The Straits Times and the Prof Lee Murder Trial

Posted by Alex Au under Media Watch on 17 January 2001

Sometimes, it takes a while to crystallise your own feelings and thoughts about something which you have found vaguely disturbing. The way in which the Straits Times handled the murder trial following the killing of Associate Professor Lee Kok Cheong was one such case for me.

It aroused considerable debate among gay men here, to which at first I remained mostly an observer. But I found myself gradually forming an opinion and in that process, I clarified my own thoughts about the Straits Times.

The Case Itself:

Professor Lee, 54 at his death, was murdered in December 1993. He had lived alone, and for a while his murderers remained unknown and at large. A mystery telephone tip to the police two years after the murder provided them with their first break, and after a few years of investigation, the story finally came together. Too Yin Sheong, 26 (in 1998), was then arrested and charged with the capital offence of murder.

Too had been invited by the Professor to his house in October 1993, about 3 weeks after they had first met at a coffeeshop. While in the house, Lee made an amorous approach, but Too made an excuse and left. However, Too had noticed the valuable antiques in the home and came to the opinion that the Professor was a rich man.

Two to three weeks later, Too mentioned this episode to two friends, Ng Chek Siong, 27 (in 1998), and someone nicknamed Kim Beh. Kim Beh suggested that it might be worthwhile to rob the Professor, and the way to gain entry was for Too to arrange a meeting on the pretext of introducing Kim Beh to the Professor (with an implied sexual objective, perhaps).

It was set for December 12. Ng Chek Siong waited in the car outside the Professor's house. Too Yin Sheong and Kim Beh went in. While the Professor was distracted, they went into the kitchen, found some knives and a cord, and with these, tied him up, stabbed and strangled him. They then ransacked the house, stealing his bank ATM card. Too later used this card to withdraw cash.

On Friday 28 August 1998, Too Yin Sheong was found guilty and sentenced to death. Ng Chek Siong, the driver, had been convicted of robbery for the same case one week before, and sentenced to 8 years in prison. He was a prosecution witness in Too's murder case. Kim Beh, the third man, is still at large.

The First Screamer:

The murder trial opened on Monday, August 18. The opening report in the papers on Tuesday didn't say anything about the Professor's sexuality, or anything about sex, for that matter. But it did say that Too Yin Sheong met Professor Lee at a coffeeshop, and soon after, went to his house. I remember thinking to myself, what would be on the Professor's mind, inviting a rough-type like Too to his home, if not for sex?

And sure enough, the following day's report confirmed my suspicion. Wednesday's court report bore the headline, "Victim was homosexual' ". I merely chuckled. Tell me something I don't know, I said to myself on reading it.

The full report itself didn't make much of this point. It carefully reported the trial proceedings, in which the prosecutor presented the police statement made by Too after his arrest. Despite the headline, the press article only mentioned homosexuality twice:

NUS' LECTURER'S MURDER CASE; Victim 'was homosexual' A man accused of killing of a National University of Singapore professor claimed that his victim was a homosexual who had tried to get close to him, the High Court heard yesterday.

[... snip ...] While he was there [at his home], he said, the professor, who was not married, showed him around and explained where he bought his Chinese antiques. Later, when they sat down to talk, Too claimed that Prof Lee, who was head of NUS' English Language Proficiency Unit, started to "get close to him".

The accused said in his statement, "He sat very close to me and touched my body and thighs. I felt very uneasy. I then realised that he was gay."

He said that he made an excuse and left the house.

This report was later to be misinterpreted by some of my gay friends who railed against the homosexual panic defence. If you followed the case carefully, you could see that the defence team did not attempt this line of argument. What had been reported was in the prosecution's police statement.

The issue then is, why did the Straits Times blow up the homosexuality angle to headline, making it sound like the accused's defence, when it was not the case?

The Second Screamer:

More was to come. The trial judge announced his verdict on Friday, 28 August. No longer sub-judice, the Straits Times felt free to publish background information it had gathered about the Professor. There were two reports and a controversial photograph on Saturday, 29 August.

On page 3, was a 17x10 cm photograph showing Prof Lee in a T-shirt with a younger man, barechested and barelegged, sitting side by side on a double bed. The younger man's face was blurred out. He had a towel (or maybe it was part of a bedsheet) covering most of him below the waist, suggesting he had nothing on underneath.

The caption said, "The murdered professor Lee Kok Cheong (right), with one of his students, in a picture taken in his house. He led a promiscuous life and had affairs with several undergraduates."

This was the report accompanying the photograph:

Professor's killer gets death Malaysian Too Yin Sheong was yesterday sentenced to death for what the judge called the cold-blooded, ruthless and brutal murder of National University of Singapore Associate Professor Lee Kok Cheong five years ago.

