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.)
Guilty As Charged: Rolex murder (1998)
Jonaris Badlishah wanted to give his girlfriend a Rolex. He did not have the money, so he killed to get the watch
Jonaris Badlishah came up with the perfect gift for his girlfriend on her 31st birthday — a $7,500, gold and diamond-studded Rolex watch.
When he gave it to the Thai prostitute he was in love with, she remarked that it looked old.
What she did not realise at the time was that earlier in the day, the watch had been on the wrist of 42-year-old make-up artist Sally Poh Bee Eng, a mother of two grown-up children.
In the early hours of April 20, 1998, Jonaris had repeatedly bashed her head with a hammer for the sole purpose of taking the watch.
OFTEN IN DEBT
Known as Joe to his colleagues, 23-year-old Jonaris was a freelance assistant cameraman and prop assistant.
Jonaris’ Singaporean mother Elizabeth Seet divorced his Malaysian father when he was still young. She returned to Singapore when Jonaris was about two years old, and later remarried.
The family lived in a Begonia Drive semi-detached house in the expensive Seletar Hills estate.
But even then, Jonaris was often in debt and needed to borrow money.
He met Madam Poh during a filming project about two days before the killing, and noticed her wearing a Rolex watch.
“It caught my attention,” he said. He thought that it would make “a wonderful present” for his girlfriend Saifon Ngammoo. “I knew that I could not afford to buy such an expensive watch for her. The next thing that came to my mind was to rob Sally Poh of her watch.”
On April 19, he called her, identified himself as “Nigel” — a name that would later haunt him, and told her that her services were needed for a photo-shoot.
He promised her $1,000, more than double her usual fee.
He asked her to be at the Marina South bus stop, opposite the Superbowl Golf and Country Club, at about 6.30am.
She drove her car there the next morning and waited near the bus stop as asked. Jonaris approached her and told her that “Nigel” and the rest of the crew would be arriving shortly.
Madam Poh parked her car and waited at the bus stop with him.
Jonaris took out a hammer, struck the woman on the head and dragged her to the bushes behind the bus stop, more than 10m away.
Madam Poh regained consciousness and tried to stand up.
Jonaris then used the hammer to hit her more than 10 times on the back of her head until she blacked out again.
He cut the victim’s wrists before leaving with her watch.
According to forensic expert Professor Chao Tzee Cheng, the left side of her skull had extensive fractures. The longest crack on her head measured about 13cm long. Even if she had received medical help at the scene, doctors would not have been able to revive her, he said.
Later that day, Jonaris bought a bouquet of red roses, a cake and a bottle of whiskey and brought them to a brothel at Lorong 18 in Geylang. He and his girlfriend celebrated her birthday with a few other girls there.
He gave Miss Ngammoo the watch. She noticed that it was not new. “I asked him about it but he became angry,” she testified during the trial. “I said I was only joking with him and I thanked him.”
TWIST OF FATE
It did not take long for police to find a suspect.
Madam Poh’s husband, Mr Lee Boon Siang, a 47-year-old teacher, had overheard his wife speaking on the telephone the day before the murder. He told police he heard her use a name which sounded like “Lai Joe” – when it should have been Nigel.
In a strange twist of fate, Jonaris had earned himself the nickname of “Liar Joe” among his friends because of his boastful nature. He would tell them he was dating an airlines executive who earned $10,000 a month and lived in a condo, when the truth was that his girlfriend earned her keep by having sex with as many as 20 men a day.
He would claim that a used silver Dupont lighter she gave him cost $2,000, when it was less than $700. He also borrowed money and never returned it when he promised he would.
Even during his trial, Jonaris kept up appearances, wearing a black tailored jacket, gold cufflinks and shiny black shoes.
On April 23, police arrested “Liar Joe” at his home.
His defence was that he was mentally ill at the time he killed Madam Poh. He claimed he was high on cannabis, suffering from depression and obsessed with the Rolex watch.
He also claimed that he was abused as a child by his mother and stepfather and that growing up was “a living hell”.
Jonaris told the court the couple used to force him to kneel for hours and clipped clothes pegs on his ears, fingers, lip and tongue. He would be made to chew raw chilli and stand in front of a mirror for hours. He got so used to being caned that “my mother switched to using a belt”.
Madam Seet had two boys with her ex-husband and two children with Mr Robert Seah.
Jonaris said the couple treated their own children well, but that he and his younger brother were “like outsiders”. He also claimed that his mother told him to say he was her nephew and not her son in public.
Madam Seet admitted on the stand that she used to punish her son severely from when he was about three years old until he was 14 or 15.
She claimed the mother of her second husband did not like her sons from her previous marriage, and “brainwashed” him into telling others that Jonaris and his brother were only Madam Seet’s nephews.
She also claimed that Jonaris had bouts of headaches after he fell into a drain when he was about eight years of age.
Judicial Commissioner Amarjeet Singh asked her: “You consider him fit enough to be punished?”
She replied: “Yes, your honour.”
Jonaris also claimed that around the time of the killing, his mother was constantly pestering him to return the $2,000 he had borrowed.
That made him even more depressed.
Ms Ngammoo, whom he first met in October 1997 when paying for her services, was different.
