On this date in 1967, Sunny Ang hanged in Singapore for murder.
“This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia,* is concerned,” said the prosecutor. “This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body.”
The missing corpse did not present anything like the difficulty the barristers might have anticipated for this landmark conviction.
For one thing, everyone knew where and how 22-year-old waitress Jenny Cheok Cheng had died: on a diving trip near the Sisters’ Islands, Cheng had slipped under the waves while her betrothed waited in the boat … and she had never resurfaced. Frogmen combing the area could find only a single swimming flipper: it had been sliced with a knife to make it slip off during the swim, the inference being that the bladehandler had been interested in the inexperienced diver “accidentally” losing her maneuver while the forceful straits currents went to work on her.
Loverboy Sunny Ang, a vain wastrel facing bankruptcy,** just so happened to be in line to benefit, having insured his bride-to-be to the tune of nearly $1 million over several policies — including one which he had extended mere hours before the murder, and extended by only five more days. One imagines here that the tampered flipper might have been just one of several innocuous-looking accidents, each one a little lure for the Angel of Death, slated to cross Jenny Cheng’s path during the couple’s seaside canoodle courtesy of her own personal Final Destination.
In his young life, Ang had washed out of teacher school, pilot school, and law school. Ang’s laziness went on full display in the murder caper because the hired boatman who took the couple out diving — a witness whom Ang was probably expecting to provide his alibi — took the stand to describe the amazing extent of his guest’s unconcern about his lover going missing.
In a situation where the reasonable homicidal villain would anticipate means, motive, and opportunity all implicating him like blazing klaxons, Ang couldn’t be arsed to allay suspicion with the duest of panic-stricken diligence, like putting on his own suit and jumping in the water to look for her, or even raising his voice a few decibels to feign alarm. He did not, however, neglect to file his insurance claims very promptly.
Small wonder with bloodless banter like this that his jury only needed two hours to convict him, body or no body.
Justice Buttrose: Did you realise that this girl, whom you love and whom you were going to marry, had gone down and disappeared, and you calmly turn round to the boatman and said, ‘All right. Go to St John’s’?
Ang: If she was anywhere around the boat we would have seen her air bubbles.
Justice Buttrose: It didn’t occur to you to go down and search for her?
Justice Buttrose: Why?
Ang: Because I thought there was obviously a leak and also if she was anywhere around the boat, we would have seen her air bubbles.
Mr Seow: You had skin-diving equipment with you in the boat?
Mr Seow: The girl you were going to marry was obviously in difficulty, if not actually dead already. Why didn’t you use your skin-diving equipment to go down?
Ang: I was not quite sure what sort of difficulties she was in. It occurred to me — it was a vague thought — that she might have been attacked by sharks. In fact, I remarked upon that to Yusuf [the boatman]. Not then, but long after the incident.
Justice Buttrose: You could have gone down to find out?
Ang: She might have been attacked by sharks.
Mr Seow: When did you change back into your street clothes?
Ang: I think I remember I put them on, on my way to St John’s Island.
Mr Seow: So that when the Malay divers were going in, you were then in your street clothes, and you saw no point in joining them?
Ang: I do not say I saw no point. I was in my street clothes and there were more experienced skin-divers, and there were five of them. Besides I knew the chances of finding her were very slim.
Justice Buttrose: You never got into the water at all that day? You never got your feet wet?
Ang: That is so.
* Ang went on trial in April 1965, when Singapore was still part of Malaysia — hence the reference to the scope of the country as a whole. By the time Ang hanged, Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia and become an independent polity.
** He had also previously stolen from his father and police already knew that, so he didn’t enter his capital trial with much existing credence for rectitude.
On this date in 1968, Indonesian Lance Corporal Harun Thohir and Sgt. Usman Janatin were hanged in Singapore for bombing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank three years earlier.
Aptly, such confrontational behavior took place during the era of Konfrontasi, a running fight between Indonesia — feeling its oats as a regional power — and the British straits possessions that had just recently been amalgamated (to Indonesia’s irritation) into the new country Malaysia.
This wasn’t a “war” full of set-piece battles: think commando raids and jungle skirmishing instead. Initially confined to the island of Borneo of which Indonesia occupied three-quarters and coveted the remainder, the fight provocatively spilled to the “homeland” Malay Peninsula itself, including a number of saboteur bombings concentrated in Singapore — which was still a part of Malaysia in the early 1960s.
