THE body of a young woman is stuffed in a suitcase… A failed pop-singer-turned-witch doctor promises that she’ll never die, right before being hung for a politician’s grissly murder… A millionaire walks into the forest and never returns… An abandoned camp discovered with over a hundred makeshift graves…

I’d happily read any novel on these dismal subjects, but fans of bleak crime fiction are out of luck here. These spine-tingling stories all happen to be true — and are, in some cases, even stranger than fiction.

Salacious tales of betrayals, unsolved mysteries, lurid murders and scandals that titillated the nation are now forever immortalised in one compact compendium in my hands. Malaysian Murders and Mysteries: A century of shocking cases that gripped the nation presents a blistering narrative that spans over decades, retelling incidences and stories that have cast a blight over Malaysia. You think you’re safe? Well, think again.

This through-a-glass-darkly perspective on the country allows for a truthful portrayal of cases running from the ludicrous to the tragic. Suddenly, our homes aren’t as safe as we think. Things aren’t what they seem. Mysteries lurk, murderers roam free, people snap and there’s a tinge of film noir in some cases with Hollywood-like plots and treacheries uncovered.

Many "true crime" offerings have gotten the “pulp-like” treatment with a tabloid heart and tabloid brains. Happily, Malaysian Murders and Mysteries is a standout. The authors Martin Vengadesan and Andrew Sagayam demonstrate a flair for distilling reams of research into a succinct, lively narrative.

The book is an exemplar of how to write taut, issue-driven historical nonfiction with an appreciation for factual reporting and telling details. As riveting as true crime stories normally are, what elevates Malaysian Murders and Mysteries above sensationalism is its focus on fact and legal perspectives which has shed new light on events long past. And of course, it helps that I have a macabre fascination for some of the cases highlighted in the book.

The unsolved murder of ex-beauty queen Jean Pereira still baffles Malaysians to this day.

Who doesn’t recall the unsolved murder of beauty queen Jean Pereira? Stabbed in the car while her brother-in-law lay unconscious on the side of road, the death of the beautiful widow led to one of Malaysia’s most sensational murder trials. It was something close to home. After all, both the victim and suspect lived in Klang where I come from. “Does it have the story of Jean Pereira in it?” my mother asked when I brought home the book. I nodded and she reached out for the book, saying: “Then I want to read it!”

The rain is pelting hard on the outside, casting a gloomy shadow over the cafe we’re sitting in. It seems a perfect setting to be chatting about murders, crime and psychotic killers on the loose, I note and Martin laughs.

LABORIOUS PROJECT

Andrew Sagayam (left) and Martin Vengadesan during their book launch recently.

The inspiration behind the book, Martin reveals, was from writer-director Amir Muhammad. “He had this idea for a book and asked if I was interested to do it,” he recalls. Amir suggested that a compendium of famous cases that made the nation’s headlines over the years would be a great subject for a book. “After all, who doesn’t like reading about true crime? Nearly everyone I asked, did!”

Martin was intrigued by the suggestion and soon brought fellow journalist Andrew Sagayam on board. Being new to the news desk after years of writing on lifestyle and entertainment, he realised that Andrew’s experience on the crime desk and the courts would help greatly.

“I actually have no direct contact with most cases,” he admits, explaining: “I’m always talking to a lawyer, reporter or a forensic expert. I didn’t have the ground experience as Andrew did.” So the narrative of the book was shaped by Martin, while the actual ground experience and consultation were contributed by Andrew who also covered some of the cases as a crime reporter on the scene.

The late historian Tan Sri Dr. Khoo Kay Kim had given his invaluable help towards the book.

It seemed clear from the outset that readers would want to see the most vital of the crime news that were reported on. That required reading through and whittling down the great sweep of cases written and published over decades. The duo sat down to discuss the notable cases and decided that they had more than enough material for a book.

