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ITHE COFFEE SHOP MURDER
Early in the morning of 18 February 1989, before the sun had risen, officers of the Singapore police force came knocking at the door of a manual labourer named Zainal Kuning. and invited him to assist in a criminal investigation. Two weeks earlier, the body of an elderly caretaker had been found lying on the floor of a ransacked coffee shop in a pool of blood, covered with stab wounds. The police believed that Zainal, 34, was involved.
Zainal was staying at his sister's flat in Tampines. a satellite suburb or "new town" on the outskirts of the metropolis, where ramshackle kampongs and groves of ironwood had long before given way to massive apartment towers and shopping malls. While his disbelieving family rubbed the sleep from their eyes, the officers marched Zainal out of the apartment and whisked him away to the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters on Eu Tong Sen Street.
At first, Zainal claimed to know nothing about the stabbing. After several days' questioning. however, Zainal and two other suspects, brothers Mohmad Bashir Ismail, ~8, and Salahuddin Ismail, Z9, confessed to the brutal crime. They were duly charged with murder, and spent the next three years in the dreary Queenstown j ail waiting for their day in court.
Despite the savagery of the stabbing, the incident attracted little attention in Singapore. Neither the victim nor the alleged perpetrators were rich or famous, and the circumstances-a botched break-inwere hardly sensational. Nor, indeed, was it surprising that prosecutors
pushed ahead with the case, even though they had no physical evidence linking the men to the murder. Zainal, Mohmad, and Salahuddin had, after ali, confessed.
Sitting in his prison celi, however, Zainal heard a curious tale.
Shortly after the coffee shop stabbing, a fellow inmate happened to overhear a group of men gossiping about the case. One of the men boasted that he had killed the caretaker himself, and even showed off the scars on his chest where, he said, the victim had flung a pan of boiling water at him. More remarkable yet, the inmate thought he remembered the name of the perpetrator: Man Semput.
For Zainal, this jailhouse story rep resented an incredible opportunity. If it were true. he might escape the hangman's scaffold. But now he faced the most difficult hurdle-getting SOmeone to believe him.
Singapore is one of the most peaceful and prosperous societies in the world. The traffic jams. the gunfights. the beggars. the corruption, the tin -roofed shacks. and the tuberculosis that run rampant throughout so much of South-East Asia have been virtually eliminated. By zcoo, per capita GNP stood at DSh4,740, outranking Belgium. Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia.' From the opulent gleam of Changi airport. with cataracts of bougainvillea cascading down its marble walls, to the soaring office towers of the central business district, the city-state enjoys a reputation as a well-scrubbed utopia where the chances of being murdered by handgun are statistically less than the likelihood of being struck by lightning.
But this tranquillity was not achieved by magic. Few societies have a lower tolerance for mischief-or for mischief-makers. Illegal immigrants are flogged, drug-dealers hanged. A man may be sentenced to seven years in prison for stealing a bottle of beer.s In theory, criminal suspects are innocent until proven guilty. In practice, however, they are often treated as scoundrels who deserve little sympathy. Suspects are routinely questioned without a lawyer. and they cannot see the resulting statement until the trial has begun. There is no point in trying to sway a jury, because there are no juries.
The bias against criminal suspects runs deeper than the procedural arcana of the judicial system. Almost from birth. Singaporeans are
THE COFFEE SHOP MURDER
constantly reminded that they live in a fragile, multicultural society whose survival depends on their willingness to yield individual interests for the sake ofthe common good. The country's official creed. in fact, is "Nation before community, and society above self.""
Against this backdrop, who was going to listen to a cock-and-bull story from a confessed murderer? Zainal's lawyer urged him to do the sensihle thing-plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. But Zainal insisted he was innocent. In desperation, he turned to the only man in Singapore who could help him.
• • • •
In 1998, the law offices of JB [eyaretnam & Company were located in a rundown complex on North Bridge Road, a ten-minute walk from Parliament House. It was the kind of building where the electric doors wheezed open with a resentful shudder and the escalators had been turned off to save money. Across the street stood a grimy block of prewar shophouses, their rust-red roof-tiles cracked and deranged by decades of relentless monsoons.
