Dead Men Do Tell Tales

The Forensic Medical Investigations of the Unforgettable Professor Chao Tzee Cheng


1969 — Fellow, Academy of Medicine, Singapore
1971 — Fellow, American College of Legal Medicine
1973 — Fellow, Royal Australasia College of Pathologists
1975 — Fellow, College of American Pathologists
1976 — Member, Royal College of Pathologists, United Kingdom
1983 — Fellow, Royal College of Pathologists, United Kingdom
1987–1992 — Governor, World Association of Medical Law
From 1992 — Visiting Professor, Criminal Police College of China
1993 — Honorary Fellow, Royal Australasian College of Physicians
1993 — Honorary Fellow, Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh
1994 — Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1994 — Honorary Fellow, American College of Physicians
1996 — Honorary Fellow, Singapore National Institute of Chemistry
1997 — Fellow, American Board of Forensic Examiners

‘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)

Larger 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.

Chao 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 excellence:

Professor 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.

At the time of his death in February 2000, he was holding the following posts in Singapore:

  1. Founding Director and Special Forensic Advisor, Institute of Science and Forensic Medicine;

  2. Senior Forensic Pathologist, Ministry of Health;

  3. Clinical Professor, National University of Singapore; and

  4. Emeritus Consultant, Singapore General Hospital.

His phenomenal workload included all the Coroner’s cases in Singapore and conducting the Forensic Medicine Course in the National University of Singapore.

His 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.

Yet 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.

Some 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.

Professor 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.

Gregory Vijayendran
M/s Wong Partnership

The Butterfly Murder
Victim: 20-year-old Koh Liang Chuen
Body Found: Bottom of disused well in Koh’s house
Her fiance, 29-year-old Nah Tian Chee
Prosecution’s Case:
Nah strangled Koh before throwing her body into a well.
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’)
Charge: Murder
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.’