But the book, which took over eight years to complete, almost didn’t see the light of day. “I could actually write a story on how this book was published,” he remarks dryly. There were a number of roadblocks which almost halted the publication. “Finance or the lack of it, played a role in delaying the project,” reveals Martin candidly, continuing: “So many people came forward wanting to help publish the book but it somehow didn’t happen.”

At one point, it was just getting too hard to keep the project going, “So we got a little fed up and put it on the shelf for a while,” he says, shaking his head. What changed your mind? I ask. “Well the stars aligned somehow,” the 46-year-old replies cryptically, grinning.

The Tiger of Jelutong, the late Karpal Singh provided his invaluable legal perspective for many of the cases recorded in the book.

The book project, he explains, drew the interest of two luminaries who have since passed on — the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ himself, Karpal Singh and renowned Malaysian historian Tan Sri Dr Khoo Kay Kim. “They took time to go over the cases and helped us with the legal aspects, historical information and fact-finding,” he recalls, adding: “I felt I owed it to them to ensure that the book gets published.” The book, he adds, is dedicated to the two.

Furthermore, the 2018 general elections spurred him to revisit the project. “I realised that there’d be this window of press freedom or the freedom to publish a book of this nature,” he explains. After all, who knew how long this afterglow of the post-election fever would last, he muses. It was now or never.

The book finally materialised after Singapore publisher Marshall Cavendish agreed to publish it. It’s surprising, Andrew tells me in a phone conversation later, that Malaysian publishers weren’t keen on taking up the book. “I wasn’t sure if they were loath to take up something that could potentially get them sued,” he muses, adding: “But most, if not all, the cases mentioned were either solved or closed for one reason or the other. It’s just surprising to us that a Singapore publishing house ended up with this book.”

MURDERS AND MYSTERIES

Notorious gangster Botak Chin being led out after his sentencing.

Stories about crime appeal to the voyeur in us. Readers are stirred by the possibility that — but for fate — they too might have suffered. So, for all our genuine repulsion at violence, crime makes rubberneckers of us all. “Everyone I know has a personal take or a vivid experience on reading or following some of the cases retold in the book,” agrees Martin, grinning when I tell him of my mother’s insistence on reading the book.

The duo realised how incredibly difficult it was going to be to find space for just the highlights of the highlights, so they chose instead to focus on finding the best, most compellingly written of the stories that captured the crucial crimes that have occurred since 1875. “Readers will still find surprises,” promises Martin. “For many people, including myself as I began this journey, the so-called “crimes of the century” of yesteryear have long faded from memory.”

I agree. For example, I can vaguely remember the notorious gangster Wong Swee Chin, better known as Botak Chin who made his name through a string of “supernatural feats” which accompanied his violent and daring exploits in the 1970s. But I imagine that story is largely unknown to many born after me.

Similarly obscure was the strange case of the murder at Victoria Institution involving a spurned woman Ethel Proudlock back in 1911 which not many knew about until Eric Larson brought the case to light in his 1999 publication Murder on the Verandah: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya.

“It was Amir who pointed out the story to us,” says Martin, adding: “We realised that there were plenty of intrigue and mysteries back in Malaysia’s early colonial days leading to the communist insurgency which we felt we needed to highlight.”

The 'bandits' were actually innocent, unarmed villagers executed at Batang Kali.

One of the more disturbing tales is the Batang Kali massacre. On Dec 12, 1948, British soldiers left the bodies of 24 innocent, unarmed men riddled with bullets and the British government left their families without a credible explanation. Martin recalls visiting the area and speaking to a number of people affected by the massacre: “The shadow that this event had cast was obvious more than 60 years on. Hearing them tell their stories was both moving and harrowing.”

Some stories are personally painful. The untimely death of Teoh Beng Hock hit Martin hard. Teoh was a friend from the time they were sent on the same assignment to Korea back in 2006. He’d asked Martin for advice if he should switch from journalism to politics and the latter encouraged him.

