The prosecution’s case against Zainal Kuning appeared watertight. They had a confession from him that he had stabbed to death Ang Chye, 65, a caretaker of a Yishun coffeeshop, on 2 February 1989, in what was alleged to be a bungled burglary. Zainal fit the profile of a likely burglar — a manual labourer, aged 30. He must have needed money.
He was accused of the murder alongside his friend Salahuddin Ismail. Salahuddin’s brother, Mohmad Bashir Ismail, was also charged with murder originally, but had his charge reduced to burglary.
At the trio’s trial, however, Zainal denied that his confession was voluntarily given. He claimed that he had been tortured and police officers had led him to believe that his accomplices had already fingered him as the one who had stabbed the caretaker and that if he confessed, he might get a lesser sentence.
Unfortunately, it is quite common for defendants to claim that their confessions were extracted through torture and generally courts are skeptical. The police officers involved strenuously denied mistreating him. Justice T S Sinnathuray ruled that the confession was voluntary, and with that, Zainal’s fate was virtually sealed.
This case is recounted in Chapter One of a little-known book Lee’s Law: How Singapore crushes dissent, by Chris Lydgate, 2003. I should thank the Singapore Democratic Party for a brief reference to this case on their website — this was what led me to look up the book and the Straits Times’ stories myself.
Pages 5 and 6 of Chapter One describe the torture Zainal claimed to have suffered. I shall spare readers the chilling details. Suffice it to say, it must have been severe enough to get someone to sign a confession that could lead straight to the hangman’s noose.
Other than the confession, however, the prosecution had no physical evidence that it was Zainal and Salahuddin who murdered the elderly man, or that they were even there at the coffeeshop that night. Despite this, the defendants’ chances looked extremely slim.
But Zainal was an extraordinarily lucky man. What happened next was a one-in-a-million kind of event. While in remand pending his trial sometime after his arrest on 18 February 1989, he met a fellow inmate who seemed to know something about his case. Quoting from page 2 of the book, this fellow inmate told him that he
. . . 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 remembers the name of the perpetrator: Man Semput.
Zainal related this to his lawyer, the late J B Jeyaretnam, but right up to the trial date, it proved too little to go on. With limited resources, Jeyaretnam could not find this person, despite spending several months on it. There was no trace of any person by this name. He couldn’t even find the witnesses who overheard this boast.
The last throw of the dice was to challenge prosecutors at the trial, which started in March 1992, to locate Man Semput using their vastly greater resources. And that led to a cliff-hanging conclusion:
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 investigation, 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 Jeyaretnam challenged prosecutors to run a check against Mohd.
On 6 May 1992, the thirty-sixth day of the trial, a police fingerprint expert finally testified that the prints from the crate had been identified as belonging to Mohd Sulaiman. Deputy public prosecutor Bala Reddy then told the judge that the prosecution was applying for this case to be “stayed” under Section 193 of the Criminal Procedure Code. For Zainal, this would mean a discharge not amounting to an acquittal; the charges against him could be revived at a later date.
Jeyaretnam objected and demanded an acquittal. The judge concurred. By then, Zainal Kuning had spent more than three years in jail since his arrest on 18 February 1989.
Mohd Sulaiman was promptly arrested.
* * * * *
The case took up most of page 21, with a main story and two supporting stories. The main story, 2 acquitted of 1989 murder of caretaker, generally recounted the key events in the courtroom.
The first of the smaller stories took a human-interest angle.
But the last was the strangest. Headlined High tech to the rescue: Fingerprints pointed the way in arrest of suspect yesterday, the leading thrust of the story was the superiority of police forensic work, with the new high-speed fingerprint system solving the case!
To read the scanned copies of the Straits Times stories, click the thumbnails. Do read the accounts carefully, and you will notice that the word “torture” cannot be found anywhere in the newspaper’s reports. As author Chris Lydgate says in his book,
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 commit — knowing that the penalty was death.
* * * * *
How many other people have been convicted of murder in a similar way, without corroborating physical evidence? But also without the fantastic luck that Zainal Kuning had?
What are the implications of a case like this? I will discuss this further in a follow-up article.