A typical visitor might find Joshua Benjamin [eyaretnam sitting at his desk, presiding over a recalcitrant pile of letters, files, faxes, transcripts, torts. summonses, and newspaper clippings curled yellow by the tropical sun. As a young man, Jeyaretnam had the dashing good looks of a matinee idol; by the time he reached his seventies, his portly frame strained at the buttons of his shirt and his shoulders hunched, as if pressed down by the force of some invisible weight. Nevertheless, there was something striking about his appearance. His face was the colour and texture of rumpled suede. flanked by tufts of snowy hair that erupted into a luxuriant pair of muttonchops; his grey- blue eyes. milky white at the edges, glowed like branding irons beneath a massive brow.
More remarkable still was his voice - a stately Victorian bass, with a crusty accent almost extinct in modern Singapore: dry. forceful, eloquent. creaky like an old cabinet, polished by the echoes of a thousand dusty courtrooms. laden with the cadences of an advocate, a campaigner. even a preacher.
J eyaretnam was not only Singapore's best- known lawyer; he was also
..:._ - ...
an opposition member of parliament, constitutional watchdog, humanrights advocate, investigative journalist, and tax reformer rolled into one. For 31 years, [eyaretnam used that voice to speak against "the cloud of fear" that settled over Singapore under the ruling Peoples' Action Party, which has held power since 1959. He spoke out against the notorious Internal Security Act, which allows detention without trial. He spoke out against the jailing of political prisoners; against the curbs on free speech; against regressive taxes on the poor; against the rising cost of health care; and against a host of restrictions, both fundamental and petty, imposed on the people of the Lion City for the convenience of the government. And for most of that time, he was the on~y person in Singapore willing to do so.
So it was almost inevitable that J eyaretnam would find himself face to face with Zainal in the visiting room of the Queenstown-jail. "AE soon as I sat down, he told me, 'Mr [eyaretnam, you're looking at an innocent man, '" [eyaretnam said. "And he told me he'd been tortured. "4
.. '" '" '"
Allegations of torture are a familiar refrain in Singapore. According to defence lawyers, it is common for suspects to claim that their confessions were obtained by force - so common, in fact, that their complaints seldom raise an eyebrow. Nonetheless, there was something peculiar about Zainal' s case. With a confession in hand .. police can usually dredge up corroborating evidence; but they had none linking the trio to the coffee shop. Moreover, if Zainal had fabricated the story about Man Semput, why had he waited so long? Why not finger someone while
the police were questioning him?
Most important, Zainal had rejected a plea - bargain. "A man who had
something to do with this crime would have jumped at that chance," Jeyaretnam said. "But he wouldn't have it. It was all or nothing. He wanted a full acquittal. "
[eyaretnam spent the next several months hunting for the elusive Man Semput. He didn't have much to go on. There was no listing for the name in the telephone directory; there was no record of any such individual having been arrested; there was no trace, in fact, of anyone by that
THE COFFEE SHOP MURDER
name at alL By the time the case came to trial, in March 199~,
Jeyaretnam was still empty-handed. He had not even located the witnesses who overheard the boast. In his opening argument, J eyaretnam pointed out that investigators had been unable to find a shred of physical evidence linking the trio to the scene of the crime, and challenged prosecutors to track down Man Semput. Meanwhile, as the case proceeded, Zainal told the court how the confession had been obtained. (The following description is taken from Zainal 's sworn testimony.)
The police came to his house in the dead of night, shook him awake, handcuffed him, and took him down to the police station. He was tertified, There were no explanations, no wa:rants, no time for a drink-of water to wet his throat. Zainal was taken to the Inspector's room for questioning, and shown to a chair.
As soon as the door closed, the officers told him, "Lobang pecahf""The game's up!"
The two officers demanded that he confess, but they wouldn't say what they were referring to. "They asked me, 'Zainal, tell me what you have done.' I pleaded with them, 'Sir ... Please tell me why I am here. "'5 After an hour. the inspector told Zainal he might as well come clean: the police knew he had been involved in an attempted coffee shop robbery that led to the caretaker's murder.
