S’pore court interpreter: I’ll never forget the first time I told an accused he was sentenced to death
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
Beyond a reasonable doubt, published in 2019 by Marshall Cavendish, is an account of N. Sivanandan, one of the longest-serving interpreters in Singapore’s judiciary. He worked as an interpreter for over 50 years.
In the book, which you can buy a copy of here, Sivanandan shares different experiences interpreting for various cases — including murder, rape and robbery — in the High Court as well as Subordinate Courts (now State Courts).
We reproduce one chapter of his book, where he shares what it was like in a murder case set for trial in the 1970s.
We reproduce the chapter, “My first murder trial”, here.
By N. Sivanandan
In the early years of my service as an interpreter, I was sent to the High Court on a three-month study tour.
One of the reasons for this unexpected arrangement was that my seniors found that I had a keen interest in observing and interpreting in criminal trials in the High Court.
I had occasionally gone to the High Court to cover duty and, whenever I was free, I would spend a good deal of time reading notes of evidence on criminal cases. I was particularly interested in submissions made by prosecuting officers and defence counsel.
I was fortunate that during the three-month stint at the High Court, I was asked to assist in a murder case set for trial.
By that time, I had sat through a few Preliminary Inquiries in the lower courts and I was familiar with court procedures for a capital case. I was very happy to be assigned the trial.
“The accused pleads not guilty”
I still vividly remember this case. The accused was Tamil- speaking and there were a few Tamil-speaking witnesses as well.
It was the first criminal matter, a murder case that would be heard by two judges of the High Court. By an amendment of the law, trial by judges and jury was abolished and replaced by hearing by two judges. It came into effect in January 1970.
The concept of two judges hearing a case was new and the High Court was handling the concept for the first time. A trial in that fashion was undoubtedly new to me – more so as I was to interpret in a murder trial for the first time ever.
In court I learnt for the first time that, in the High Court, the charge is read out by the judge’s secretary and interpreted to the accused by the interpreter. The plea is then obtained by the interpreter and duly reverted to the judges.
For the first time, I uttered, “The accused pleads not guilty”, in the High Court building.
The accused was one Mohamed Kunjo. The prosecution had led evidence that he had caused the death of the victim.
As in all capital cases, a Preliminary Inquiry had been held in the district Court and the case was sent to the High Court for a full hearing. On the evidence presented, a magistrate had committed the accused Mohamed Kunjo for trial in the High Court.
Sitting next to the accused was unsettling
On the day of the hearing, I arrived in court early to read up and familiarise myself with the facts of the case. I listened attentively to the DPP’s opening address and faithfully interpreted to the accused, Mohamed Kunjo, in the dock.
He was a dark- complexioned man, soft-spoken and very serious. He looked around the courtroom as if searching for someone. as I was to interpret the entire prosecution case to him, I sat outside the dock next to him.
“Are you well?” he whispered. I looked straight into his eyes and forced a smile to confirm that I was well.
But I suddenly felt unwell seated next to a ‘killer’.
I couldn’t bring myself to accept that the man seated with me had caused the death of his bosom friend. The accused kept looking at me as if wanting to strike a conversation with me.
“No private conversations,” I told myself.
“Will you speak for me? I only speak Tamil,” Mohamed Kunjo slowly started. “I am assigned to interpret for you,” I replied abruptly, my voice barely audible.
Accused and victim were friends for almost 30 years
The DPP said in his opening remarks that the accused and the victim were friends and had remained so for almost 30 years at the time of the killing.
The victim had a family in Singapore whereas the accused was a loner here; his family was in India. The victim and his family had accepted the accused as a family member.
The evidence unfolded at the trial revealed that the victim’s daughter had looked up to the accused as a father figure and had always addressed him “father”, with great affection.
Both men worked in the same company and the accused would spend his off days with the victim and his family.
On that fateful day, 25 May 1976, which was a Sunday and a rest day for both men, the two had sat down in the open area of the victim’s house to spend the day relaxing. They talked and consumed liquor from as early as ten in the morning. They continued drinking after lunch.
By late afternoon, they had consumed quite a bit. Intoxicated, their conversation for the most part was slurred, neither understanding the other.
The fight between the men
A quarrel broke out and they hurled vulgarities at each other.
They started to hit each other and were soon wrestling on the ground. suddenly the accused went to a store nearby and picked up the exhaust pipe of a motor vehicle.
He then struck the victim on the head with the pipe.
The men, both drunk, were staggering about by then. The victim tried to block the blow but almost at once fell to the ground. He lay in a pool of blood and died subsequently.
Medical evidence, the DPP said, showed that the victim most probably died of a fractured skull resulting from blows behind the ears.
I had to serve as the voice for the accused
When the court called the accused to give his evidence, he chose not to give evidence on oath but made an unsworn statement from the dock.
In his short statement made under caution, he said the fight between him and the victim started when he told the victim not to drink when driving lorries.
Angered by what the accused said, the victim punched his eye.
The accused said the victim also struck his left hand with a piece of wood. The accused said he hit the victim back but could not remember with what.
He said he had no intention to kill the victim and did not know that the victim would die.
Mohamed Kunjo’s unsworn statement was short. He was repetitive about what had transpired on the day of the killing. He looked at me as he narrated, appearing to seek my sympathy.
When he explained how he had struck the victim, he paused and looked towards his counsel. each time Mohamed slowed down or paused, I became more cautious as I interpreted his statement.
The trial judges, both non-conversant in the Tamil language, focused their attention on me.
After all I was serving as Mohamed Kunjo’s voice.
