Is it suicide or is it murder?

Police and A*Star deny allegations raised in foreign news report by parents of research scientist

A sensational news report about the death of an American research scientist in Singapore that cast aspersions on two Singapore public institutions prompted responses from both agencies yesterday.

In the Financial Times article, the scientist's parents alleged that the police here had not done its job properly in investigating their son's death.

But the police say they investigate all unnatural death cases thoroughly and their procedures are of high international standards.

More damning were allegations that Singapore's national research agency had plans to strike a deal with a Chinese company suspected of espionage.

But Dr Raj Thampuran, managing director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), told The Sunday Times that the agency does not conduct any military-related research.

He added that while the institute had been in talks with Huawei Technologies, the project did not progress beyond talks.

On Friday, the Financial Times (FT) published a report casting doubt on the death of Dr Shane Todd, an American who was found hanged in an apparent suicide in his home near Chinatown last June.

His parents said they believed their son had been murdered over his work at the Institute of Microelectronics (IME), which is part of A*Star.

IME carries out research on microelectronics to help develop the industry in Singapore. Some areas of focus include miniaturised medical devices, sensors and circuits.

Dr Todd, who was trained as an engineer, worked for the institute between December 2010 and May last year and, according to the FT, led a team specialising in a next-generation semiconductor material called gallium nitride (GaN).

The material can withstand extreme heat and power levels well beyond the more traditionally used silicon.

An external hard drive discovered by Dr Todd's parents in his home after his death contained apparent plans between the institute and Huawei, a Chinese telecoms giant, to develop a device known as a GaN amplifier, which has many commercial uses, the FT said.

But the GaN amplifier could also be used in electronic warfare to jam signals and weapons, and to create high-powered radar systems to boost military capabilities, said experts consulted by FT.

The involvement of Huawei would be problematic because the firm has been deemed a security risk by governments, the FT said.

Last year, a United States government intelligence committee said, after an 11-month investigation, that it suspected communications equipment made by Huawei could be used for spying.

The committee's report cited analysts' concerns that Huawei has links to and is influenced by the Chinese government, despite it claiming to be a private company. Huawei has denied these suspicions, although it admitted in a US government report that an internal Communist Party committee does exist within the company, as required by law.

The committee also found that Huawei "did not fully cooperate with the investigation and was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party".

Australia has banned Huawei from bidding for projects for its high-speed broadband network, citing security concerns.

Britain has also just finished a review of "the whole presence of Huawei" in its national infrastructure and is expected to publish a report soon.

According to FT, Dr Todd's parents said that their son had seemed increasingly stressed in the months before his death.

"I am being asked to do things with a Chinese company that make me uncomfortable," Mrs Todd recalled her son saying. "He said he felt he was being asked to compromise American security," she added.

The institute's executive director, Professor Kwong Dim-Lee, confirmed that Dr Todd resigned last May and planned to return to the United States.

But when asked about the nature of Dr Todd's work at the institute, Prof Kwong declined to provide details, citing the ongoing police investigation of the death.

In an e-mail statement to The Sunday Times, he would say only that "Shane performed well... and was thought of highly by his supervisor and peers. He left the institute on cordial terms."

According to his professional LinkedIn profile, Dr Todd was a project leader in the institute's gallium nitride-on-silicon power electronics programme.

The programme aims to combine gallium nitride and silicon for use in power and radio frequency applications, according to the institute's website.

"The outcomes from these projects will contribute to specific industrial applications," it said.

The FT report said that besides wanting to know the nature of their son's work at the institute, the Todds also cast a damning light on the Singapore police's investigation of his death.

They told FT that they had seen no signs of an investigation, such as crime scene tape or smudges from fingerprint searches, at their son's apartment.

The report said that they even disputed basic facts. They said they were told by the police that Dr Todd had drilled holes into his bathroom wall, bolted in a pulley, then slipped a black strap through the pulley and wrapped it around the toilet several times. He killed himself by tethering the strap to his neck and jumping from a chair.

But when they visited the apartment soon after his death, the bathroom walls had no holes in them, there were no bolts or screws and the toilet was not even where the police had said it was, they claimed.

When The Sunday Times visited the area yesterday, a woman who claimed to be the owner of the shophouse where Dr Todd lived said he mostly kept to himself and did not interact with his neighbours.

"We do not know what happened. As far as I am concerned, this matter is over because the police told us investigations have closed," said the woman who declined to be named. She said the unit occupied by Dr Todd had been rented out to someone else.

Two neighbours living across from Dr Todd's apartment added that the police had not interviewed them about his death.

When asked, the police said their procedures for investigating cases, particularly those involving deaths, are of high international standards.

A spokesman added: "All crime scene locations which have the potential for recovery of evidence are handled with care and are protected from interference of any kind so as to preserve any trace evidence.

"The conditions and items found at the crime scene are carefully recorded in great detail, as well as conserved and removed for subsequent laboratory analysis."

The family can also question witnesses and the relevant reports during the coroner's inquiry, he said. The inquiry will take place next month, said the FT.

Mr Eric Watnik, public affairs counsellor at the US Embassy in Singapore, told The Sunday Times that a consular officer accompanied the Todds to all of their meetings with the Singapore authorities.

He added: "The Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to follow the case closely, but it does not have jurisdiction outside the United States and must be invited by a foreign government before doing any investigations overseas.

"The United States has offered FBI assistance to the Government of Singapore on the Shane Todd case and has engaged in frequent discussion with the Government of Singapore regarding Shane's death."

Additional reporting by Tham Yuen-C