Behind the headlines

13 Nov 2019 / 09:45 H.

MALAYSIA has had its fair share of headline grabbing stories. Veteran journalists Martin Vengadesan and Andrew Sagayam have put together a book featuring 42 high profile stories that captured the attention of a nation, reaching back in time with A Resident in the Outhouse (about the 1875 murder of the British Resident of Perak J.W.W Birch), to this year’s Mysterious Epidemic (about the recent measles outbreak in Kelantan that killed 16 Bateq Orang Asli).

Work on the book, Malaysian Murders and Mysteries: A Century of Shocking Cases That Gripped The Nation (published by Marshall Cavendish), began about eight years ago, said Martin.

“Actually it was (filmmaker and publisher) Amir Muhammad’s idea. He suggested that this is a book that could sell, and whether I could do it or did I know anybody could do it.”

Both Martin and Andrew are longtime friends, enrolling in the same primary school in the 1980s, joining a band together in the 1990s, and then becoming colleagues – first in a local news publication, and now, in an online news portal.

Martin said: “I told Andrew that I would do the bulk of the writing and he could do the interviews. That is why we decided to do it together.”

However, they were initially unable to find a publisher for the book, resulting in them taking a hiatus halfway through the project.

“After [last year’s] general elections, I felt it was a good time to revisit [the book],” Martin revealed. “The election results gave me the impetus to finish it.”

Some of the cases they covered in the book were inspired by people they met over the years, such as Leon Comber who was one of the founding members of the Special Branch, as well as family members of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre victims, who wanted to take their case to England.

“In some cases we stumbled upon people who did not have much time left to tell their stories, but who were still clear and lucid about the details,” said Martin.

They had also covered some of the more notorious cases featured in the book throughout the course of their newspaper careers. For former crime beat reporter Andrew, the book became very personal.

He explained: “I can finally say that I have accomplished something for myself. Getting a book out is one thing, but more importantly, I now have my work documented for people to read and actually understand what some journalists have to go through to get their stories.

“They say that ‘crime doesn’t pay’, but neither does life on the crime desk. My personal life suffered. I had to miss many family gatherings and events (including cancelling my dates).

“The irregular work hours, sometimes up to 48 hours straight, really took a toll on me.”

Martin explained that the book is dedicated to two of its key interviewees who have since passed – lawyer-cum-politician Karpal Singh, and the late historian Professor Khoo Kay Kim.

“Karpal actually went over twenty of the cases with me to discuss the legal ramifications.”

One of the cases covered in this book is titled Paedophile Nightmare, and explores the case of British national Richard Huckle, who targeted children from broken homes and orphanages during this stay in Malaysia.

After being exposed by Australian authorities, Huckle was subsequently charged in the UK and given 22 life sentences.

Last month, Huckle was stabbed to death in prison, just two days after Martin had given the green light for the final proof of the book to be published.

Martin said: “We knew that a lot of the cases featured in the book could have further developments.

“I immediately contacted my publisher and told her, but the book was already being printed.”

Asked how it felt to revisit some of the country’s more brutal cases, Martin said: “When Karpal and I were discussing [the 1990 child abuse death of] Baby Bala, [we both] got emotional ... it makes you wonder what goes on in the mind of a child abuser.

“For Andrew, [he] was looking back at his whole career – Bentong Kali, Mona Fandey and the Mamak Gang. It is [with] a mixture of excitement and some sadness because of the cruelty involved. A lot of these cases have no closure. The [disappearance of] MH370 is a classic example.”

Andrew concurred: “Revisiting these cases also brought back some very sad memories. I will never forget the emotions that people expressed in person to me.

“The grief, distress and anger that I saw within the family members of victims was too much to take at times. I hate to see people cry.

“It is a horrible feeling but it is part and parcel of life and work. My experience in dealing with these cases also revealed to me how evil and despicable humans can be.”

Now that the book has been published, Martin is moving on to other book projects that he wishes to complete in the near future.

Malaysian Murders and Mysteries: A Century of Shocking Cases That Gripped The Nation is available in all major bookstores.

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