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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Perfect Murder That Wasn't

The Perfect Murder That Wasn’t
M. Bakri Musa


The revelations from the coroner’s inquest into the death of DAP political activist Teoh Beng Hock eerily reminded me of a similar tragic death of the CIA bio-scientist Frank Olson in 1953. Olson was found dead sprawled on the street outside a New York high-rise hotel where he had spent the night with his colleagues.

The official report was that it was a suicide. Two decades later, as a result of disclosures from the Rockefeller Commission, President Ford apologized to the deceased’s family, accompanied by a sizeable monetary settlement, over the ‘tragic accident’ of Mr. Olson.

Still not satisfied, the family secured a court-ordered reexamination and Olson’s body was exhumed in 1994. Despite being over four decades later, through expert independent forensic examination the gruesome truth was finally revealed. His death was neither an accident nor a suicide; it was plain cold-blooded premeditated homicide. His colleagues murdered him. They did it by knocking him unconscious and then threw his body out.

The lead investigator, James Starrs, recounted the details in his book, A Voice for the Dead: A Forensic Investigator’s Pursuit of the Truth in the Grave. More significantly, prior to Starrs’ investigation the Olson case was celebrated in the annals of the CIA, as well as the Israeli Mossad, as the example of how to execute (pardon the morbid double entendre) the “perfect murder” so as to be seen as either an accident or suicide.

I do not imply that this is the case with Teoh’s death. I doubt whether MACC’s officials have heard of the Olson case or read Starrs’ book. However, we have seen many ‘accidental’ deaths involving Third World opposition leaders. Locally, Anwar Ibrahim’s notorious bludgeoned face was initially dismissed as “self-inflicted!”

As Starrs stated, forensic science can be superior to a confession and even eyewitness accounts. It is the most empirical and objective of all judicial methods in finding the truth.

That notwithstanding, if Teoh was murdered, the murderer would not likely leave obvious clues around unless he (or she) was unbelievably stupid, or very brazen and thus wish to make a point. Meaning, there would not likely be any dramatic revelations or Perry Mason moment during the inquest. That however would not necessarily discourage the Perry Mason pretenders from among the many participating lawyers.

The path to the truth in this case, as with Olson’s, will be long and arduous, with many twists and turns as well as false passages. We may never know what really transpired. Nonetheless that does not discourage many amateur ‘forensic scientists’ especially in the local blogosphere. Their exuberantly confident analyses suggest that they have been reading too many medically-related articles from Reader’s Digest and viewing too many CSI series.

Also as with the Olson case, the pivotal clues (at least initially) would not necessarily come from the autopsy table but from careful interviews of the involved personnel, examining their phone records, and carefully accounting for their activities on that fateful day.


Wise Move to Videotape the Proceedings

The Attorney-General has been much criticized lately, and deservedly so. However in this instance I compliment him for videotaping and then posting the tapes unedited on the web. This singular move does more to demonstrate the government’s commitment to transparency than all the ministerial speeches and assertions.

I would have gone further and put all the exhibits including the victim’s photographs (subject to the next-of-kin’s consent) on the web.

I was impressed with the professionalism of the coroner, Azmil Mustapha Abas, and lead counsel Tan Hock Chuan. I was less so with the other lawyers representing the various interested parties. Azmil’s calm demeanor reassured the various witnesses, a key to getting the most out of them. Tan skillfully led the expert witnesses, in particular forensic pathologist Khairul Azman Ibrahim, to describe the clinical findings in understandable layman’s terms and to consider each of the three possible causes of death – accident, suicide or homicide – despite the pathologist being under the weather. I hope he was screened for H1N1 before his court appearance!

There was a brief digression in court on the National Language Act. It served no purpose except that I wished our language nationalists were present to witness how inadequate our national language still is even in a relatively non-technical court setting. Imagine litigations involving complex finance!

I brought up this language issue for another reason. It is obvious that even highly educated Malaysians (like lawyers) are unable to string simple sentences in either complete English or Malay. Thus, counsel for Teoh’s family, “Can you beri tahu kami maana Perunding Kanan ….”

There was nothing technical there, just simple ideas, yet they could not coherently articulate them using a single language, confirming that ‘rojak Malay’ and ‘pidgin English’ are our two official languages.

Apparently the counsel for Teoh’s family confuses an inquest with a criminal trial. In the former you want your witnesses to agree (or at least not disagree) with your interpretations of the evidences. With the latter you want to chip away at the credibility of your adversary’s witnesses. Badgering and belittling an expert witness may make you look smart to the gallery but would not advance your cause.

Teoh’s counsel’s suggestion that the government provides pathologists with tape measures so they could hang themselves precariously outside windows to measure the height of buildings is simply laughable. If you want to know the height, get the architect’s drawings! Besides, after you have fallen through 13 stories, what is the difference of a few feet? Precision without meaning! Such precise measurements would be relevant if you had fallen from a tree.

A key to undermining or at least challenging an expert witness’s testimony would be through careful questioning of his or her credentials and experiences. Teoh’s counsel tried this, but not very effectively. He asked how many such similar forensic cases Dr. Khairul had done. More appropriate would be to ask when was his last similar case, and the effect of his findings on the final verdict.

I am never impressed with credentials and titles, especially the Third World variety. When I was in GHKL, there was a Sikh surgeon with the imposing title of “Director of Casualty Department.” He also had the prestigious (I assume) “Senior Consulting Surgeon” appellation. All he did was sit in his office and never saw a patient; he was waiting out his “medical board” (disability retirement).

Similarly you may have an imposing title of Professor of Surgery, but if the only ‘cutting’ you had done recently is carving your wife’s turkey dinner, that fact could only be established through a careful cross-examination.

I was an expert witness once when the opposing attorney tried to undermine my credibility by asking whether I was being paid to testify. I unhesitatingly replied, “Definitely!” and then quickly added, “But not enough to compensate for my being away from the operating room!” His attempt to portray me as a professional armchair ‘expert’ backfired. He had obviously not learned what skilled trial lawyers intuitively know, that is, never ask your witness a question you do not know the answer ahead of time!

Having once been a government doctor in Malaysia, I have great sympathy and empathy for the government’s expert witnesses. I am certain that when Drs. Seah and Khairul left the courtroom, they had a mountain of work waiting for them at their respective labs. They have other pressing priorities than to appear slick and confident in court. And especially with Dr. Kahirul, as he was feeling miserable! Besides, they do not have the luxury of time or resources to prepare for such appearances; nor are they paid extra to do so.

What the seekers of truth and justice for Teoh should have done was not to demand an inquest or a royal commission but the right to a court-approved independent and independently-funded forensic investigation, a qui tam inquest as it were. Such investigations are not cheap, and the government rightly has other priorities. So it would not be fair to ask them to devote its scant resources to that pursuit. However there should be sufficient support from NGOs, friends and supporters of Teoh as well as those who seek truth and justice to fund such an endeavor.

Short of that, we should not expect a Perdana quality on a Perodua budget.

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