For the next several hours. Zainal maintained his innocence. His questioners grew increasingly frustrated. At one point, an officer (who was in a hurry to go to the horse races) grabbed him by the hair and knocked his head against the wall. "You bastard," he told Zainal. "Today is Saturday. If I cannot go home by one, I will give you a proper beating."
After Zainal had been questioned for roughly five hours, the police officers took a different tack. They told Zainal his accomplices had already fingered him as the one who had stabbed the caretaker. If he confessed. they said, he might get a lesser sentence.
By two 0' clock, Zainal had been interrogated for seven hours. He had been given nothing to eat or drink, and he desperately needed to urinate. But he stood by his story. His questioners were running out of patience. They.removed his handcuffs, took him down to the bathroom, and pushed him into the shower. Still dripping, he was led back to the
I' • inspector's office. and made to stand on a chair and hold two telephone
directories at arm's length. The officers sat at a table in front of hin;!-. Behind them was the final instrument df torture-the air-conditionier.
" . ~ ..
The idea of interrogation by air-conditioning may sound slifreal;
even absurd. But the powerful units in use in Singapore are capable of chilling a room in~~inatter of minutes. To stand. dripping wet, in the icy downdl'aft of a high -performance atmospheric cooling system is to suffer a unique form of agony. '(Allegations of torture by air-conditioning are not limited to Singapore. There have been reports that Chinese authorities have forced practitioners of Falun Gong to stand. soaking wet, in front of air-conditioners." And in 1999 the Israeli Supreme
Court banned the use of air-conditiqning as a method of interrogating
Zainal 'was terrified. "I want to see how long you can stand." the inspectoi-told him. "I give you at the most three days to admit.Jf you still do not admit, I will know what to do with you. If you want to be a hero. OK. I am not bothered. I can make use of your friend's statement to submit to court."
For the next 14 hours. Zainal testified. he was forced to stand in front of the air- conditioner, holding the tel~phone directories. Whenever his arms got tired and he_ dropped the books, he was made to pick them up again. E¥ery hour or' so he was marched back to the shower and drenched again. Nor was Zainal given anything to eat or drink. "I had no food," he testified. "1 could feel the chill in my bones, Sir, I felt as if I was about to fall unconscious or even to die. "8
Around daybreak.Zainal finally could bear it no longer. "OK," he said. "I am f'repared to admit."
After 24 hours of qUestioning; he was allowed to step down from the' chair and was given some breakfast.t'I'hen he Signed a statement confessing to his inv:ot"\'!tlnent in the break-in. Later. he was taken to Singapore General Hospital, as is mandatory for all suspects who have been questioned by ihe police. The doctor found no evidence of physi - r cal abuse.
But then, why would she? Air-conditioners don't leave scars.
THE COFFEE SHOP MURDER
.. . . .
Unf?,rtunately, Zainal had no evidence to backup his story. In court, the_ insR~Gtor and the other police officers strenuously denied mistreating him: Justice TS Sinnathuray rejected his chilling' testimony, and ruled that the confession was voluntary. The three men were now perilously
close to being hanged. .
At the eleventh hour, however, the court heard a dramatic revelation.
The police had managed to track down Man Semput, whose real name was Mohd Sulaiman. Mohd denied any involvement in the crime; but, at Jeyaretnam's request, he agreed to' bare his chest-revealing severe scald marks,
As soon as Jeyaretnam saw the scars, he knew Mohd was the real
killer. Now he thought he could prove it. During the murder ~nvestigation, police had lifted some fingerprints from a beer crate at the coffee shop, with inconclusive results-the prints were of poor quality, and did not match those of Zainal or the other two suspects. Now J eyaretnam challenged prosecutors to run a check against Mohd.