A doctor who conducted the autopsy gave evidence and was subjected to a prolonged cross-examination by defence counsel, in the course of which he conceded that there was a number of possibilities as to the cause of death, including that of a fall.
He concluded that the fractures on the left forehead occurred after death because they were not associated with any haemorrhage, and gave his opinion that the victim most probably died of a fractured skull resulting from two blows with a blunt instrument behind the ears.
This trial remained special in my mind
It dawned on me during the trial that I was going to have many such experiences later in my career. Although I had in my working life interpreted in many long criminal trials, this trial always remained special in my mind!
Was it because this was the first of many experiences?
The case proceeded for 20 days. Several witnesses, including the victim’s wife and daughter, testified.
In his defence, the accused narrated the sequence of events that led to the victim’s death. His tearful account revealed how much he loved the victim and his family, how grateful he was to the only family that had cared for him throughout his many years of stay in Singapore.
He maintained that he had never intended to cause any harm to the victim and that he was too drunk to realise what he was then doing.
I had to interpret the death sentence — the first of many
The trial judges rejected Mohamed Kunjo’s evidence of a sudden fight. They convicted him of murder and pronounced the death sentence!
It was a first for me, interpreting the death sentence. Having sat through the trial for twenty days and it being my first trial in the High Court, I was emotionally moved when I interpreted the death sentence.
I couldn’t believe that I stood there and told an accused that he had been given the death penalty.
The accused showed no emotion; I had sympathised with him and hoped that he would not be given the death penalty but the law had to take its course.
I was troubled for many days. each time I shared the experience with a close friend or colleague I asked myself whether I should stay on the job.
Soon, experience and the courtroom environment got the better of me. I stayed on to do many more capital cases. I not only interpreted the death sentence.
In a silent courtroom for many more years of my working life, I also visited convicted prisoners in Changi Prison and spent hours with them reading and interpreting the contents of their petitions, pleading for clemency.
Appealing against the judges’ decision
The case went before the Court of Criminal appeal.
Mohamed Kunjo appealed against the decision of the two trial judges. It was canvassed on behalf of Mohamed Kunjo that he had not at the time of the incident an intention to cause death.
The Court of Criminal appeal comprising three judges reviewed the evidence and concluded that there were no grounds at all for changing the conviction of murder. It upheld the decision of the trial judges!
At the time that Mohamed Kunjo’s case was heard in the Singapore High Court, appeals were allowed to be sent to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
(The law in Singapore later did away with the appeals going to the Privy Council. The decision of the Court of Criminal appeal then became final with no further appeal.)
Three points were canvassed before the Privy Council:
(1) the cause of death,
(2) whether the appellant Mohamed Kunjo was so intoxicated as to be incapable of forming the intent necessary to constitute the offence of murder, and
(3) the defence of sudden fight, which if proved by an accused reduces the offence to one of culpable homicide not amounting to murder!
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – a Bench of five judges – heard the appeal after it was dismissed by the Court of Criminal appeal in Singapore. The judges there agreed with the trial judges and the judges of the Court of Criminal appeal.
The appeal was duly dismissed by the five-man Bench. The Privy Council judges said categorically that they would not interfere with the trial judges.
They agreed with the trial judges who had ruled they had no doubts that the appellant was, at the time of the commission of the offence, capable of forming and actually did form the intent necessary for murder, which finding had been upheld by the Court of Criminal appeal.
The evidence of the assault showed that the victim had been taken by surprise and attacked with a very unusual and unexpected weapon, a heavy blow on the head which could reasonably be expected to be lethal.
The Privy Council held that in the face of the evidence, the appellant could not show that he had not taken undue advantage or acted in a cruel or unusual manner and therefore there was no need for the trial judges to refer to the defence of sudden fight.
I recalled how the manager of the two men, when he testified at the trial, described the drunken state of both the accused and the victim.
Both men had been highly intoxicated before the incident. They had been unable to take instructions to load and deliver timber that night.
It was in such a state of drunkenness that the two men had punched and pushed each other before the accused finally struck the victim.
Life imprisonment instead of the death penalty
A year later, I was excited to hear that the Privy Council in London had affirmed the decision of the Court of Criminal appeal in Singapore.
However in the last paragraph the lordship stated:
“The judges of the Privy Council respectfully drew the attention of those whose duty it was to advise the President on the death sentence, that the offence was committed more than two years ago, and that there were mitigating factors worthy, it may be thought, of consideration before a decision is taken in regard to the sentence.”
I separately learned that on his Petition for Clemency, the accused’s death sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment instead.
Young, inexperienced and completely new to the judicial process, I received the news with some jubilation.
I felt life imprisonment was more than sufficient punishment for someone who had caused death without any intention whatsoever to do so. Following the finding of the Privy Council, the accused in this instance was given life imprisonment.
The trial left an impact on me
The Mohamed Kunjo trial left an impact on me. I kept asking myself how it was that this could happen in a thick friendship that had lasted for years.
For the first time I realised that alcohol was a sore point in many Indian families.
I was satisfied with my performance. Although a little unsure of myself at the start of the trial, I believe I had spoken clearly whilst interpreting.
Counsel for the defendant thanked me for my services. He said I had done a good job interpreting for his client.
I felt motivated, this being my first ever capital case in the High Court. I later asked my colleague who paired with me in the case for his comments on my performance.
“You did fairly well and spoke with confidence. It would have been better if you had looked up to the Bench when you addressed the court. You are almost there,” he said.
Top photo via Wikimedia Commons.