He fell in love with her because she “understood” him.
He said “Ling”, his pet name for her, and him both shared a troubled past.
The divorcee, who had a three-year-old child in Thailand, had told him about her hard life back home and how she had to resort to prostitution.
Even when she loaned him $7,000 to solve his money problems, she did not pressure him into returning it.
She even gave him money to pay her pimp so he could be with her.
Jonaris claimed he wanted to earn more money so that he could take care of them.
He said Ms Ngammoo told him about a Rolex watch which was given to her by her ex-husband, and which she had to pawn in 1995 to help a friend.
“She missed her watch as it meant a lot to her.”
Since then, Jonaris said, thoughts and images of a Rolex watch kept appearing to him.
That “stupid” watch even appeared in his dream.
He revealed that a few weeks before the killing, he had trailed another woman, intending to take her Rolex. But he did not go through with it as he did not have the courage, he said.
When he saw Madam Poh’s watch, he felt that he had to have it.
“Even if she had a five-carat diamond ring on her finger or $10,000 in her wallet, I would not touch them. I don’t understand why.”
He said he was confused and could not decide whether to rob Madam Poh that day. “I heard a voice telling me that if I did not do it, I would face the same problem the next day.”
It was then that he took out his hammer and swung it at her head. He could not control himself, he said. It was “like watching a movie with ear plugs on” – he could see her mouth moving, as if she were talking, but he heard nothing.
As he walked away from the scene after taking her watch, he said he felt a kind of “happiness and relief” that he had never experienced.
“The colour of the water, the sky, the bird, was so new. I felt so free, like a renaissance, like a new beginning. Everything seemed so clean. It looked like a beautiful day.”
He went home to sleep. When he woke up later that day, he thought he had had a nightmare, he said. “But when I saw the watch in my drawer, I knew that it was not a dream and that it really happened.”
HE WAS NORMAL
The prosecution called Dr Chan Khim Yew, a psychiatrist, to rebut Jonaris’ claim that he heard voices and hallucinated during the killing.
Dr Chan said Jonaris was able to describe how he had hit the woman on the head with a hammer several times before he dragged her to a spot hidden by bushes.
When asked how he had felt before the attack, Jonaris replied: “I feel afraid. What if she drives straight to the police station after I rob her. But I have already come so far.”
While he said his mother punished him severely as a child, Dr Chan said this would not automatically lead to any mental disorder.
Dr Chan said that six months before the killing, Jonaris visited his girlfriend regularly.
“He brought packet food for dinner and enjoyed her company. He spent the night in her room and had intercourse once or twice a week.”
Jonaris, a prop assistant, also told Dr Chan that he had “worked like a dog” in his last filming project.
Dr Chan noted that if someone was suffering from a depressive illness, he would not be able to work, enjoy sex and the company of others.
He also said that although Jonaris was always thinking about a Rolex watch, he was not suffering from any mental disorder. He said that a person who had an obsessive disorder would not think about wanting to own something but would instead harbour “horrific and senseless thoughts”.
Judicial Commissioner Singh then asked him: “If a person who has a compulsion to buy a Rolex watch and is preoccupied with it came to see you, would you consider him to be crazy?”
Dr Chan said “no”.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Jasbendar Kaur told the High Court that the accused had planned the crime carefully and even gave himself a fake name when he called the victim.
In her cross-examination of him, she had suggested that he had intended to kill Madam Poh after robbing her because he did not want the victim, who knew him, to go to the police.
This was why Jonaris had also slashed the woman’s wrists with a paper cutter – so that she would bleed to death.
It was also pointed out after the killing, Jonaris turned up at his workplace at 2.30pm.
Calmly, Jonaris filled up a cash claim form and took his $600 pay.
The staff thought he had acted “his usual self”.
On Dec 8, 1998, after a 19-day trial, the judge found Jonaris guilty and sentenced him to hang.
He said: “In my opinion, like Hamlet, the accused was not ‘mad’ but had a ‘method in his madness’ which showed that the killing of the deceased was pre-meditated and his ‘madness’ counterfeit.”
Delivering his 90-minute judgment to a packed courtroom, he said that Jonaris was normal. He was able to work hard, mingle with friends and fall in love with Miss Ngammoo.
“This was not a symptom at all of a depressed man close to the day or on the day of the offence,” he said.
He noted that Jonaris’ financial problems began soon after he met the prostitute in a Geylang brothel late last year.
As a prop assistant, he sometimes earned about $2,000 in a month but he would spend $4,000 a month when he visited his girlfriend four times a week.
While he lived in the house of his mother and step-father, he had boasted that he was rich and lived in a bungalow with a swimming pool. To keep up appearances, Jonaris was desperate for money and this drove him to commit the robbery, said the judge.
He added that when Madam Poh regained consciousness and tried to crawl away, he hit her till part of her skull broke into pieces. To ensure that she would not live to report him to the police, he slashed her wrists with a paper cutter so that she would also bleed to death.
Such “quick action and thinking process”, the judge said, showed that Jonaris was in control of himself at the time.
As he was led out of the courtroom, Madam Poh’s husband shouted: “You deserve it!”