Delivering a two-hour long judgment, Judicial Commissioner Chan Seng Onn found that Too, 26, had "passively" taken part in the killing of Prof Lee, 54, by doing nothing to help the professor while his accomplice was strangling him.

Too, who was the business manager of a karaoke lounge, was found to have killed the university don together with Kim Beh and Ng Chek Siong at the Professor's Greenleaf Place home off Holland Road between December 12 and 14, 1993.

Too, said the judge, had also shown no remorse in robbing the dead man of his POSBank ATM card and using it to withdraw cash and to buy jewelry and clothes.

Prof Lee, who was the head of NUS' English Language Proficiency Unit, was found strangled in his master bedroom, with his hands and legs bound, and a pillow over his head.

Kim Beh, 27, is still at large. Ng, also 27, was originally accused of murder, but has been dealt with by the court for robbery, theft and cheating.

The judge found that Kim Beh had killed Prof Lee to ensure that he and his accomplices could escape after their robbery without being identified. It did not matter if Too did not want the professor killed or did not participate physically in the strangulation, the JC said. Too need not even be present at a scene for criminal culpability to attach to him.

The judge did not believe his testimony that he was so frightened and confused after the stabbing that he did not know what to do.

"When he realised what Kim Beh was going to do after seeing Kim Beh carrying a wire cord in his hands, the accused had the cool frame of mind to decide to leave the room and stand outside to watch, without lifting a finger to prevent the deceased from being strangled to death," said JC Chan.

He added that after the killing, Too had the presence of mind to search and ransack the house systematically and to steal his ATM card. These were clearly not signs of someone who had become confused, shocked, frightened and traumatised.

The judge sentenced him to hang.

The lead article in the same day's Home News section of the Straits Times, was juicier:

Lecturer seduced students, strangers Slain NUS professor, who led a secret homosexual life, 'took one chance too many' with strange men he picked up

Associate Professor Lee Kok Cheong, 54, was the perfect bachelor uncle, generous with his siblings and their children, handing out $200 hongbao whenever he felt like it.

As the head of the National University of Singapore's English Proficiency Unit, he was a caring teacher who helped students brush up their spoken and written English.

But he also led a secret life, seducing several of his male students, as well as strangers he befriended.

His promiscuous ways finally cost him his life five years ago, when three youths he invited to his home in Greenleaf Place, of Holland Road, killed and robbed him.

Found in his house were numerous photographs of young men -- some of his students, other of youths with tattoos across their chests. Many photographs showed them in the nude, while some showed the professor holidaying with them in places like Bintan, Batam, Genting Highlands and Europe.

He was intimate with at least eight undergraduates and at least 10 others he met outside campus.

Three of his former students who were intimate with him spoke to the Straits Times on condition they remain anonymous.

All said they were "willing partners" in affairs that lasted more than a year each, and all were aware that the professor had numerous partners.

One of them, now a civil servant aged 27, recalled their affair: "It started out innocently at first, then we became closer in the second term of my first year."

It was over lunch in the Guild House at the NUS that the older man made a suggestive remark and they went on to have sex.

Another ex-student, a 27-year-old freelance actor said: "He told me that he was seeing other people and that I should too."

The third man, a 28-year-old civil servant, said that Prof Lee invited him to Europe and paid for a two-week holiday there. "When I said that I had no money, he just said, 'Don't worry, I'll take care of you, I'll take care of everything'. He was very generous. The whole trip must have cost him $10,000 for the two of us."

While Prof Lee wore plain short-sleeved shirts, he lavished the young men with gifts of designer wear.

One student received a $300 pair of black Armani jeans and another received an $800 Versace jacket.

Prof Lee also loved food, especially the oyster omelette at a coffeeshop at Block 25, Dover Crescent, where he often paid for extra oyster in his order.

That was where he befriended the other young men in his life, from durian sellers to karaoke lounge waiters and jobless youths.

That was also where he met Too Yin Sheong, 26, one day. He gave Too his telephone number and urged Too to visit him at his house.

Too did. And on the second visit, he and another man, known as "Kim Beh" stabbed and strangled Prof Lee to death and stole more than $7,300.

An ex-colleague said he was concerned about Prof Lee's lifestyle.

"I was worried that the students would snitch on him, and also about all these strangers he was making friends with. I always told him, 'Lee, you're too trusting. You should not think that everyone is a friend'."

Asked what he felt when he learnt about Prof Lee's death, he said: "I was numb. He just took too many chances. One too many."

