. But it felt like a lifetime. I thought I was going to die, and that I’d never see my daughter again.”
Mr Sakthivel, 33, was drunk as he boarded the bus that night, and Madam Wong and the bus driver, Mr Lee Kim Huat, asked him to exit the vehicle as they were not permitted to ferry drunk passengers.
Mr Sakthivel exited the vehicle, but as it took off in Tekka Lane, he ran after it.
He lost his balance and fell into the path of the front left wheel. It crushed his head and torso, killing him instantly.
Several workers saw this and rumours about the incident spread.
Some said Madam Wong had pushed Mr Sakthivel off the bus, even though she was nowhere near it when the accident occurred. Others said his body was mistreated by first responders.
She was tending to the queue of workers and quickly made her way to the bus when she heard about the accident.
The crowd swelled, and workers threatened Madam Wong and Mr Lee, pushing them towards the vehicle.
They took cover inside the bus and shut its door.
Looking visibly distressed, Madam Wong said all she remembered was cowering in fear, her interlocked hands over her head as workers threw drain covers, bottles and pieces of concrete at the bus, shattering its windows and windscreen.
She said: “Suddenly, someone threw a brick into the bus. I tried to dodge, but it hit my left eye and my contact lens fell out. There was a huge gash on my left eyebrow.”
Blood flowed into her eye and, because it was dark, she could barely see anything.
“At that point, I thought I was going blind,” she recalled.
She said Mr Lee found a rubbish bin the workers had thrown into the bus and asked her to hide under it.
“I didn’t see the time or check how long I was hiding under that bin. But it felt like forever,” she said as she stroked the hair of her daughter Sarina, now 14.
Then, someone boarded the vehicle.
Madam Wong said: “I could only see through the small gap between the bin and the floor. And I saw that someone wearing black boots was walking towards me.
“I had no idea if this person was going to kill me or save me, so I kept quiet.”
She was relieved when she heard the person say they were the police, and knew she was safe.
According to the Committee of Inquiry convened to find out the cause of the riot and how the authorities had responded to it, Madam Wong and Mr Lee emerged from the bus at around 10.08pm, almost an hour after the accident happened.
Still surrounded by the angry mob, Singapore Civil Defence Force and police officers formed a protective circle around Madam Wong and Mr Lee and escorted them to safety.
Stones, bottles and other projectiles rained down on the shield party, but Madam Wong and Mr Lee were finally taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital for treatment.
Madam Wong suffered cuts and bruises to her face and legs, and a minor fracture to her right hand. The gash near her left eyebrow required six stitches.
The weeks and months that followed were tough on her.
She said: “I had nightmares for weeks. I kept crying because I was still scared.”
It was not just her that the riot affected.
“When my daughter saw my injuries, she was very afraid. She kept crying because she had never seen me like this,” said Madam Wong.
Sarina said: “I was very worried when I saw my mum injured like that.”
Madam Wong said her mother-in-law, who lives with them, also cried for several days.
“She asked me if we were safe in our own home, thinking the rioters would find out where we lived,” she recalled.
It was Sarina who got her through those dark days.
Said Madam Wong: “She kept telling me, ‘Mummy, it’s already over. You are safe. You don’t have to be scared any more.’”
Madam Wong resigned from her job that month, unable to return to Little India. She took up a job selling children’s clothes at flea markets.
Three years later, still shaken by the incident, she rejected an offer from her boss at the bus company to return to her timekeeping job there.
She said: “My injuries had healed by then, but I was just not ready to go back to where it all happened.”
10 years on
Madam Wong is now a school bus attendant for school-going children, a job she took up seven years ago.
The scar on her left eyebrow is hardly visible, and she has fully recovered. But some psychological scars remain.
She said: “When I take a train or a bus and it passes Little India, I’ll get nervous. Or when the doors open as the train stops at Little India and people come flooding in, I’ll tense up.”
But she knew she could not avoid that place forever. “Singapore is small. One way or another, I will definitely have to pass by Little India. So, I told myself I needed to move on with life,” she said.
On a whim, in August, she went to Little India for the first time in a decade.
She said: “On my way home, I alighted at Little India MRT station to switch train lines, and I just decided to visit Tekka Market and Food Centre. I thought it had been a while since I had eaten there.”
Ironically, the market was closed for renovations.
“Maybe next time,” said Madam Wong.
Even though she could not bring herself to visit the accident scene, she has considered taking Sarina to Little India to show her what the place is like.
She said: “I want to teach my daughter that what’s past is past. If something bad happens to you, don’t keep dwelling on it.
“You have to keep going. And I think I did just that.”