This story was first published in July 2015 in an e-book titled Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965. A collaboration between The Straits Times and the Singapore Police Force, the e-book appeared in The Straits Times Star E-books app. Read the other crime stories here. (Warning: Some content in these stories may be disturbing for some individuals.)
The Sunny Ang Trial (1965)
He thought he had committed the perfect murder when his girlfriend disappeared at sea
Sunny Ang Soo Suan was from a middle-class family, smart but reckless. In 1957, he quit training to be a teacher, for a government scholarship to become a commercial pilot. But he was kicked out because he ignored safety regulations. He took part in the 1961 Singapore Grand Prix – a tourism event at the Old Thomson Road circuit.
Why should an ex-waitress, with little or no money of her own, be insured to the tune of $400,000?’
PROSECUTOR FRANCIS T. SEOW
But he was soon arrested for negligent driving after killing a pedestrian. Then he was put on probation for trying to burgle in 1962. The same year, he started studying for a law degree, but was made a bankrupt.
Ms Jenny Cheok Cheng Kid was a waitress at Odeon Bar and Restaurant at North Bridge Road, having studied only until Primary 3. She was paid $90 a month — her main source of income the $10 she earned each day in tips from customers. She already had two children who lived with a husband whom she married according to Chinese rituals. They later separated.
She and Ang met in 1963, he was 24, she was 22. He was suave and educated, she was naive and simple, and flattered by the attention he gave her. She fell completely under his spell.
On Aug 27, 1963, just a few months after they met, she disappeared during a diving trip near the Sisters' Islands.
All that remained was a single flipper worn by her. It had been severed cleanly at the top and bottom, likely by a sharp instrument such as a knife or razor blade.
An expert witness would later tell the court during Ang's murder trial that the loss of a flipper would have resulted in a diver’s loss of equilibrium and affected the person's mobility. Ms Cheok, an inexperienced diver, would have panicked and inevitably drowned in the strong currents swirling around the islands.
Suspicion was cast on Ang, a skilled diver, who conveniently stood to gain from the insurance policies he began buying for Ms Cheok shortly after they met.
In April 1965, one of Singapore's strangest and most sensational murder trial began — one in which the prosecution's case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Prosecutor Francis T. Seow, in his opening statement, said: "This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia, is concerned. This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body."
But he insisted that the notion a person could not be charged with murder when the victim's body had not or could not be found, was simply wrong — because that meant crafty killers would be able to get away scot-free by getting rid of the body. It only meant that the prosecution's burden of proof was higher.
A burden which was met. The jury was unanimous in its verdict: Guilty.
THE CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE
The insurance policies
When Ms Cheok disappeared, her accident coverage amounted to $400,000. The payouts were meant to go to either Ang’s mother or Miss Cheok’s estate. Three weeks before she disappeared, Ang took his girlfriend to make a will leaving her entire estate to his mother, whom she hardly knew.
A day before her disappearance, one of her policies expired. Three hours before the fateful diving trip which would cost her her life, Ang extended that policy for just five days.
The total payout would have amounted to around $900,000 if several insurance companies had not become suspicious.
According to one witness from the Great Eastern Life Insurance company, Miss Cheok tried to apply for a $40,000 "124" policy. The policy gave twice the sum if the insured died from natural causes but four times, or $160,000, if death was a result of an accident. Before that, she wanted a policy which gave $200,000 in accident benefits.
In other short-term policies Ang negotiated for Ms Cheok, he said she wanted to take up flying and was the heiress of a chicken farm. But these were lies. The truth was that Ms Cheok, who had quit her job a month before she disappeared, had little money to pay the premiums on her policies.
A previous attempt on her life?
Before the diving incident, Ang borrowed a friend's car and drove Ms Cheok to Kuala Lumpur for a holiday — but the trip was quickly cut short after a bout of stomach illness.
Before the return trip, Ang took out accident policies — $30,000 for himself and $100,000 for her. Their car crashed on the way back. Ang, skilled enough to take part in a Grand Prix, said it was because he was trying to avoid a dog. The passenger side of the car suffered the worst damage but Ms Cheok escaped with bruises.
Boatman Yusuf Ahmad, the prosecution’s key witness, made it clear that Ang behaved "normally" all through the diving trip, despite facing the loss of his lover.
At 2.30pm, Ang and Ms Cheok chartered his boat at Jardine Steps for three hours. The fare they negotiated was $12.
This is an unusual case insofar as Singapore, or for that matter Malaysia, is concerned. This is the first case of its kind to be tried in our courts that there is no body.'
