Laxness or ineptitude?

Laxness or ineptitude?

Last week, Singaporean Foreign Minister K Shanmugam dashed to Washington to try to staunch the spreading fallout from an espionage-linked tragedy involving the death of an American
research scientist.

It is a case reminiscent of the murder of a British businessman in Dalian two years ago, which led to the demise of Bo Xilai, a member of China’s ruling Politburo, and Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.

Indeed, the Singapore calamity is even more intriguing and its effects may threaten the republic’s ties with the United States and China, and may even cause a funding shortfall in Washington. As international reportage has indicated, the story is complex but rivetting, and is yet another sign of laxness, if not chronic ineptitude, by the Singaporean authorities.

Early last year, Dr Shane Todd, 32, expressed reservations about the work he was doing at Singapore’s Institute of Microelectronics, which receives US funding for developing secret military technology.

Todd worried that his research involving gallium nitride, a semiconductor used in state-of-the-art satellite communications, was being accessed by Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, which is viewed as a security threat. Having alerted his family to these fears that his work might jeopardise US interests, he told IME that he intended to resign and made plans to depart last June.

He had a job offer from Nuvotronics, a US research firm, and his colleagues said he was cheerful and relieved when his final work day at the Singaporean institute came around.

His girlfriend, Shirley, was surprised when he did not call her the next day, so she went round to his apartment.

Oddly, the door was unlocked. She entered and found Todd hanging in the bathroom, dead. It looked like suicide; but upon checking, it appeared more likely to be murder. After all, he’d been happy when last seen, there were boxes packed for his return home, and he was doing his laundry.

It seemed an odd prelude to taking his life. Shirley and his family were sure that was not what had happened. And they were later backed by US congressmen, forensic analysts and top researchers. All expressed surprise at what Chris Nelson, in his widely read Washington insider report, termed “an extraordinarily casual initial Singaporean police investigation”.

Actually, it was no surprise to me. When I was Asiaweek’s correspondent in Singapore, our bureau in Raffles Place was ransacked during the night of February 15, 1992.

The police came, took photographs and a statement, gave me a number to call to inquire about the investigation, and then disappeared. Weeks later, when I called the number, an officer answered and said he had no record of what I was talking about.

So the cock-up in Todd’s case reflects a common pattern of the Singaporean constabulary failing to conduct proper investigations, not dusting for fingerprints and incorrectly describing crime scenes.

They reported that Todd had drilled holes in his bathroom wall, bolted in a pulley from which he ran a strap around the toilet and tied it to his neck and then jumped off a chair.

Unfortunately, as his family later discovered, there were no holes in the marble walls of the bathroom, no bolts or screws, and the toilet was not where the police had said it was.

Suspecting a cover-up of Todd’s murder, particularly after they found a detachable hard drive with references to Huawei that the police had somehow overlooked, they contacted an American pathologist. His assessment was that Todd’s bruised knuckles and hands indicated he had fought an attacker and died by being throttled.

There is more to this horrifying tale that is only now coming out and that is why Shanmugam scurried to Washington to meet US Attorney General Eric Holder and Senator Max Baucus of Montana.

But the damage is done and Singapore’s over-hyped reputation for efficacy and the rule of law has taken another bashing.