The most notorious and destructive of these was conducted on March 10, 1965, by our men Harun Thohir and Usman Janatir along with a third commando named Gani bin Arup. Tasked with bombing an electric station, they instead packed 12 kg of nitroglycerin into a bank — an iconic landmark that was at the time the tallest in its vicinity. The MacDonald House bombing killed three civilians and injured 133 more.
Gani bin Arup escaped successfully, but Janatin and Thohir suffered a motorboat breakdown and were apprehended. By the time their execution date arrived, a few things had changed: Singapore itself had been expelled from Malaysia to become an independent city-state; and, the Konfrontasi era had been dialed back with the deposition of Indonesian president Sukarno.
But the hanging still stayed on, and feelings ran understandably high for both the former antagonists.
The jurisdictional issue of most moment for the bombers was not the identity of the offended state, but their contention that they were regular armed forces members just following their orders and entitled to prisoner of war status. Jakarta was indignant at Singaporean courts’ dismissal of this angle; Singapore, well, it didn’t want to take a soft line on terrorists blowing up banks.
Headline in the Oct. 18, 1968 London Times, reporting “a crowd of 10,000 people who joined the procession to the war heroes’ cemetery here [Jakarta] carried banners proclaiming: ‘Declare total war on Singapore’, ‘Annihilate Singapore’, and ‘Hang Lee Kuan Yew‘.”
As is so often the case, one man’s terrorists are often another’s freedom fighters: the hanged marines remain tday official national heroes in Indonesia, and in 2014 the navy created a diplomatic incident with Singapore by christening a Bung Tomo-class corvette the KRI Usman-Harun.
Four days after Christmas in 1971, the phone rang for Andrew Chou, an Air Vietnam staffer who had been exploiting his security credentials to smuggle gold bars out of Singapore for several crime syndicates.
It was a fresh delivery for the Kee Guan Import-Export Co. for that evening — to be dropped at Chou’s house as usual.
Chou’s cut of these runs was lucrative, of course: hundreds of thousands in cash, out of which the able crook paid off his own muscle as well as the air crew.
But this night, he intended to take a lump sum.
As the couriers counted out the treasure at Chou’s kitchen table, Chou and associates attacked them. Later, Chou would phone his contacts to advise that the goldmen had never arrived that night: in fact, Ngo Cheng Poh, Leong Chin Woo and Ang Boon Chai had been consigned to the industrial muck of a convenient mining pool.
This incident, soon to be known as the Gold Bar Murders, went wrong very quickly but perhaps the judicial punishment visited on its perpetrators only spared them from a similar underworld revenge. An anonymous tipster had seen the bodies being dumped and police pulled them out of the ooze the next day. The smuggling-murder circle was busted immediately; a few gold bars were recovered from the office of Chou’s brother Davis, and the balance from an associate named Catherine Ang, who had received them for safekeeping from the hands of the killers.
There were 10 in this conspiracy. One, Augustine Ang,* saved his own life by giving evidence against his comrades. Two others, Ringo Lee and Stephen Lee, were minors at the time of the murder and escaped the noose on that basis.
The remaining seven — Andrew Chou, David Chou, Peter Lim, Alex Yau, Richard James, Stephen Francis, and Konesekaran Nagalingam — all hanged without their appeals availing any of them the least whiff of judicial or executive mercy.
* There was no blood relationship between the murderer Augustine Ang, the victim Ang Boon Chai, and the fence Catherine Ang.
A century ago today, an Indian Muslim named Kassim Ismail Mansoor was hanged by the British in Singapore as a traitor.
The treason in question concerned the dramatic mutiny some months previous of Singapore’s 5th Light Infantry — Muslims who had feared that they would be dispatched to World War I’s European charnel house. (Ironically, the British brass had no such intent: they already considered these troops too unreliable, for some reason.)
Many of the mutineers were shot en masse by summary court-martial.
Our man Mansoor was not a fighter but a civilian coffee-shop proprietor. Having come into the confidence of some of his countrymen enough to know the mutinous thrust of their grievances, he made bold put in writing an appeal to the Rangoon consul of the Ottoman Empire — Britain’s wartime enemy — for the intervention of Turkish warships that could pick up their disaffected Muslim brethren and turn together against the British. Unfortunately for Mansor, that missive fell into British hands.