On 6 May 1992, the thirty-sixth day of the trial, deputy public prosecutor Bala Reddy walked into -the c,2urtroom, and asked 'the judge to withdraw the case. A police fingerprint experthad identified the prints from the crate as belonging to Mohd. After 3 9 ~onths of imprisonment.
the three men"were finally free. «
Singapore's biggest - circulation daily, the government -linked Straits Times, played the acquittal as a feel-good human-interest story, where justice triumphed and the innocent were upheld. It even ran a sidebar praising the police department's high - tech, fingerprint system." One issue-the paper did not raise, however,. was the disturbing question of why three men, would all confess to 'a murder they did not commitknowing that the penalty was death.
Two days later, Jeyaretnam held a press conference and called on the government to open a formal inquiry into the ca;e, and to ascertain if police routinely used force when questioning criminal suspects. The conference received minimal coverage-a few paragraphs in the Straits Times. The allegations of torture never found their way into print. 10 The
government made no reply. The three men subsequently launched a suit against the officer who questioned them, accusing the police of wrongful arrest, torture, malicious prosecution, and defamation. They lost that suit, and the subsequent appeal- all with little fanfare. Case closed. '
Had the men been tortured? Two judges said there was no evidence to support such a 'claim, and it is true that there was no physical evidence. But the circumstantial evidence - that three innocent men should each confess to a murder-must be described as puzzling.
What was more perplexing was the wall of silence surrounding the case. There were no demonstrations, no pressure groups, no Sundaymorning chat shows, no campaigns, no marches, no vigils, no exposes, no commissions of inquiry; no speeches in parliament, no letters to the editor. ,The entire country, -it seemed, was either unwilling or unable to discuss the issue. The trial might as well never have happened.
'" '" . '"
There are two ways of looking at these sorts of cases. You can see them as driftwood. occasionally washing up on to the shore of consciousness, unconnected coincidences with no greater Significance. Or you can see them as the tips of icebergs, whose presence implies a massive phenomenon lurking far beneath the surface.
To analyse [eyaretnam's public life-indeed, to assess modern Singapore - is to confront t:~.is dilemma over and over. The Singapore governmen~ insists ~hat it runs an exemplary democracy with fair elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. And yet, time and again, the outside observer will notice strange anomalies: the suspicious silence thundering through newspaper columns; a pathological reluctance to challenge the government'; and a curious coyness among non-governmental organisations about political issues.
Democracy in Singapore has the outward appearance of a mighty fortress, resplendent behind thick ramparts, girded by moat and can-
non. But the story of JB J eyaretnam suggests that this imposing edifice
is little more than a cardboard facade.
In 1971, when he became the leader of the opposition, Jeyaretnam was one of . Singapore's most successful lawyers. He enjoyed all the
THE COFFEE SHOP MURDER
trappings of that success: a house, a swimming pool, servants, a car, and a chauffeur. Over the next three decades, however, he paid a staggering personal price for his political career. He was the target of dozens of libel suits; forced to payout hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and damages; kicked out of parliament; jailed; stripped of his licence to practise law; ostracised from his profession; subjected to innumerable petty harassments; and finally bankrupted. By the end of ~OOI he lived in a tiny bungalow in J ohor Bahru, virtually penniless, eking out an existence by hawking books on the street.
J eyaretnam' s struggle against the Peoples' Action Party reflects, in a microcosm, the conflict between two profoundly different visions of democracy: a classic liberal construction based on individual rights versus a communitarian ethic where those rights yield to the needs of SOCiety-the so-called "Asian democracy" championed by Singapore's ruling elite.
But the battle of ideas is never waged in a vacuum. It is waged by men and women who have families to support, mortgages to pay, and businesses to 'run. As soon as the shrapnel threatens their own livelihood - as soon as their convictions jeopardise their jobs-the vast majority retreat to their armchairs. This book is an effort to examine an exception to this rule: a man who held fast to his principles in the face of outrageous odds; a man who fought for his convictions with a fury that astonished his opponents; a man who would not give in, even when he stood alone and defeat was inescapable.
J eyaretnam was driven partly by idealism and partly by stubbornness. But he was also driven by faith: a faith in the law, and a faith in the . ordinary people of Singapore. In the final analysis, his faith in the law was shattered. His faith in the people may yet prove true.
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