The Forensic Medical Investigations of the Unforgettable Professor Chao Tzee Cheng
— Fellow, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
‘He was a beacon of light in helping the police solve some of the toughest murder cases.’
Police Commissioner Khoo Boon Hui
‘He was one with the knowledge of a medical doctor, the sharp eyes and instinct of Sherlock Holmes, and the oratorical skills and confidence of a lawyer in court.’
Clinical Professor Chee Yam Cheng
Master, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
‘One attribute of his which stood out above all others was that Professor Chao’s honours sat so lightly on his shoulders. He was always quietly dressed, seldom even sporting a tie. He never displayed the slightest hint of intellectual arrogance. He was ever-ready to share his knowledge. He was always on the go. He had an effervescent sense of humour. His supplies of energy seemed inexhaustible.’
Justice Dato’ Mahadev Shankar
Malaysian High Court Judge
‘Although his death came suddenly, we know he died peacefully, doing the things he loved most — his work and being with his family … Those who had come to share in our time of grief recounted such vivid and personal memories of him, and many related their own personal and unique encounters with him and how he had often gone out of his way to offer his help and assistance.’
Alexandre Chao (Professor Chao’s son)
than life. A big-hearted man. Mentor to many. Approachable to all. He has been
described as ‘the best living example of the adage that happiness does not
come from doing what you like but from liking what you do’. A medical
practitioner whose glittering rise and indelible impact in the field of forensic
pathology has no parallel in Singapore. No amount of words in this tribute can
do justice to a man who did justice throughout his career.
Tzee Cheng was born on 22 September 1934 in Hong Kong, the son of a professor in
cultural studies and a school principal. He later migrated to Singapore with his
parents and received his education at Catholic High School and Victoria
Continuation School. Although offered a scholarship to read engineering in the
United States, he decided to take up medicine at Hong Kong University.
Graduating with an MBBS in Hong Kong in 1961, he took a Diploma in Clinical
Pathology in 1967, followed by a Diploma of Pathology in 1968 and a Diploma of
Medical Jurisprudence in 1968. In the three decades that followed, Professor
Chao took the following honours that bear testimony to his own quest for
Chao also served with great distinction in various capacities, including the
Master of the Academy of Medicine (1992–1995), President of the Singapore
Society of Pathology (1987–1990) and founded the Medico-Legal Society which
was and continues to remain a unique forum, unifying the medical and legal
professions and serving as its president from 1985 until his unexpected death.
the time of his death in February 2000, he was holding the following posts in
Director and Special Forensic Advisor, Institute of Science and Forensic
Forensic Pathologist, Ministry of Health;
Professor, National University of Singapore; and
Consultant, Singapore General Hospital.
phenomenal workload included all the Coroner’s cases in Singapore and
conducting the Forensic Medicine Course in the National University of Singapore.
forensic prowess was demonstrated in the investigation of mass disasters such as
the Spyros blast, the Cable Car tragedy, the Hotel New World collapse and the
Silkair tragedy. He also helped solve notorious crimes in the annals of
Singapore criminal law, such as the Adrian Lim cult murders, the Scripps Body
Parts murders, the Bulgarian murder and the Flor Contemplacion case. For his
services to the nation, Professor Chao was awarded the Public Administration
Silver Medal in 1975, Gold Medal in 1979 and the Meritorious Medal in 1995.
despite his outstanding reputation, he was known to stand for justice, no matter
which side of the fence it stood on. For example, in 1975, he testified as an
expert witness for the defence at the Kuala Lumpur High Court trial of Hugh
Ashley Johnston for the murder of his wife. In the end, a six-to-one jury
verdict held that Johnston had no intention to kill his wife.
of Professor Chao’s earlier cases which deserve to be better known were
featured in a book which he co-wrote with Audrey Perera entitled Murder Is My
Business. For a fascinating glimpse into Professor Chao’s work, please refer
to the brief summary of five cases selected from the late Professor’s book.
The real names of the parties have not been stated so as to protect the
identities and privacy of the victims and their families.
Chao’s untimely death on 21 February 2000 while in his sleep has robbed the
medico-legal fraternity of one of its brightest stars. To quote the words of
Malaysian High Court Judge, Dato’ Mahadev Shankar on 25 March 2000 in a speech
given ‘In Memoriam of Professor Chao Tzee Cheng’:
Once in a while on our journey through life we are fortunate enough to meet someone who reshapes the way we look at things, and think about them. Such persons ennoble us by bestowing upon us a burning desire to seek out the truth and make it an integral part of our moral fibre. The late Professor Chao Tzee Cheng was one such mentor.
The legal profession will never forget this luminary of truth.
M/s Wong Partnership
Victim: 20-year-old Koh Liang Chuen
Body Found: Bottom of disused well in Koh’s house
Accused: Her fiance, 29-year-old Nah Tian Chee
Prosecution’s Case: Nah strangled Koh before throwing her body into a well.
