Afro Asia Building fire: Man who hit woman and set fire to office cleared of murder, guilty of culpable homicide

Govindasamy Nallaiah (in red) being escorted by policemen to the Afro Asia Building on Aug 17, 2011.
Govindasamy Nallaiah (in red) being escorted by policemen to the Afro Asia Building on Aug 17, 2011. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - A 71-year-old man who hit the wife of his lawyer on the head with a bicycle chain and padlock, then set fire to his office with her trapped inside, was cleared of murder on Tuesday (Feb 16).

Instead, Govindasamy Nallaiah was found guilty by the High Court of a lesser charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder .

The prosecution and defence were given two weeks to prepare sentencing arguments. Govindasamy now faces a maximum of 10 years' jail and a fine. He cannot be caned as he is more than 50 years old.

He originally faced life imprisonment or death for committing an act which was "so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death". This is a rarely invoked provision, which is unique because it is the only form of murder which does not require the prosecution to prove an intention to cause death or injury.

Delivering her decision on Tuesday, Judicial Commissioner Hoo Sheau Peng found that the prosecuction had failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Govindasmy's act of setting fire to the office was so imminently dangerous that it must in all probability cause death.

First, she noted that Madam Low Foong Meng was not injured so badly that she would not have regained consciousness or that she was completely immobile. She suffered three non-fatal wounds, as well as five shallow skull fractures from Govindasamy's assault.

Second, she noted that Govindasamy did not use any accelerant and did not set out to "torch everything in sight" but had set fire only to a secretary's table.

Third, the JC noted that escape was not impossible. The door of the office was unlocked when the fire was lit, there were no obstacles to obstruct Madam Low from escaping and Govindasmy did not restrain Madam Low after hitting her.

The court had heard during the trial last year that Govindasamy owed more than $38,000 in legal fees to Madam Low's husband, Mr Rengarajoo Rengasamy Balasamy, for representing him in a 2002 corruption trial.

In July 2011, the lawyer issued a writ of seizure and sale against Govindasamy's son and daughter. Govindasamy tried to settle the dispute with Mr Rengarajoo, who gave him a deadline of Aug 10 that year to make the repayment.

On the morning of the deadline, Govindasamy went to the lawyer's office on the sixth floor of the Afro Asia Building in Robinson Road.

Govindasamy negotiated the fee dispute with Madam Low. He then took out a bicycle chain and padlock from his rucksack and hit her on the head several times until she collapsed. He then used a lighter to set some files on a table in the office on fire before fleeing, leaving Madam Low inside.

On Tuesday, Govindasamy's lawyer R. Thrumurgan said his client was sorry for what had happened and was grateful to the court for listening to his side of the story.