PROSECUTOR FRANCIS T. SEOW
After a 30-minute ride, Ang told him to drop anchor in the middle of the straits, then dropped in a guide rope.
Ang, who was in swimming trunks, had also brought along three air tanks, two pairs of flippers, two knives, a small axe, aqualung equipment and a transistor radio.
Ms Cheok put on a dive belt to which the axe, a knife and metal weight were attached. Using the rope to guide her, she went into the water alone despite her lack of diving experience.
(Mr Yusuf also said that two months before, he had taken Ang and Ms Cheok to Pulau Tertukor. Only Ang went diving that day, while Ms Cheok swam. Mr Yusuf said she did not seem very skilful.)
Some 10 minutes later, she surfaced.
Ang changed her tank, and she went into the water again.
Still in his trunks, Ang started checking his own tank and found that it was leaking.
He said the problem was with the washer and the boatman helped him to improvise one, but it failed to work. Ms Cheok at that time was still underwater.
Ang then tugged at the guide rope three times and asked: "Where’s the girl?"
Mr Yusuf said he did not know. Ang gave three more tugs. There was still no sign of his girlfriend.
Ang pulled the rope up and told Mr Yusuf to look for air bubbles in the water.
There were none.
“What are we going to do?” Ang asked.
Mr Yusuf suggested going to the nearby St John’s Island to call the police. He hauled anchor, circled a few times to look for bubbles, and left for the island.
Asked by Justice Murray Buttrose if he or Ang went overboard to look for her, Mr Yusuf replied: "No."
On the way to the island, Ang never asked him to speed up. He also did not rush onto the island when they arrived, as a desperate boyfriend would have. Ang returned with a guard, who suggested picking up several fishermen from another nearby island on the way back to where Ms Cheok had gone missing.
They returned with five fishermen, all of whom dived into the water.
Ang stayed in the boat.
On May 18, 1965, the jury took just two hours to decide on a guilty verdict.
Justice Buttrose said: “You have killed this young girl Jenny, whose only fault apparently was that she had the misfortune to fall in love with you, and to give you everything she possessed: her all.
"You killed her for personal gain. It is a crime cunningly contrived to give the appearance of an accident, and it was carried out with consummate coolness and nerve. At long last, the time has come for you to pay the penalty for your dreadful deed."
Outside the courtroom, Ang's sister, Ms Juliet Ang, a law student, broke down. A big crowd watched Ang taken away in a green prison van. Ms Ang identified her brother’s body after he was hanged on Feb 6, 1967
Sunny Ang's testimony
During the trial, Sunny Ang was repeatedly asked why he did not go into the water to search for Ms Jenny Cheok.
Justice Buttrose: Did you realise that this girl, whom you love and whom you were going to marry, had gone down and disappeared, and you calmly turn round to the boatman and said, 'All right. Go to St John's'?
Ang: If she was anywhere around the boat we would have seen her air bubbles.
Justice Buttrose: It didn't occur to you to go down and search for her?
Justice Buttrose: Why?
Ang: Because I thought there was obviously a leak and also if she was anywhere around the boat, we would have seen her air bubbles.
Mr Seow: You had skin-diving equipment with you in the boat?
Mr Seow: The girl you were going to marry was obviously in difficulty, if not actually dead already. Why didn’t you use your skin-diving equipment to go down?
Ang: I was not quite sure what sort of difficulties she was in. It occurred to me - it was a vague thought - that she might have been attacked by sharks. In fact, I remarked upon that to Yusuf. Not then, but long after the incident.
Justice Buttrose: You could have gone down to find out?
Ang: She might have been attacked by sharks.
Mr Seow: When did you change back into your street clothes?
Ang: I think I remember I put them on, on my way to St John's Island.
Mr Seow: So that when the Malay divers were going in, you were then in your street clothes, and you saw no point in joining them?
Ang: I do not say I saw no point. I was in my street clothes and there were more experienced skin-divers, and there were five of them. Besides I knew the chances of finding her were very slim.
Justice Buttrose: You never got into the water at all that day? You never got your feet wet?
Ang: That is so.
Ang was also asked why Ms Cheok went into the water first. He said they had gone skin-diving a few days after they first met. He admitted that all she could do then was "float around". But she made "amazing progress". When asked by defence counsel on why she went in first the day she went missing, he replied that is was a matter of courtesy.
Justice Buttrose: That she should brave the perils of the deep before you?
Ang: Not exactly, my Lord, but always ladies first.
Buttrose: I see, even in deep waters?