'Sister, how could you love me after what I have done?'

Sister Gerard Fernandez became a Changi Prison death row counsellor after one of her former students, Catherine Tan Mui Choo, was sentenced to hang with her husband Adrian Lim and his mistress Hoe Kah Hong for the killing of two children in the sensational "ritual murders" case of 1981. The Catholic nun, 78, spoke to Alan John for the 2016 reprint of his book Unholy Trinity.

Sister Gerard Fernandez, who counselled Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong on death row, believes Satan exists in the world and is able to get a hold on individuals who are not careful.
The scene outside the High Court as Adrian Lim, Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong were being driven away after their convictions for murder in 1983.ST FILE PHOTO
The scene outside the High Court as Adrian Lim, Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong were being driven away after their convictions for murder in 1983.
Sister Gerard Fernandez, who counselled Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong on death row, believes Satan exists in the world and is able to get a hold on individuals who are not careful.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

When two children were murdered within a fortnight in Toa Payoh in early 1981, all of Singapore was shocked. But the tragedy hit home especially among the Good Shepherd sisters, a community of Roman Catholic nuns who run schools, a vocational centre for girls and a shelter for women.

They knew the first victim, nine-year-old Agnes Ng Siew Heok, whose family were devout Catholics. And when the police arrested three people for killing Agnes and Ghazali Marzuki, 10, the sisters were distressed to learn that one of the suspects was Tan Mui Choo, who had attended their Marymount Vocational Centre and whom they knew as Catherine.

Said Sister Gerard Fernandez: "I knew Catherine, she was one of our girls. She came from a Catholic family, her parents were very religious, and we knew them too." She was aware that the 26-year-old had fallen into bad company after leaving the vocational centre.

As the sensational case unfolded before the courts, she heard the terrible details, including how Catherine's younger sister and brother had also been tricked by her husband, self-styled spirit medium Adrian Lim, 39.

When Adrian, Catherine and Adrian's 25-year-old mistress Hoe Kah Hong were sentenced to hang on May 23 1983, Sister Gerard felt she had to act quickly: "I thought they were all going to hang the very next day!"

Some years earlier, in 1977, she had joined Redemptorist priests Father Brian Doro and Father Patrick John O'Neill in starting the Roman Catholic Prison Ministry to visit detained drug offenders and prisoners. She had never counselled anyone sentenced to hang, but now asked the director of prisons, Mr Quek Shi Lei, for permission to meet Catherine on death row.

"He gave me permission, but only if she was willing to meet me," Sister Gerard recalled. "So I wrote her a letter right away and I included a beautiful picture of Jesus. I think it touched her."

  • Violence behind closed doors

  • Domestic violence is a theme that runs through the case of killer Adrian Lim. Behind closed doors, he was most cruel to the people closest to him. His wife Catherine Tan Mui Choo and mistress Hoe Kah Hong were beaten repeatedly and tortured. He exercised such control over them that he made his wife become a prostitute and nightclub stripper and tricked her younger siblings as well; he got his mistress to bring him the child victims who were murdered.

    Too often, the perpetrators of domestic violence go unchecked because family members, neighbours and even some in positions of authority believe that when a man beats his wife or girlfriend, it is a private matter.

    I have been associated for some years now with Pave, Singapore's lead agency working with domestic violence and trying to change attitudes by spreading the message that violence has no place in any relationship, before or after marriage. Pave helps women and children who are victims or witnesses to domestic violence, and counsels men who are perpetrators of that violence. All the author's royalties from the 2016 edition of Unholy Trinity will go to Pave.

    To learn more about the agency and the work it does, please visit www.pave.org.sg

    Alan John

Her letter went unanswered for six months. Then, out of the blue, a reply arrived. Sister Gerard said: "Her first words to me were, 'Sister, how could you love me after what I have done?' And she signed her letter, 'Your black sheep, Catherine.' I immediately went and got permission to see her."

She had been mistaken in thinking the trio's hangings were imminent. All three remained on death row for almost seven years until the women exhausted all avenues of appeal. The three were executed on the same morning, on Nov 25, 1988.

