First published on The Malaysian Insight here on Sunday, 16 July 2017.
“WHAT would you say to Beng Hock if he was alive today?”
Up till this question, Soh Cher Wei, the wife of Teoh Beng Hock, had maintained a chatty and unflappable demeanour. But now there was a pause. A very long pause.
Her eyes averted my gaze. Her expression, seemingly placid moments ago, turned sombre. She tried to smile, but her face quickly sagged. She appeared to be trying so hard to hold it together, not to break the veil of composure.
“If he was still alive, I think we’d be a simple family,” she finally replied, her voice choked with emotion. “I don’t know how to answer. I don’t know what I’d say to him… I don’t know.” She wiped her eyes. “Can we skip to the next question.”
Crickets hummed in the soporific suburbia of Batu Pahat whilst her three-year old son Teoh Er Jia cycled around us in circles, oblivious to our conversation.
This was the only public account that Soh ever gave when asked about her late husband Teoh Beng Hock. I interviewed her as part of “The Rights of The Dead”, a documentary I directed under the Freedom Film Festival 2012, and produced by Pusat Komas. It was an opportunity to tell the story of my ex-colleague from the Selangor state government.
I was the Research Officer for the then Menteri Besar of Selangor, Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, when I learned the news about Beng Hock’s death on Thursday, 16 July 2009. I was in a daze. My colleagues, press secretary Arfa and communications officer Ginie were in tears at the Menteri Besar’s office. We had just seen Beng Hock the day before at the Selangor state assembly hall.
We were all aides. Beng Hock’s interrogation and consequent death could have happened to any one of us. An impromptu candlelight vigil took place at Plaza Masalam in Shah Alam that evening, where the MACC was then located.
The next morning on 17 July 2009, about 500 people showed up to protest at Plaza Masalam; several people were arrested by riot police. The general consensus was that the MACC was responsible, given that Beng Hock was last known to be at their office – his car keys and handphone taken away from him.
The police had also blocked off the building entrance, allowing only Arfa and myself to enter the building and go to the MACC office. Upstairs, it was equally chaotic. There were unidentified men standing around the hallway, and we could not access any of the officers to speak with to find out more. The MACC doors were locked and nobody was allowed in or out. Frustrated, we went back downstairs to join the crowd.
By this time, I had a growing sense of unease. There were serious questions that needed answers to clear the shroud forming around the way that Beng Hock died.
As the suspicions grew, I felt it was imperative for Beng Hock’s body to have an autopsy conducted by an independent forensic pathologist. (The first autopsy would be conducted that same day by police appointees, which is the standard procedure). I had to speak with the Teoh family directly on this matter.
But I couldn’t speak Chinese. So I reached out to Kerk Kim Hock who was acting as the intermediary between the family and external parties. Kerk was former DAP Secretary-General and former MP of Kota Melaka who also happened to be a relative of theirs.
Kerk told me that he would try to convince the family of the need for an independent autopsy. It was already late morning on Friday 17 July and the body was going to be passed to the family for burial at 5pm the same day. I did not have much time.
I then set off on a frantic hunt for any forensic pathologist who would be willing to do a second autopsy on behalf of the state government. I contacted two local doctors, but although they were personally willing, they said I would need to obtain the approval of their heads of department and Vice-Chancellors first. And since they were both attached to public universities, chances were very slim. Time didn’t permit me to chase after slim chances.
In desperation, I thought perhaps someone from a different country would have a freer hand. I contacted a forensic pathologist from Singapore who declined, worried about negative implications on the relationship between the two countries.
A relative of mine then mentioned that he had watched a National Geographic documentary on a “flamboyant Thai pathologist with funny hair”, but whose name he could not recall. I Googled that exact phrase, and there it was: images of Dr Porntip Rojanasunan with streaks of blonde and red in a punk-rock hairstyle. She became famous after identifying bodies during the 2004 tsunami, and has given controversial conclusions in the past, earning her the nickname of Dr Death. She was also once listed as the most trusted person in Thailand.
Within minutes, through a contact at the Thai Foreign Ministry, I called Dr Porntip, Director-General of the Central Institute of Forensic Science at the Ministry of Justice. I breathlessly explained everything to her. She said yes. She agreed to fly to Malaysia to assist us without any fee necessary (Selangor state covered her flight and lodging). The phone conversation took all of two minutes.
I whooped for joy! Here was someone with the peerless reputation to provide the independent expert view for the second autopsy, and the courage to take on this job out of nowhere.
Things escalated quickly after that. The secretary at the MB’s office signed an official letter inviting Dr. Porntip as representative of the Thai Ministry of Justice to conduct a second autopsy on behalf of the state of Selangor. She would arrive the very next day on 18 July and go directly from KLIA to the mortuary.
But this would not come to pass. At about 7pm, I received a phone call from Kerk. He informed me that it was a no-go. The family did not agree to a second autopsy and Beng Hock’s body would be buried immediately. I was in complete shock. I told him this was a very bad idea. He was truly apologetic but could not change the family’s mind.
I was apoplectic. I understood that this was already a very traumatic time for the family. I understood that Chinese custom dictated the need to show respect to the dead, and let him rest in peace.
But the extremely dubious circumstances of his death demanded that the most grievous suspicions be put to rest. An independent autopsy would do that. And Beng Hock deserved that. I was determined not to let this go.
I called up everyone I thought could help convince the parents: Tan Sri Khalid, Ean Yong, Gobind Singh (the family’s appointed lawyer) and finally, Lim Guan Eng, the head honcho of DAP himself. They emphathised with me, but respecting the wishes of the parents was paramount for them.
I had to accept that.
Upset, I dejectedly left the office drained of all energy. As if on cue, it started to rain heavily. I remember crying all the way whilst driving home. It was an accident waiting to happen. And so it did. Someone from the media called, I looked down at my phone lost in thought and bam – I caused a three-car line-up, a horrid end to the most horrid of days. – July 16, 2017.
* Tricia Yeoh was Research Officer to the Selangor Menteri Besar from January 2009 to March 2011 and represented the Selangor state government in managing the Teoh Beng Hock case.