Death in custody

Press Statement by Ketua Pembangkang & DAP Secretary-General, Mr. Lim Kit Siang on 18.12.1973

Death of 16 year-old student at Henry Gurney Home, Phua Swee Leng – A Public Inquiry necessary to ascertain the cause of death

I have seen the Minister for Home Affairs, Tan Sri Ghazalie Shafie, on the death of a student at the Henry Gurney School at Telok Mas, Malacca on 3rd December 1973 at 1.50 a.m. – namely Phua Swee Leng of Kampong Sembilan, Tranquerah, Malacca.

The Minister showed concern and suggested that a police report be lodged to initiate public investigations and actions by his Ministry.

I am taking the mother of the deceased, Madam Lim Kar Lan, to make a formal report.

There must be no attempt on anyone’s part to hush up the matter. There must be a public inquiry into the causes of Phua Swee Leng’s death, as the circumstances of his death give rise to substantial suspicions in the public mind.

The cause of death given in the death certificate, i.e. acute leukemia, does not match the case history of the deceased’s experience in the two weeks before his death.

Thus, on Nov. 12, the deceased, Phua Swee Leng, slipped out a ‘SOS’ letter to his mother, appealing for medicine for his internal wounds as a result of being assaulted by one of the officials of the Henry Gurney School.

The secret letter reads:

“Dear Mother,

I hope that you will rush here once you received my letter. Because I had a fight with another person, I was locked in the ‘dark room’ and assaulted by one of the officials here until my ears bleed. My back was assaulted until they are blueblack. I can’t eat or sleep, and have internal injuries. When you come, don’t forget to bring medicine to cure internal wounds, mix it with the food for me to take. When you go back, go immediately to the Social Welfare Department to lay a complaint and take legal action. That is all for the moment. The rest we’ll talk when we meet.

Your son,
Ah Leng. 12/11/73
P. S.
For heaven’s sake you must be careful. I am writing this letter to you secretly. Do not bring this letter with you when you come and visit me, or mention this matter with any of the officials here. You must not forget this. Otherwise, if they find out, my consequences will be terrible. I am forced to write this letter to you. About going to Social Welfare Department to lodge a complaint, do it after you have visited me. Don’t take this letter and go straight. Otherwise, everything is finished. For those who send out secret letters are severely punished. No need for you to reply.”

The letter did not reach the mother until November 19. On November 18, the mother made her fortnightly visits to the Henry Gurney Home to see her son, unaware of his son’s plight.

Phua Swee Leng was accompanied by a Home warden. He cried when he saw his mother, and cried when mother was leaving. Apparently, Phua Swee Leng did not dare to tell the mother about his plight in the presence of the School warden.

When the mother asked the School officials why his son was crying, she was told not to worry, and that her son had a fight with another student.

When the mother received the letter the next day, Nov. 19, she returned to the School with medicine for her son but was refused permission to see him, on the ground that she was only allowed to see him once in two weeks, and she had just seen him on Nov. 18. She could not see him until Dec. 2.

On Dec. 1, Phua Swee Leng was admitted into Malacca General Hospital, never regained consciousness, and died on Dec. 3 at 1.50 a.m., with blood exuding from his ears, nose and mouth.

At first, the hospital authorities refused to do a post-mortem, but on the family’s insistence, a post-mortem was finally done.

There must be a full-scale public inquiry into the causes of Phua Swee Leng’s death, about the assault which he received in the hands of a School official, about his confinement, compelling him to send out a secret letter to his mother for SOS medical aid.

Without such an inquiry, every parent must fear for the life and safety of their son in the Henry Gurney School and other Reform schools in the country.

The whole concept of a reform school for teenagers is rehabilitate youngsters who have gone astray and give them a chance to lead a new life. It is not to treat them as hardened criminals beyond rehabilitation. Nor is a reform school a place where School wardens are given a licence to assault the students.

I have received many complaints that students in the Henry Gurney School are being assaulted by officials. There is need for thoroughgoing reform of all such reform schools, and I shall be writing to the Minister for Home Affairs, Tan Sri Ghazalie Shafie, for permission to visit the Henry Gurney School to see for myself the situation there.

Finally, the situation whereby parents are not allowed to see their son alone, without the supervision of School wardens, is highly objectionable, and should be stopped. Students in such reform schools should be made to feel that they are students, and not prisoners. Furthermore, they must have freedom to confide with their parents – unless the Reform schools have a lot of things to hide from public knowledge.