Defence: Death by drowning; later, plea of diminished responsibility raised.
Accused’s Story: (1st version) At a farm yard, when the couple were together, Koh suddenly said she wanted to die. Nah agreed to commit suicide with her. Holding hands, they jumped into well. She died. He did not. He searched for her in vain and thereafter climbed out of well and went home. (Later 2nd version) Nah was making ardent love to Koh when ‘struggling playfully with her’ in their passion, they had both toppled backwards and fallen into the well. He tried to find her but failed. Guessing that she had died, he climbed out of the well and went away, fearing her father’s wrath. Nah’s expert (contradicted by the prosecution expert) testified that he had the intelligence of a child between 7 to 12 years of age and had an uncontrollable sexual urge.
What it Appeared to be: Fluid in the lungs and froth at the mouth and nostrils as found by the forensic pathologist examining Koh’s body are classic signs of death by drowning.
Professor Chao’s Rebuttal: Recent research then indicated that the same reactions of fluid in lungs and froth at the mouth and nostrils could also occur in strangulation.
Reconstructing the Crime: The couple had been getting intimate before Nah pressured pretty Koh to have sex. She resisted. While trying to force her into having sex, he held her neck in a stranglehold. She resisted unsuccessfully. When she was either dead or unconscious, he dragged her body along the ground towards the well and tipped her over its side.
Tell-Tale Signs of Truth: (1) A butterfly shaped bruise on Koh’s neck indicating bleeding into her neck muscles evidencing the stranglehold; and (2) bleeding in Koh’s eyes (caused by burst small blood vessels in the eyes due to rising blood pressure) evidencing strangulation.
Verdict: Convicted of causing grievous hurt and sentenced to five years’ jail. Acquitted of the murder charge.
Professor Chao’s Comments: ‘[Koh] stood by her principles and it cost her her life.’
|The Body at Sea
Victim: 58-year-old Choo Lay Kim
Body Found: In the seas around Pulau Ubin
Accused: 21-year-old Abdul Rahim (‘Rahim’)
Prosecution’s Case: In the course of robbing Choo, Rahim and an accomplice, Mansur, struggled with Choo. Later, Rahim attempted to rape Choo and in the course of doing so, she sustained serious fatal injuries, which Rahim had inflicted intentionally.
Defence: He had no intention to kill Choo.
Accused’s Story: Rahim and his friend, Mansur planned to rob Choo, who lived on the beach of Pulau Ubin. Unable to gain entry clandestinely, they created a disturbance that caused her to come out of her hut. When she appeared, Mansur jumped on her. She struggled and fought back hard. Rahim shut her mouth with his hand. During the struggle, Choo’s baggy Chinese trousers suddenly slipped off. When he saw this, he was overcome by sexual desire and raped her. When he entered her, he said, she suddenly fell silent. Her hand dropped limply to the ground when he lifted it. Mansur and Rahim then took Choo’s body down to the beach to revive her by splashing seawater on her face. When this failed, they put her into their sampan, rowed some distance away and dumped the body into the sea.
What it Appeared to be: Death by drowning.
Professor Chao’s Rebuttal: Death was not caused by drowning but from being attacked in the process of sexual assault.
Reconstructing the Crime: Rahim had forcibly straddled Choo’s chest while she was lying on her back. His weight had fractured her ribs.
Tell-Tale Signs of Truth: (1) Nine of Choo’s ribs — four on one side of her rib cage and five on the other — were fractured in a straight line. There were no external injuries to match the location of the fractures which would have meant being hit with a hard object. In the absence of such injuries and from the nature of the fractures, it was likely to have been caused by a soft object being exerted with great force on the ribs; (2) Choo was of an age where her bones would already have begun to calcify, becoming more brittle and easily broken, as a result of these, fractures would bring about cardiac arrest and death; and (3) Abrasions on Choo’s vaginal walls and the naked lower half of her body suggested the possibility of sexual assault.
Verdict: Conviction for murder set aside by the Privy Council which held that there was no evidence to show that Yasin, by sitting on Choo’s chest, actually intended to inflict some internal — as distinct from merely superficial — injuries or temporary pain. Rahim was later charged and convicted for rape based on Professor Chao’s autopsy report that matched Rahim’s initial confession (which Rahim subsequently sought to change).
Professor Chao’s Comments: ‘… if there had been no autopsy, Choo might have been certified as having died by drowning. There would have been no charge of murder, no case would have gone up to the Privy Council, and [Rahim] would not have been charged with and finally convicted for rape instead.’
Savage Triple Murder
The author would like to thank Mr Alexandre Chao, Mr Giam Chin Toon SC and Ms Audrey Perera for their support and input in the preparation of this article. Readers are encouraged to contribute towards the Chao Tzee Cheng Professorship.