Independent filmmaker, Lynn Lee, who interviewed former SMRT bus drivers He Jun Ling and Liu Xiang Ying, was called in for police questioning last week. This was after the Ministry of Home Affairs released a statement saying the Internal Affairs Office will be investigating claims of alleged police brutality by the two former drivers, He and Liu.
On two separate occasions, the police showed up at Lee’s house to seize her personal items, including her hard drive, her mobile phone, her laptop and her iMac. She was also held for questioning at the Phoenix Park police headquarters at Irrawaddy Road for almost eight hours on Thursday, 7 February. The following post, written by Lynn Lee and reproduced from her website, Lianian Films, gives a detailed account of what happened.
In Which Lim Makes Me Kopi At The Internal Affairs Office
(By Lynn Lee, reproduced from Lianian Films)
I’ve spent the last 15 years telling stories about other people. It’s a little mortifying knowing I’ve become a story myself. I’ve not read all the news reports, but friends have alerted me to various postings on Facebook and last Thursday, there were hundreds of messages expressing concern and alarm over how I was being treated by the police.
Thank you. I am touched and humbled by the outpouring of support. I am fine. A little worn out, but generally, okay.
I knew when I posted these clips online that the allegations raised by former SMRT drivers, He Jun Ling and Liu Xiangying, were serious. I thought the relevant authorities should look into their claims and had, prior to the posting, written to various departments for a response. They still haven’t officially acknowledged my email.
What the Ministry of Home Affairs did though was to announce through a press statement that they would be launching an investigation, and that they would be seeking the assistance of various people, including the producers of the videos.
I am still trying to process what happened next.
They showed up at our flat on Tuesday, the 5th of February. It was about 11am. I had pulled a late night and James had just flown in from China, so we were both knackered. But the knocking on our door was incessant and so I opened it.
I was still wearing my pajamas when I let them in – two men and a woman at first. They were joined by various other plainclothes police over the course of the morning. Snowy, our Maltese, went a little berserk barking at all the strangers in the house.
Superintendent Lim Chan Huat from the Internal Affairs Office introduced himself. He seemed nice enough, told me he was investigating He and Liu’s allegations and said he wanted to take a look at footage of my interviews with the two men. I showed him the clips. He asked a few questions. I answered them. And then, things got a little strange.
Superintendent Lim said he had to take away the external hard drive containing all my footage of the ex-drivers. I told him I couldn’t let him do so as there was other material in the drive – information not related to his investigation, contacts and research that as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, I was bound to keep confidential. I offered repeatedly to let him copy the relevant footage off my drive, but he refused, showing me instead a letter from the Attorney General’s Chambers, authorising him to act under Section 16(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC).
I asked what provision in the CPC allowed him to take my property, especially as I wasn’t the one being investigated. He was unable to give me an answer and had to make a few calls to his office. We spent a good 20 minutes scrolling through the CPC, him pointing out various sections, me reading them and saying, “But that’s not applicable!”
Things got even weirder when a Superintendent Goh Tat Boon showed up. He said he was from Bedok Division, not the Internal Affairs Office and that he was going to exercise his ‘power of seizure’.
I asked why he had to take the entire drive if all the police were interested in were video clips of the former drivers. He said they needed it to ‘ascertain circumstances’. I asked what kinds of ‘circumstances’. All he would say was that these were ‘circumstances surrounding the case’.
And so it went on, this to-and-fro – me trying to find out why they needed the entire drive, them saying they did so because they did so. Me asking them to name the provisions under which they were acting, Superintendent Goh telling me not to discuss ‘technicalities’.
I called a lawyer friend who suggested letting them take the drive if they allowed me to back everything up and agreed to only look at the two interviews in question. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but at the time, I felt it was perhaps unreasonable to protest any further. The police were after all, investigating allegations brought to light by my videos. And if they undertook to only look at the two interviews, I should have faith that they would keep their word.
We made a copy. They took the drive after getting me to show them where the relevant clips were filed. They repeated their promise not to look at anything else.
Superintendent Lim asked to take my statement. “You can either do it here or at my office tomorrow.”
I opted for here, thinking it would be easier. But then, he started by asking some pretty strange questions.
“What causes do you champion?”
“Do you do any volunteer work?”
“Do you believe in any causes?”
(I believe in numerous causes – saying no to shark fin soup, puppy mills, the death penalty, the genocide in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. I believe in justice, fairness, equality. But how were any of my beliefs relevant to whether He and Liu had been beaten in custody? Did it matter if I volunteered in a dog pound, or homeless shelter, or spent my weekends doing nothing? How was any of this relevant to the investigation? It was bizarre.)
