Afro Asia Building murder trial

Lawyer heard his wife scream in burning office

On the witness stand, he fights back tears and describes how he got out and called police

Mr Rengarajoo Rengasamy Balasamy (above) had represented Govindasamy Nallaiah during his graft trial in 2003. Now, Govindasamy is accused of murdering Mr Rengarajoo's wife in anger over a legal fee dispute.
Mr Rengarajoo Rengasamy Balasamy (above) had represented Govindasamy Nallaiah during his graft trial in 2003. Now, Govindasamy is accused of murdering Mr Rengarajoo's wife in anger over a legal fee dispute.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Lawyer Rengarajoo Rengasamy Balasamy opened the door of his smoke-filled sixth-floor office and shouted his wife's name twice. At about the same time, he heard her scream.

Struggling to breathe and hearing shouts for him to get out from a crowd outside the unit at the Afro Asia Building in Robinson Road, he left and called the police.

Later on Aug 10, 2011, the charred body of his wife, Madam Low Foong Meng, 56, was found by firemen.

His former client, Govindasamy Nallaiah, 70, is on trial in the High Court for her murder.

Taking the witness stand yesterday, on the fourth day of the trial, Mr Rengarajoo fought back tears while taking his oath.

The prosecution alleges that Govindasamy, angered over a legal fee dispute lasting almost a decade, hit Madam Low on the head with a bicycle chain and padlock until she was unconscious. He then purportedly set alight some files in the office and left her in the burning unit.

Mr Rengarajoo said he first got to know Govindasamy, a former Customs officer, about 50 years ago.

In 2003, Govindasamy asked the lawyer to represent him in a corruption trial and they agreed on a $25,000 fee. Govindasamy was later jailed for the graft offence.

After his release, Mr Rengarajoo sent letters to Govindasamy's two children, who stood as guarantors, demanding payment of the outstanding fees. When there was no response, he served a Writ of Summons on them, and followed up with a default judgment of $25,000 plus additional costs.

But he was unable to recover the debt as Govindasamy and his children had moved. By 2005, the lawyer learnt that Govindasamy was bankrupt but around five years later, he found his children's addresses.

A letter sent to daughter Letchmi Ghandi went unanswered and in 2011, he issued a Writ of Seizure and Sale on son Ramanathan.

On July 26 that year, Mr Ramanathan offered to pay $1,000, Mr Rengarajoo said. But he rejected the offer, asking for at least half the debt first.

The next week, Govindasamy offered him $3,000, but Mr Rengarajoo asked for at least $10,000, with the rest in instalments. He agreed to have Govindasamy return nine days later, on Aug 10.

The lawyer then found out that Govindasamy was an undischarged bankrupt. He called Mr Ramanathan, saying that if payment was not received by Aug 10, he would seize and sell his property.

Two days before the deadline, Govindasamy again went to Mr Rengarajoo's office, but Mr Rengarajoo insisted that he leave.

Govindasamy, who was carrying two bags with him, "appeared hesitant to leave and was also deep in thought", said Mr Rengarajoo.

During his cross-examination yesterday, Mr Rengarajoo appeared agitated at times.

At one point, defence lawyer, Mr R. Thrumurgan, told Mr Rengarajoo: "I don't want to be difficult."

Mr Rengarajoo replied: "You are being difficult."

He did not look at Govindasamy, even though the latter was barely 2m away from him. Govindasamy, meanwhile, repeatedly buried his head in his hands as Mr Rengarajoo testified.

Earlier yesterday, the court also heard that in his earlier statement to the police, Govindasamy said he had used a steering wheel lock to hit Madam Low on the head after she said his son and daughter will be made bankrupt if his debt was not cleared the next day.

Govindasamy said he then saw his file on a table in the office and used a lighter to set it on fire.

The trial continues on Tuesday. Govindasamy is expected to testify in two weeks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Lawyer heard his wife scream in burning office Afro Asia Building murder trial'. Subscribe