Deadly Young Mastermind  
Victim: 14-year-old N Jega  
Body Found:
Railway track  
12-year-old Moorthy and his gang members  
Culpable homicide not amounting to murder (due to the age of the accused and his gang members) Prosecution’s Case: (Based on the interrogation of Moorthy and his gang members and the comparison of their statements) Moorthy and his gang robbed Jega the day before his death. When Jega demanded for the return of the money and threatened to tell his parents and his brother, a police constable, Moorthy plotted deadly revenge. He planned to kill Jega by planning to have Jega swallow sleeping pills. Moorthy’s gang pretended to help Jega to get his money back. They were friendly to him and bought him hot coffee into which they mixed the powdered sleeping pills. The plan failed because unknown to the boys, they had actually been sold pills for ‘heatiness’, not sleeping tablets. Panicking, they later walked unsuspecting Jega to a pitch dark area. One of the gang’s members grabbed Jega from behind in a tight grip around his neck. After a while, Jega slumped into absolute stillness. Once this happened, the gang dragged the inert body and laid it across the railway track.  
What it Appeared to be: Victim of train accident/suicide.  
Professor Chao’s Rebuttal:
‘[I]t bothered me that the body was so neatly cut. When people commit suicide, they don’t lie across the track, they throw themselves into the path of the train at the very last moment, and the damage to their bodies is messy.’  
Reconstructing the Crime: The boys had beaten the boy up and strangled him. When he was unconscious or dead, they laid him across the track so that it would look like suicide or an accident.  
Tell-Tale Signs of Truth:
(1) Extensive internal bleeding in the neck, probably caused by an arm-lock which left none of the distinctive external i njuries left by strangulation by hands or rope; and (2) Another suspicious finding was that no money was found on the boy.  
Verdict: The boys pleaded guilty to the charge and were sentenced to detention at the Singapore Boys’ Home for 5 years.  
Professor Chao’s Comments: ‘Although everyone concerned believed that Moorthy knew what he was doing, the fact remained that he was only a 12-year-old boy with a 12-year-old mind.’  
The Savage Triple Murder
28-year-old Gwee Mei Li and her children, 3-year-old Rodney and 2-year-old Margaret  
Body Found:
At their home  
The tenant of the family, 34-year-old Peter Liau and his friend 28-year-old Tan Soon Chye.  
Prosecution’s Case:
Both Liau and Tan admitted planning to rob and rape Mei Li. The purpose of the killings was to eliminate their chances of being identified by the three people who knew them both.  
Diminished responsibility.  
Accused’s Story: (Liau’s version) He did not kill the children. Mei Li was accidentally stabbed when she lunged at Liau and plunged right into the knife’s blade, stabbing herself. (Tan’s version) Mei Li was struggling with Liau. When she screamed, Tan fled.  
Professor Chao’s Rebuttal: Mei Li could not have lunged at Liau because the scene-of-the-crime evidence suggested that she was probably kneeling when killed.  
Reconstructing the Crime: All three victims were brutally murdered. Mei Li had fallen to her knees near her bed during the struggle with the assailant, who choked her with his left hand and then stabbed her in the neck. Someone held Rodney while his mother was being attacked and he had been killed by a blow to his jugular vein while he was kneeling. Margaret was probably pinned on the floor and stabbed on the left side of her back upward toward her head.  
Tell-Tale Signs of Truth: (1) No sign of forced entry into the flat which showed that the suspect was known to the family; (2) The knife had cut into Mei Li’s aorta and her neck showed signs — internal bleeding and bruising — of having been held in a choke hold; (3) Strange position of Mei Li’s body, with her legs under the bed indicated that Mei Li was kneeling when the fatal blow was struck. The blood would have spurted out in a jet when the aorta was punctured. Location of bloodstains on the lower part of the wall also evidenced a kneeling position. As Mei Li collapsed from the blow, her legs would have slid under the bed; (4) Rodney suffered bruises on his face and lips, indicating that someone probably held him. Height of the focal point of the stains on the wall behind Rodney was such that Rodney was probably kneeling on the bed; and (5) The back of Margaret’s left thigh was bruised, indicating that she was probably pinned on the floor by someone and stabbed from below upwards.  
Verdict: Convicted for murder and sentenced to death. Plea of diminished responsibility was rejected. Trial judges described killings as ‘savage and vicious’ and held that the autopsy findings combined with scene-of-the-crime evidence (circumstantial evidence) was entirely convincing. An appeal against the judgment by Liau and Tan was dismissed.  
Professor Chao’s Comments: ‘There were no witnesses to this crime … But what [the two accused] never realised was that they had left silent witnesses, in the form of wounds, blood splashes and body positions – unfailingly reliable witnesses.’  
Dead Child Battered
Victim: 2-year-old Marie Lean  
Body Found: At home  
The family maid, Tan Ah Kwan  
Prosecution’s Case:
Tan repeatedly beat Marie until her spine ruptured the back of Marie’s liver. Medical examination revealed that prior to her death, Marie was subject to repeated beatings on her head and face on different occasions.  
Defence: No motive for murder.  
Accused’s Story: She fed Marie with orange juice, after which the child had a nap. Later, Marie woke up and called out that she wanted to urinate. Tan brought her potty and went to get the orange juice that Marie had asked her for. Halfway through drinking it, her lips and face started turning black and her eyes rolled upwards. Then, she fell off the potty. Tan could not revive her and called the Leans but it was too late.  
Professor Chao’s Rebuttal: No trace of the orange juice in Marie’s stomach.  
Reconstructing the Crime:
Tan had battered Marie and had caused her death.  
Tell-Tale Signs of Truth:
(1) Two ‘fresh’ fractured ribs at the back near the spine, the position of which meant that they were not likely to have occurred as a result of a fall but instead, direct pressure on the ribs; and (2) Extensive bleeding due to the rupture of the liver from the back. The characteristics of the liver injury were not likely to have been caused by a fall or attempts to resuscitate. (Rupture of the liver from resuscitation tends to occur in front as pressure is applied to the front. This was reconfirmed with the medical officer at Singapore General Hospital who carried out the resuscitation.) The rupture of the back of the liver indicated that force must have come from behind. Verdict: Convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced to jail for 6 years.  
Professor Chao’s Comments: ‘But what sadistic streak … had led [Tan] to cut off all maternal feeling, all human feeling, to inflict such torture on a defenceless child?’  

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.