James suggested we stop the interview. It was nearly two and we had work to do. I said I would go to the Internal Affairs Office the following day to give a fresh statement, and that I did not want to answer irrelevant questions.
The Internal Affairs Office is located on the 17th floor of Police Headquarters at Irrawady Road. My first visited there lasted about two-and-a-half hours. The interview took place inside a small office. The door was left open at all times, the air conditioning was just nice, Superintendent Lim was civil and polite throughout.
I took pages and pages of notes – writing down the questions he posed as well as the answers I gave.
He asked if I would like to continue where we left off the day before. I requested a fresh statement.
There were more than 90 questions in all, many of them relating to the circumstances leading to my interviews with He and Liu. Lim asked why I wanted to speak to the ex-drivers, who arranged the interviews, and why I didn’t tell He and Liu to file a police report.
I said that like many journalists, I was interested in the case and that I had put in a request for interviews with the men via their case worker, S, from the NGO, TWC2.
In response to the last question, I told Superintendent Lim it wasn’t my role to give legal advice.
He asked if the interviews were recorded in ‘segments’ and if so, why. I explained that this is how the camera we used works – it automatically records in segments. Looking back now, I think what the Superintendent was really interested in was whether a lot of time elapsed between the ‘segments’. What happened when the two men were off camera? Did I say anything ‘extra’ to my interviewees?
If he’d asked me, I would have told him that very little time elapsed between the ‘segments’. We were racing to finish four interviews in one day. Each one lasted at least one-and-a-half hours. I couldn’t afford to waste precious minutes.
I left Police Headquarters at around lunchtime and headed to a mall in the east to meet a friend. Later that afternoon, as we sat down with another friend (and her baby) for coffee and cake at a café located in the atrium of the mall, I noticed a man in a blue shirt staring at us. He was maybe five foot five. Rotund. Glasses. He circled us, stared, spoke into a handsfree phone headset and walked away. A little later, a taller man in white hovered around our table.
“Are we being followed?” I asked my friends. It was hard to tell if I was simply being paranoid. We sat at the café for close to an hour. The two men circled us at least three more times. There was a lot of staring. It didn’t seem as if they were interested in coffee, or cake, or shopping.
9am on Wednesday. James told me that the police were back again. This time, it was two officers from the Internal Affairs Office and Superintendent Goh Tat Boon from Bedok Division. He seemed to be in charge.
I let them in and Superintendent Goh got straight to the point. He wanted to seize my laptop, iMac and mobile phone. I asked why these were needed as the police already had the drive containing all the footage of my interviews with He and Liu. All Superintendent Goh would say was that the three devices were ‘necessary and related’ and that while it was ‘unpleasant’ for me, he had to take them.
I called my friend, lawyer M Ravi, who came over immediately with his colleague, Claudia Powers. Ravi asked Superintendent Goh to name the provision under which he was acting. He pointed out that I had cooperated fully the day before and that the police seemed to be over zealous, especially given the fact that I was not a suspect in the case and might even be a witness for the State should charges be brought against any officers involved in the alleged assault.
Superintendent Goh’s response was that we should let him seize the items first and lodge a complaint with relevant authorities later.
Ravi then called the Chief Prosecutor and after a short conversation, it was agreed that I would take my laptop and mobile phone to the Internal Affairs Office that afternoon, where the two objects would be examined in my presence.
I am glad I turned to Ravi for help and immeasurably grateful that he put aside his work to come when I called. By the time he arrived, the police had already photographed and tagged everything. Ravi’s intervention meant I was able to keep the three items.
A question I’m trying to figure out – if the investigation into the alleged beatings is being conducted by the Internal Affairs Office, which is an independent body within the police force, why was Superintendent Goh from Bedok directing proceedings that morning?
Maybe there is a logical, plausible answer to my question, but shouldn’t an independent investigation be conducted at all times by members of the independent body charged to carry out the task?
My second session at Police Headquarters started with an interview, this time, with DSP Sim Ngin Kit. Again, I took notes.
There were 62 questions in all. The first few focused once again, on the day we shot the interviews with the drivers. Sim wanted to know how many takes we did for the interviews and who else, besides the cameraman and myself, was involved in the taping.
I replied that both interviews were done in one take and that apart from the cameraman, no one else was involved in the taping.
DSP Sim: Can I write down that you were the one who made all the arrangements for the taping?
Lynn: I was the one who arranged for the equipment and the cameraman.
I was also repeatedly asked whether I discussed the drivers’ allegations with anyone else. Sim seemed particularly interested in any communication I might have had with NGOs or the two men’s lawyers. I found his line of questioning puzzling.
DSP Sim: Were there any persons you were in contact with after the posting of the video, in respect to the allegations of assault?