Sister Gerard would go to Catherine's cell each week and stay half an hour. She was not allowed to enter the cell, so the two women would hold hands and chat, or pray and sing hymns together.

One day, Catherine asked to make her confession, which is when Catholics tell a priest their sins, express sorrow and ask for forgiveness. "After that, her life changed. Catherine spent hours in prayer, and looked forward to the times when Father Doro would come and say the Mass in front of her cell with me, and she received the Eucharist," said Sister Gerard, referring to the blessed wafer distributed to the faithful at Catholic services.

Catherine had been estranged from her parents, and was closer to her late grandmother. Sister Gerard recalled that it took some time to persuade Catherine's father to visit her in prison. "I spoke to him and said look, she's done wrong, but she is still your daughter."

He eventually came round. "He went to see her, and there was a moment of forgiveness," Sister Gerard said. Not long after, Catherine's father had a stroke and he died before she was hanged. Her mother visited her in prison, too.

Sister Gerard said she saw a real change in Catherine over the years. Initially sad, upset and full of guilt, she gradually returned to her Catholic faith. "Once she was able to see that she had done wrong and admit it, and know that God forgave her, she was able to let go," she said. "She drew strength from God coming back into her life. Catherine was a lovely person, always happy and nice to all the prison wardens."

Like all death row prisoners, Catherine was in solitary confinement, and Kah Hong occupied the cell next to hers. At first Sister Gerard visited Catherine only, though they were aware that Kah Hong would listen intently to everything they said.

"Later, Kah Hong asked to see me too, and I started visiting her as well." Kah Hong eventually asked to be baptised a Catholic and she took the name Geraldine.

Sister Gerard said the two women spoke to her about the time they were with Adrian.

"They made a mistake," she said simply. "They were frightened of him. He used the electric shocks on them and they could not get away and they did not know what they were doing. But they were aware that they had done wrong. He was also a medium and he used that to fool them into doing a lot of things."

Sister Gerard believes Satan exists in the world and is able to get a hold on individuals who are not careful. Adrian, who had been raised Catholic, had a choice. "We have a power within us and we can use it for evil or for good. He just chose to do evil," she said.

Asked if the two women forgave Adrian for all he had done and how he had led them to death row, Sister Gerard said: "It took some time, but they did."

In fact, she had raised the subject herself, asking how they would feel when all three were led to the gallows, and Adrian would be there alongside. "I asked them, would you be able to forgive him? They said yes. And then they began to pray for his conversion. About a week before the executions, Catherine, Kah Hong, Father Doro and I were singing Amazing Grace and praying at their cells, and they were saying to God, 'This is the last week of his life, do not let Adrian go without him asking for forgiveness'."

Sister Gerard said the men and women's blocks were close enough for the male prisoners to have heard them singing that day, and Adrian must have known he was listening to Catherine and Kah Hong's voices.

During all the years behind bars, Adrian had refused to see a counsellor. Father Doro was a familiar presence among the male prisoners, and had accompanied many a condemned man and woman to the gallows, to the very end. "The prisoners loved him," Sister Gerard said of the late Australian priest, who died in Australia last year.

But it was not until that final week before the executions that Adrian asked to see the priest.

Sister Gerard recalled: "Father went right away and when they met, he smacked Adrian on the shoulder with his Bible and said, 'What took you so long?' " Adrian asked for confession and communion.

Sister Gerard said of Adrian's eleventh-hour decision to see the priest: "God works marvels. Adrian chose to repent, and God is forgiving."

But why pray for a killer like Adrian, why hope that he would seek forgiveness for all the evil that he did and the pain he caused so many, especially the families of the innocent child victims?

"If you ask me that," Sister Gerard said, "then you should ask me why I visit prisoners at all. We may condemn them, but God condemns no one."

  • This edited excerpt is from the 2016 edition of Unholy Trinity by Alan John. Published by Marshall Cavendish, the book is on sale at major bookstores for $21 before GST. The author's royalties will go to Pave,a specialist agency dealing with domestic violence.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline ''Sister, how could you love me after what I have done?''. Subscribe