A 1937 retrospective series in the Straits Times on the distinguished career of Mansoor’s defense counsel, Sir Vincent Devereux Knowles, dives into the case here: 1, 2. Knowles, it says, knew his task was quite hopeless.
On this date in 1973, former cabaret star Mimi Wong Weng Siu and her husband Sim Woh Kum were hanged for the murder of Wong’s Japanese lover’s wife.
“Overwhelmed by a consuming jealousy” (her prosecutor’s words) for Hiroshi Watanabe, a land reclamation engineer from Osaka who was in Singapore working to prepare Bedok for development, Wong recruited her estranged husband to help her get rid of the competition. (Sim was just in it for the payment Wong promised him.)
On the evening of January 6, 1968, the two broke into the home when Ayako Watanabe was alone there. Sim threw bleach in the victim’s eyes to incapacitate her, as Wong fatally gashed her neck and abdomen with a small knife.
The resulting 26-day trial riveted Singapore with the risque details of the dance hostess’s adulterous trysts. (And said dance hostess’s two courtroom fainting episodes.) But their manifest guilt plus their confessions — each vainly attempting to blame the other — assured their convictions.
While Sim situates as a side character of little lasting interest, Mimi Wong’s hanging was among the few that would really stick with long-tenured Singapore hangman Darshan Singh.
The title character, if you like, of Alan Shadrake’s Singapore death row critique Once a Jolly Hangman, Singh executed more than 850 people in more than four decades on the job and never wavered in his support for the policies that kept him occupied. Even so, Singh felt compassion for the individual humans he was called upon to kill; he was known to go out of his way to get to know condemned prisoners and to comfort them in their distressing situation.
In prison, she was a difficult inmate who would at times strip naked and refuse to put on her clothes even when ordered by prison guards. She even threw urine at the wardens, said Madam Jeleha.
“Darshan was the only one who could control her. He would say ‘Mimi, wear the blanket and cover yourself. Don’t do this or you won’t be beautiful any more’, and she would listen to him,” Madam Jeleha said.
The two forged an unlikely friendship and other prison officers even joked that Wong was his girlfriend. Mr Singh never minded.
Before her execution, Wong told Mr Singh they should be lovers in the next life and she wanted to take him with her.
“After he hanged Mimi Wong, he fell very sick for a month. He was in Toa Payoh Hospital for more than two weeks,” his wife said.
Even when probed, he refused to tell his wife about Wong’s final moments.
On this date in 2003, 23-year-old Malaysian Vignes Mourthi was hanged in Singapore’s Changi Prison as a drug courier, along with his supposed collaborator Moorthy Angappan.
Mourthi vigorously maintained his innocence, and his family has done likewise in the years since, helping turn the young factory worker into a wrongful-execution poster child.
It was a Sgt. Rajkumar who arrested Mourthi by posing as a buyer of his cargo. Rajkumar would later present an undated, unsigned “confession” purporting to show that Mourthi was completely aware that it was heroin he was moving. At first read one might might indeed doubt Mourthi’s insistence that he thought he was carrying “incense stones” … but his compatriot Angappan was indeed an incense dealer and a family friend known to Mourthi as such.
British journalist Alan Shadrake‘s 2010 indictment of Singaporean justice Once a Jolly Hangman (banned in its titular city-state) calls Mourthi’s hanging “arguably one of the most appalling miscarriages of justice in Singapore’s history”.
Rajkumar’s testimony about Mourthi’s confession was instrumental in hanging the young man, but just a couple of days after he arrested Mourthi, Rajkumar himself was arrested (and then released on bail) on a rape accusation. According to the recent book Once a Jolly Hangman, whose denunciations of Singapore’s death penalty system earned its author a prison term in the repressive city-state,
Intense efforts were … made by Rajkumar’s many friends in the CNB and a police friend at Clementi Police Station to persuade ‘J’ to withdraw her statement. The bribes involved large sums of money, which she refused … There were frantic, secret meetings between Rajkumar, his police officer friends and his accuser in shopping malls and fast-food outlets during which he, his family and friends continued to offer large sums of money in exchange for withdrawing her allegations. All this intrigue was going on while Rajkumar was busy getting enough evidence together to ensure Mourthi would be found guilty and hanged.
So. That’s less than ideal.
Sadly for the accused, none of this credibility-melting information was ever known during Mourthi’s trial and appeal. After Mourthi’s execution, the bad cop who hanged him went on trial for corruption over his witness-tampering, and eventually served 15 months.