Teoh went on to work as a political aide to Seri Kembangan assemblyman Ean Yong Hian Wah. In July 2009, Teoh was found dead, having fallen from the 14th floor of the building which housed the Selangor Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) office. “I can’t help but wonder if my advice had somehow inexplicably led to this tragedy,” he muses wistfully. The silence hangs heavily in the air while the rain outside pounds furiously on the zinc roof overhead. “It’s a thought that haunts me to this day,” he continues after a pause.

Distraught parents of missing child Nurin Jazlin.

For Andrew, it’s the cases involving children that were the most depressing. “Nurin Jazlin’s case was one of the most heartbreaking,” says the 47-year-old. He’d covered the story as a crime reporter and recalls that there were stories of a white van circling the area luring children with candy.

In the book, he recounts: “It was published that Nurin was one of 17 children under the age of 9 who went missing between January and July 2007. There were many theories floating around but I strongly believe that it was the child pornography angle that’s the real motive in this case.” Nurin’s murder was never solved.

Bentong Kali met his end in a volley of gunfire.

Some cases have seen a satisfying closure with the perpetrators caught and brought to justice. Some criminals chose to go off in a blaze of gunfire like notorious killer Bentong Kali who was killed in a police shootout back in 1993. Glamorous witch doctor Mona Fandey along with her husband were incarcerated and later hung over the gruesome murder of politician Mazlan Idris.

Superstition surrounding executed 'witch doctor' Mona Fandey still circulates till today.

Yet disturbingly, there are many cases discussed in the book that seemingly lack closure. The death of A Kugan in police custody remains unresolved, and highlights a disproportionate large percentage of deaths in custody involving those of Indian ethnicity.

The killers of teenage boy Xu Jian Huang are still at large. The case of Teoh Beng Hock’s untimely death has recently been reopened. The missing plane MH370 is still shrouded in mystery. Jean Pereira’s murder never found a satisfactory conclusion.

The questions surrounding Canny Ong’s murder are still unanswered. “The video footage from the CCTV video showed that there seemed to be two other men in the backseat of the car driven by Ahmad Najib (who was later found to be guilty and hung for Ong’s murder) on the night she was abducted,” recalls Andrew who covered the story and saw the CCTV recording himself. By the time it came to trial however, the footage looked as if Ahmad Najib acted alone.

“The thread that runs through the stories speak of a deeper issue,” explains Martin. The truth, he says, gets covered up often. Andrew concurs. “Information provided to reporters isn’t always the sum of the whole truth. There’s more to what’s being shared with the rest of the world,” he says.

Canny Ong's murder poses a lot of questions to this day.

This is compounded by the fact that witnesses are often reluctant to come forward with leads. “That has often impeded a lot of investigations when no one is willing to step out and blow the whistle on the guilty,” he adds bluntly.

Yet the stories told bear testament to investigative journalism, driven by curiosity and dogged reportage. “It’s that much of the donkey work — the hours following leads and contacts, or sifting through reports or interviewing witnesses,” shares Andrew, adding dryly: “I didn’t have much of a life back then!”

But they’re proud of it. “It’s a mixture of relief and satisfaction,” says Martin, and Andrew echoes the same sentiment, adding: “It’s important that people can now read and understand what some journalists have to go through to actually get their stories out there.”

Malaysian Murders and Mysteries brings together 42 of Malaysia’s most well-known and notorious criminal cases. Beginning from the murder of British colonial officer JWW Birch in 1875, case after case of murder, mayhem and political intrigue are narrated by master craftspeople holding dirt but wielding the literary toolkit of investigative journalists, creating deep page-turners amidst a setting in the dirtiest of all worlds: the real one.

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Malaysian Murders and Mysteries:

A century of shocking cases that gripped the nation

Authors: Martin Vengadesan and Andrew Sagayam

Publisher: Marshall Cavendish

233 pages

Available at all major bookstores.