Short film about nun who counselled death-row inmates part of project to promote giving culture

Sister Gerard Fernandez only recently opened up to biographers and the media about her work with inmates, having promised the prison authorities that her work would be kept private.
Sister Gerard Fernandez only recently opened up to biographers and the media about her work with inmates, having promised the prison authorities that her work would be kept private.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Everyone knows about the Toa Payoh ritual murders of 1981 and the name of the man behind the grisly crimes.

When film-maker Chai Yee Wei made Sister, he made a choice put the focus on others: the two women, Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong, who were hanged in 1988 for their part in the crime, and the nun, Sister Gerard Fernandez, who spoke with them weekly for seven years, up to the moment they walked to the gallows.

Chai says: "When people talk about Adrian Lim, they focus on him and his perspective. They don't talk about the two women that he manipulated."

It was the switch in focus that helped persuade Sister Gerard to give her blessing and lend her help to the project, he says.  

In Chai's film, the nun and prison counsellor listens as the two women speak of their horrific abuse at Lim's hands.

Sister was made as part of the 15 Shorts project, a biographical series about the lives of 15 Singaporeans who have gone to extraordinary lengths to help others. It is organised by the non-profit body promoting a giving culture, the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC), local film company Blue3Asia and 15 Singaporean film-makers.

Sister Gerard, 80, was present at a screening on Thursday at Filmgarde Bugis+ and spoke at a question and answer session.

She talked about why it was only recently that she opened up to biographers and the media about her work with inmates, including those on death row. She had promised the prison authorities that her work would be kept private.

"To have that privilege of seeing them change, seeing them admitting that they had done wrong, and when that happens, a change comes, beautifully. There is so much peace, so much joy, and I did not want to lose the privilege of walking with them during their last moments," she says.

The other films screened at the event were director Boo Junfeng's Plague, about health worker Iris Verghese, who in the early days of the 1980s HIV/AIDs scare, gave comfort to those shunned by society; director Chong Yu Lun's Shanti, about Kelvin, a man who helped the family of a security guard at his condominium after she fell ill; director Kee Swee San's Guilty, about police inspector Chia Hwa Tong, who gave young offenders second and third chances when others had given up on them; and director K. Rajagopal's The T(h)ree Lives, about a stranger who helped a blind woman cross the road, then continued to do so for the next five years.

Present at the panel was Madam Rosie Wong, 70. Mr Tubi bin Mohd Salleh used to wait for Madam Wong, who is blind, as she alighted from the bus along Sims Avenue each morning so he could help her across three busy roads to her office, where she worked as a telephone operator. Rain or shine, the daily-rated fitter would guide her, before walking to his own workplace.

In 1990, Mr Tubi, now deceased, was the winner of The Straits Times Courtesy Search. Over 600 readers out of around 1,000 picked himfrom a list of 10. Madam Wong had nominated him.

She says: "Yes, it is true that for a visually impaired person, or a totally blind person like me, it takes guts to cross the road, we are always fearful. Being blind, we cannot walk in a straight line, we veer left or right. We appreciate it when someone gives us their elbow."

The five films will have staggered release dates between now and Feb 1, 2019, on www.15shorts.com. The first film, director Boo Junfeng's Plague, is available now. This is the second batch of films made for the 15 Shorts project. The first batch of five can be viewed on the same site.