The Complaints:

Many gay men were annoyed by the way they felt the Straits Times handled the matter. Their complaints were mainly along three lines: sensationalism, invasion of privacy and the inversion of criminal and victim.

They felt the Straits Times sensationalised the homosexual angle. They pointed out that the headline "Victim was homosexual' " in the August 19 report had little to do with the general thrust of the article; the use of the photograph on August 29 had even less to do with the report under it about the judge's verdict; and the third piece going on about his promiscuous lifestyle was totally uncalled for, being irrelevant to the murder. They felt that this new example of the blatant sensationalisation of a homosexual angle whenever it appears in connection with a crime demonstrates the homophobia in the Straits Times. Such an editorial policy perpetuates the discrimination against fellow citizens of Singapore who happen to be gay.

They also accused the Straits Times of invasion of privacy. This was particularly in relation to the use of the photograph, which a showed a moment all too candid but unrelated to the crime. It exposed the student in the photo to identification from his torso, even as his face was blurred. The Chinese evening paper apparently used the same photograph without even blurring out his face! Besides the picture, the background piece was also, they felt, completely insensitive to the undergraduate and Professor Lee's family.

Enquiries were made as to the source of the photograph. It was reported that the newspaper obtained it from the police. If so, why the police should retain that photograph, unrelated as it was to the murder, is a very good question. It points to a rather cavalier attitude by the police to the personal rights of the victim and his family. But, as a friend of mine pointed out, even if the police did give the picture to the press, it did not make it right or excusable for the press to print it. That they did, demonstrates the insensitivity of the press to Professor Lee's family and to the undergraduate in it. As if gay people deserve less respect.

The sensationalisation of the homosexual angle, even when it was not a thread in the trial defence, and the invasive nature of the photograph and background article, amounted to a fresh injustice, where the roles of perpetrator and victim were reversed. The implication from the spotlight on Professor Lee was that the victim, through his promiscuity (read HOMOSEXUAL promiscuity), caused his own death. It is like saying that women who were raped brought it upon themselves by wearing short skirts. It is outrageous to make such a linkage. Anyone saying that today would be vilified for male-chauvinist sexism. But once again, it reflects the unthinking homophobia in the Straits Times, that either this parallel effect of their editorial policy did not occur to them, or worse, that it did and they still thought it right and proper to do so.

Even without going so far, the intense scrutiny of murder victim's private life, when there was neither picture nor write-up of the murderer's private life, was unbalanced enough to amount to inversion.

Professor Lee will suffer no more. But generations of gay men will have to live with the smearing by the Straits Times.

The Rebuttals:

Other gay men felt that the above complaints came out of reading too much from what was printed. They pointed out that the writing style stayed matter-of-fact, and that no derogatory phrases were used to describe homosexuality or gay persons.

That the Straits Times used the promiscuity or homosexual angle to gain reader interest was undeniable. But while it did feature the victim a lot more than the murderer, the same was also true of the murder trial for the killers of the Bulgarian woman, just a month earlier. To accuse the Straits Times of being unusually sensational or biased in their handling of the Professor Lee murder trial is just not well-founded.

Furthermore, it is a fact that bringing strangers home carries risks. It would do well for people, gay or straight, to remember that.

So What Do I Think?

I do not think that this was a case of sensationalism. Whatever use the Straits Times made of the homosexual angle was mild in comparison to what tabloids would have done with it.

I do not think that this was a serious case of invasion of privacy. There was some invasion, but it is mitigated by two factors: public interest and the fact the information appeared to be properly obtained. The public interest came through the need to understand how and why Too Yin Sheong and Kim Beh gained such easy access to Professor Lee's home. The background in terms of the Professor's character and habits was pertinent. The information about his other liaisons with undergraduates was, from all indications, volunteered by the participants themselves. They weren't tittle-tattling on others, except maybe the dead Professor.

I did, however, have a three bones to pick with the 3rd article -- the one giving the background on the Professor's life.

Firstly, my reading of it was that the reporter wanted to make the point that promiscuity had, in this case, a tragic downside; that promiscuity is bad. I found this tone rather moralistic and the logic confused. The disagreeable tone was further reinforced by comments like "one chance too many" flourished with gratuitous statements such as "Found in his house were numerous photographs of young men ... Many photographs showed them in the nude...", statements that play to the moralistic crowd. The logic was also impeachable. The error committed by the Professor that led to his death was not one of morals but one of carelessness in bringing strangers home, especially rough-types. "Don't bring strangers home!" would be sound practical advice that is value-neutral, and much less off-putting.

