'Silly error' landed ex-unionist in Aussie jail

Mr Jayakody recounted his Aussie prison experience to The Sunday Times last week in his first interview since being released.
Mr Jayakody recounted his Aussie prison experience to The Sunday Times last week in his first interview since being released.ST PHOTO: K. C. VIJAYAN

He was duped into carrying 2.2kg of 'Ice' in suitcase from Shanghai to Perth in 2014

When inmates came across Singaporean V. Jayakody during his 19 months in remand in Australian prisons, many would stop and ask: "You don't look like a criminal, you don't talk like a criminal, so why are you here?"

The 76-year-old former executive secretary of the Singapore Port Workers Union said: "I told them that I had made a stupid mistake."

His "mistake" was being duped into carrying 2.2kg of methylamphetamine - or "Ice" - in the lining of a suitcase from Shanghai to Perth in July 2014.

It saw him go through two criminal trials before he was finally cleared last month of bringing up to $6 million worth of the drug into Western Australia.

The first trial last year ended with a hung jury. "Somehow, I had the strength and confidence to get out of this because I was innocent," he told The Sunday Times last week in his first interview since being released.

  • Jayakody's varied career in the unions

  • Mr V. Jayakody was once a prominent trade unionist and, among other things, executive secretary of the Singapore Port Workers Union more than 40 years ago.

    He worked closely with then NTUC secretary-general Devan Nair and served as adviser to several daily-rated workers' unions.

    He also served on key committees with then NTUC chairman Phey Yew Kok, including the Skills Development Fund. Phey absconded on New Year's Eve 1980 and remained a fugitive until he surrendered in Bangkok last year. He admitted to 12 charges, including criminal breach of trust, and was jailed for five years in January.

    Mr Jayakody recalled: "The day before he fled Singapore, I called him and told him, 'I hear there is an investigation, I do not know if it's true or not. I want you to know if it is not true, you have my support; if it is true, there is nothing I can do.' He said 'Thank you, Jaya' and put the phone down. Next day, I heard he left.

    "Before the probe that brought him down, he was a very effective leader and good organiser and I worked well with him.

    "I worked with him when he was chairman of the NTUC organising committee and I was the secretary. All those with me respected him but after what happened, things became different.

    "Phey was also president of the Singapore Mercantile Co-operative Thrift and Loan Society and I was asked...to go and replace him. My job was to enforce greater discipline in financial matters."

    Mr Jayakody relinquished the position in 1982, having completed the task. He left the trade union movement and worked in the private sector, including 12 years as a human resource manager for a major oil company.

    Now retired, he lives with his wife in Johor Baru, while his 40-year-old doctor son is settled in Sydney. His 42-year-old daughter, who became Miss Singapore for the 1991 Miss World contest, is settled with family in Scotland. He has six grandchildren.

    Looking back, he said: "I don't regret, except for what my family went through in supporting me during the ordeal. Maybe God helped me, made me a better man and my faith strengthened."

    K.C. Vijayan

It emerged that online scammers had duped Mr Jayakody into carrying the suitcase. Prosecutors accepted that he was not a pusher or drug mule but had argued he had been reckless on the matter of checking whether there was an illicit substance in the suitcase. He was acquitted after a five-day retrial.

He told the court he had checked the suitcase in Shanghai and found nothing suspicious.

Expert evidence delivered in court also pointed out that the illicit material was concealed well enough to evade detection by the naked eye.

Mr Jayakody told The Sunday Times he was given the suitcase by a Chinese-speaking African in Shanghai, on behalf of a man who he believed was going to invest $7 million in his trading company in Singapore. He was told the case was to be given to a family friend.

"The suitcase contained ladies' and babies' clothes," he said. "I thought if they were (to be passed) from one family to another, there was nothing wrong."

His "cheerful" look on landing in Perth soon vanished when X-ray scanners detected the drugs in the suitcase that he was due to retrieve from the conveyor belt.

On meeting Customs officers, he became "flustered and angry" when he realised he may have been set up. "I suffered a temporary loss of memory, it was a shock to me," he said. "I have always been law-abiding. I was really distraught and some of my answers to the officers' questions were silly, ridiculous."

Upon arrest, he was remanded for seven months at Hakea prison some 19km from Perth, before being moved to the maximum-security Casuarina Prison about 90 minutes' drive from the city.

Treated well by the officers and inmates alike, he lauded the jail's high standards of upkeep, medical treatment and physical facilities.

"I was quite confident nothing would go wrong," he said. "I just had to go through the process."

He read more than 50 books, ranging from the Bible to those on former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and former US president Bill Clinton, and learnt about inmate life.

One cell mate recounted graphic details of his crime - killing his wife in their home and then his best friend, all because he was "high" on drugs.

"They are not dirty people, they were very nice to me and behaved well. They respected me, (were) quite decent and nobody gave me any trouble.

"Life in prison is a fertile ground for knowledge and understanding of different cultures. The prison is not what you see in the movies."

When the jury announced the "not guilty" verdict last month, what went through his mind was the fairness of the Australian system. "I didn't react openly, I was just stunned. My family members were there, some of them were crying."

He praised the Canberra-based Ministry of Foreign Affairs counsellor Kevin Liew for supplying the bridging documents for him to leave for Singapore the next day, as his passport had expired.

"The experience brought the family closer," said Mr Jayakody. "During the trial, I broke down when my son testified in court as one of the character referees. It showed how much he loved me."

He also expressed admiration for the support shown by his daughter-in-law and her mother, who also acted as character referees.

He said the two trials added up to some A$200,000 (S$204,500) in legal bills and his Sydney-based son sold his home to help settle costs.

"The experience made me a better man and my faith in God has strengthened.

"There will also be some members of the extended family who will not believe I am innocent despite the strong evidence in my favour and I have to live with that. "

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 06, 2016, with the headline ''Silly error' landed ex-unionist in Aussie jail'. Print Edition | Subscribe