On this date in 1915, “the sentences of the court-martial on a batch of 45 mutineers of the 5th Light Infantry were promulgated in public” — as the Straits Times reported — “and, in the case of 22 who were condemned to death, the sentences were executed on the spot.”
A crowd of fifteen thousand watched the spirited Indian sepoys shot dead for revolting the previous month.
This demoralized 800-strong garrison of Punjabi Muslims — who had, it need hardly be added, a noble history of insurrection to think upon — was already deployed far from home to look after the imperial interests of the London gentry while British lads mustered for bayonet charges in No Man’s Lands.
The last straw for these sepoys was a rumor that they were to be shipped to the European theater and made to turn their weapons against the Turkish sultan, their Muslim coreligionist.*
On February 15, 1915, helpfully covered by the celebratory fireworks of the Chinese New Year, about half the garrison left its barracks, attacked its British officers, and started killing any European they came across. (Many British familes took refuge in jail cells.)
Around 40 died in a few days before a mixed British-French-Russian-Japanese force arrived to crush the revolt. It was just one among a number of insurrectionary outbreaks during the war to rattle Britain’s possessions in Asia and elsewhere.
Punishments meted out this day were not the end of it at all; the court of inquiry sat until May, sentencing several dozen to death and many others to prison terms or penal transportation.
And if the mutiny never really threatened British control of Singapore, the ethnic and religious fissures it exposed in the imperial order have obvious resonances (pdf) for our present day.
In order to distinguish mutineers from peaceable citizens, all Indian residents were required to register and obtain passes. This aroused considerable anger, which was exacerbated by the cavalier attitude of some registration officers, who acted as if all Indians were to blame.
* The Ottomans had also issued a call to jihad with the onset of war, hoping to drive just this sort of wedge among Britain’s colonies.
On this date in 1995, Filipina maid Flor Contemplacion was hanged for murder in Singapore.
Contemplacion had, four years before, strangled a fellow-maid and drowned that maid’s four-year-old charge.
That’s what she confessed to, at least. Even though Contemplacion’s camp would eventually argue that the confession had been coerced, or that she’d been possessed by a strange epileptic, Contemplacion herself never really walked back that admission.
Still, Flor Contemplacion the cause celebre and Flor Contemplacion the cultural phenomenon was never only about the woman’s innocence, even if many do still believe she was framed.
By whatever happenstance of timing and circumstance, widespread publicity of her case in the Philippines during the months leading up to her hanging tapped a national discontent among her countrymen and -women about “OFWs” — overseas Filipino workers.
This economic sector — exported labor — had been intentionally nurtured (pdf) by Manila beginning with a 1974 labor code, and over the ensuing generation ballooned twentyfold into a positively enormous phenomenon.* By the time Flor Contemplacion hanged, everybody in the Philippines knew people who had worked overseas, and whose wage remittances were indispensable (pdf) for supporting their families in the Philippines. (And increasingly, the entire national economy.)
Boom of the overseas Filipino workers sector, 1975 – 2000 (1975 = 1). Source of figures; there are more official OFW stats here.
Ascendance of the OFW industry brought with it the discontents attendant with scattering wholesale quantities of the populace to unfamiliar corners of the globe, many of them to confront the timeless varieties of workplace abuse from positions of special vulnerability: “The dark reality,” one organization says this year, of “low wages, horrid working conditions, little protection for human rights, exploitation, harassment, threats, illegal arrests, imprisonment, criminalization, and deportation.”
To say nothing of the political discontents raised by such a discomfiting abdication of autarky, and the “domestic anxieties” (pdf) of developing “the embarrassing reputation that we are a country of DHs [domestic helpers], entertainers, and even prostitutes.” This is, truly, a rich and complex tapestry.
Flor Contemplacion is practically the patron saint of the indicted Filipino/a abroad, and her fruitless clemency appeal the political breakout of OFWs and their allies as a constituency to reckon with.
The effect was immediate. Contemplacion hadn’t had any great level of consular support early in her criminal process — the time when it might have made the most difference. (The Philippines embassy in Singapore later took considerable heat for this fact.)