Secondly, since the case involved homosexual promiscuity, and having established that promiscuity = bad, it should be expected that the average reader would read from it that homosexuality = promiscuity = bad. Therefore homosexuality = bad. If this was not the intended message, then any writer anticipating such a misinterpretation, would say something to forestall it in the article itself. "Don't bring strangers home" would be good advice to men or women, straight or gay. But instead, silence. The equation, homosexuality = bad, in the average reader's mind was left to stand. The failure by the writer to rebalance the article lent it an anti-gay bias through omission.

Thirdly, the article had the knee-jerk assumption that the Professor seduced his young men. The word was used in the headline and in the third paragraph. What exactly is implied by "seduction"? That the Professor preyed on innocent young men. This is homophobic, because it follows the grain of prejudice: the false belief that people become homosexual when they are seduced by dirty old men. This is simply not true. The interviewees themselves said they were willing partners. They stayed in relationships of a year. And from the way they recounted their stories, it didn't sound as if they felt used. But except for these smallish errors, I was nowhere as incensed by Straits Times' reporting as were some of my friends who were screaming bloody murder.

Yet, I don't absolve the Straits Times. You see, it all depends on the level you approach the issue from. At a superficial level, specific to this case, its choice of headlines, its focus, writing style and content, there isn't much to fault it with. But it would be too ingenious to just leave it at that. Even in this case, it reinforces my view that the Straits Times is not even-handed. There is the bias of selection and of what it preaches. There is also timidity.

The bias of selection -- If you compare the Straits Times with other newspapers around the world, you will notice how absent positive gay stories are from its pages. It's very rare for the Straits Times to mention homosexuality unless it is in connection with crime, AIDS or prostitution. The positive gay face and serious arguments from issues around the world such as the same-sex marriage debates, equal-rights legislation and gay pride parades are never mentioned. But they don't concern Singapore. Well, neither do labour disputes, racial equality campaigns, or immigration lawsuits in other countries, yet they are considered important enough for news reports and analyses to be carried.

Even in this part of the world, I have seen columns in the South China Morning Post and the Bangkok Post dealing with anti-gay discrimination, housing options for gay people and societal attitudes within their local context -- and I am only an occasional reader of these papers! How many more articles do they carry when I'm not there to read them?

But in Singapore, homosexuality is trundled out only in connection with the bad.

It does not take a genius to know that such selectivity has effects. It sustains the ignorance, reinforces the stigma, and thereby encourages marginalisation and discrimination. It certainly does nothing to promote clear thinking about prejudices in this country.

The bias of what it preaches -- In contrast to the silence on homosexuality, the Straits Times is sometimes very preachy with the prescribed morality, sometimes called Asian values. It runs feel-good stories about happy (heterosexual) families and dishes out unsolicited advice for people still single in their thirties. When a newspaper never says anything good about one group, but praises another group to the moon, don't tell me there is no bias against the first group.

The Straits Times could say, in its defence, that its newsmakers are preachy, so the stories it carries have the same flavour. This may be true of the main news sections, but cannot apply to the Life! section where the editors have a lot more discretion. There, they go on about male pop stars' girlfriends, or about making marriages work -- constantly reinforcing the heterosexist dogma. Even at my most generous, I can say that the Straits Times does nothing to provide the alternative point of view.

It may also be argued, so what if we're preachy? All newspapers promote a point of view; the Straits Times is no different. That would be fine if the holding company, Singapore Press Holdings, did not have a press monopoly in Singapore. There would then be other newspapers around to carry the rebuttals, and poke holes at the Straits Times' piety. The SPH cannot both have a monopoly, and claim a right to carry only its point of view.

There is also the question of timidity. The Straits Times does not have the courage to enquire into areas which could be imagined to be against the wishes of the political masters.

For example, in this case, a good question would be why the Professor led a life the way he did, picking up contacts for casual sex. And why did the reporter's contacts speak only on condition of anonymity? This opens the door into the whole issue of why homosexual persons have to live in the shadows. Along the way, the press could examine itself and ask what role they have played to create such a situation.

In conclusion, my view is that while at a superficial level, the Straits Times' handling of this specific case was not too objectionable, there still remains the track record of bias in selection, in what it preaches and in its timidity to explore issues outside the prescribed order. All in all, the Straits Times lacks a social conscience, and that is a serious indictment when it aspires to be a responsible newspaper.

Drawing a corollary from the judge's comments in delivering his verdict on Too Yin Sheong, it is not excuse enough not to be, directly, the agent of oppression against gay and lesbian citizens. If thinking people -- and I know that the writers and editors in the Straits Times are -- are aware it is happening, but instead stand by, keep silent and watch, culpability attaches to them too.

Show some love,

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