But as the story made headlines and some sketchy witnesses accused the victim’s widower husband of being the real perpetrator, the case became a national sensation. Recently-elected president Fidel Ramos, who campaigned on restoring the previously-abolished death penalty in the Philippines, not only had to put on the full-court press for this condemned woman but incongruously declared her a “national hero”; his wife personally received Contemplacion’s remains at the airport. Leaders and ordinary people from Catholics to Communists rallied (sometimes rioted) in anger.
(Singapore was just at this time establishing its own reputation as the place that never gives diplomatically expedient clemencies. Never.)
Whatever the domestic controversies, the labor-export business has only continued to grow in the generation since Contemplacion’s hanging. To this day, the Filipino public has shown great sympathy with OFWs entangled in alien criminal justice systems, and demanded diplomatic support — regardless of particular individuals’ putative guilt.
Regrettably, it is often called to do so: from Saudi Arabia to China, the plight of Filipinos executed abroad remains a recurrent and emotionally charged theme in the country.
Flor Contemplacion’s name, well-known still anywhere in the archipelago, was back in the news last year … when her three sons all drew lifetime prison sentences for drug-smuggling.
On this date in 1988, a trio that had once formed an abusive family were all hanged in Singapore for their shocking ritual murders.
Top to bottom: Lim, Tan Mui Choo, and Hoe Kah Hong.
The Toa Payoh murders stunned Singapore in early 1981, when the brutalized bodies of a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy turned up in that district of the city-state.
A literal trail of blood led police from the second victim to a nearby seventh-floor flat cohabitated by a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Adrian Lim and his “holy wives” Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong. In the apartment was a bevy skin-crawling incriminating evidence, like papers with the victims’ names written down, hairs later matched to the kids, and spatters of blood.
So this wasn’t a case so much for crime scene investigators as for psychologists.
Eschewing the forgettable life of a mere cable TV bill collector, a thirtysomething Adrian Lim had cultivated a side business in quack spiritualism in the early Seventies. He soon found this rewarding scam, in which troubled bar hostesses seeking personal guidance could be induced to pay him for a holistic regimen of eggs, needles, prayer to miscellaneous deities, and (often as not) sex with their “healer”, sufficient to support his lifestyle without further remuneration from the broadcast industry, so he went full time. And then he went right around the bend.
Even as a 9-to-5 desk jockey, Lim had already reeled in one depressed young woman as his live-in lover and business partner and willing enabler of Lim’s carnal con artistry. Lim did not scruple to pimp her out as a prostitute. This was Tan Mui Choo.
Hoe Kah Hong fell into Lim’s clutches a few years later, and although it was that young woman’s own mother who brought her in for Lim’s hocus-pocus, the charismatic witch doctor soon turned her against her family and moved her into the place, too. He eliminated Hoe’s husband by conning him into an electroshock treatment that Lim used to shock him dead.
This twisted family’s run of good luck and absurdly gullible customers came to an end late in 1980, when a cosmetics salesgirl whom Lim had drugged and raped (sometimes the spirits need a chemical assist with these things) started blackmailing him — and shopped him when he didn’t pay enough.
Under a pending sex-assault investigation, Lim conceived some bizarre plan to draw police attention away (or induce the goddess Kali to help him out of the pickle) by … murdering children. Makes sense, right?
It made enough sense to his holy wives to get them to help drug little Agnes Ng Siew Hock on January 24, 1981, help Adrian Lim rape her, help smother her with pillows, and help smear her blood on the apartment’s little sacrificial shrine. Two weeks later, they did much the same (less the rape) to Ghazali bin Marzuki. They were taken into custody the very next day.
While there’s little doubt about whether, the little matter of why was the topic on all Singapore’s lips.
In an eight-week trial that kept the public riveted with the ghastly and/or ludicrous particulars of the medium’s operation, dueling psychiatrists went front and center and measured out competing takes on the prisoners’ respective culpability. In he end, the draught was half-full for all three.
The trial’s “gruesome accounts of sexual perversion, the drinking of human blood, spirit possession, exorcism and indiscriminate cruelty” (Singapore Straits Times) made Lim a Bundy-esque object of public hatred; even others condemned to death refused to associate with him. He was the subject of the first feature-length domestic Singaporean film in English, 1992’s The Medium.
While awaiting that fate, Shanmugam befriended the young Australian drug mule and “simple soul” Van Tuong Nguyen, who was bound to follow in his footsteps; Shanmugam’s last appeal to his lawyer was “to save Nguyen Tuong Van’s life at all costs.”