Lynn: Lots of people contacted me after the posting of the videos.
DSP Sim: Were there any NGOs that you can recall?
Lynn: After the posting?
DSP Sim: And before?
Lynn: How is this relevant?
DSP Sim: I will just put this in.
Lynn: If you explain this to me logically, I might answer you.
DSP Sim: Did any NGO contact you before or after the posting of the videos online, regarding the allegations of He and Liu?
Lynn: I don’t see why this is relevant. But seriously, why is this relevant?
DSP Sim does not answer my question.
DSP Sim: You mentioned you posed some questions for your documentary. Why were you interested in posing these questions?
Lynn: Because they were interesting questions.
DSP Sim: Did you discuss these questions with anyone else beforehand?
DSP Sim: Do you have any record of the questions prepared for the interview?
Lynn: No, there is no record.
DSP Sim: So how did these questions come about?
Lynn: I just asked them on the spot during the interview.
DSP Sim: In your previous statement, you said that the men’s allegations were serious and needed to be addressed. Could you tell us how the clips were uploaded and what devices were used to upload the clips?
Lynn: Are you going to use that as an excuse to seize my computer again? How is this question relevant? The clips were uploaded onto the video website, Vimeo.
DSP Sim: And the device?
Lynn: I don’t think that’s relevant.
It was during this interview that I started wondering seriously if I, rather than the alleged perpetrators, was the one being investigated. Were they trying to establish if I had somehow manufactured the allegations? Or that I had worked with He and Liu’s lawyers and various NGOs to fabricate things?
My suspicions were reinforced when they started examining my computer. Two officers from the Technology Crime Forensic Branch explained that they would start by removing my hard disk before connecting it to something called a ‘write blocker’, to ‘ensure that no data is overwritten or introduced’.
I asked what they would look at when they were examining my hard disk and an officer called Florence Koh said that this would be ‘anything related to the case’.
Lynn: So what happens if confidential information not relating to the case gets leaked?
Koh: We will not leak it out.
Lynn: I have your word on this?
Taking apart my laptop proved problematic for the officers charged with the task. They couldn’t figure out how to remove its casing and at one stage, were googling for answers. I was afraid they might break the machine and asked why they couldn’t just look directly at the computer instead.
Connie (the computer expert): So if the IO (Investigating Officer) just accesses the file from your computer, the date stamp of your files will change.
Lynn: So how is that material to the case?
Connie: It has always been our practice. We want to ensure that a file is not accidentally created.
In the end, they managed to remove my hard disk. Once it was hooked up to their own device, I realised that the police would be able to access not only what I currently had on my laptop, but all deleted documents, videos and photos as well. They could also see records of my online activity. This was why they had to take apart my laptop – to run it through forensic software, which would enable them to trawl through my computer’s history. Nice.
The examination took a long time, primarily because I think, they were trying to find things that did not exist. An officer called Choo Kwang Meng asked to look at my video clips. There were only four, none connected to their case. I told them everything I had of He and Liu was on the hard drive they confiscated, and that my laptop didn’t have the capacity to hold big video files.
But still they looked.
They went through all my documents – scripts I had written for previous documentaries, the draft of a book I was working on, notes, research material, random bits and bobs. By this time, I was getting a little impatient.
Lynn: Why don’t you tell me what you are looking for? There are no video files (of He and Liu’s interviews) in there. My computer is too small to handle. Your colleagues here can tell you it’s true.
Choo: What about a script?
Lynn: There is no script.
Lynn: No pre-prepared questions.
And still they looked, and looked and looked. And the night wore on. None of the officers were unpleasant. They treated me well and offered up Milo, instant noodles, biscuits, pau and candy. There was even cappuccino, made, I was told, by Superintendent Lim himself (“Lim’s kopi!” I thought).
At 8.02pm, I received a text from my friend, Teo Soh Lung. “I am on my way to get you home”.
Other friends and family had also started calling me. I had been sending regular updates to Kirsten and I knew she was posting them on her blog. But I didn’t realise how much the information was getting re-shared until a former CNN colleague rang.
At 8.07pm, I messaged Kirsten to tell her that they had started examining the contents of my phone, which had been downloaded a little earlier.
The officers also asked me if I used a web-based email. I told them I did. They asked if I could give them my password.
Choo: Why not?
Lynn: Would you allow me to look at your emails?
There were no videos in my phone and the photos proved pretty uninteresting to Investigating Officer Florence Koh. So in the end, most of her time was spent examining my SMSes – messages from my mother telling me about my Dad’s hospital schedule, silly texts from James, plans for meet ups with a close girlfriend. It was surreal going through every single one of these with a stranger. Koh was particularly interested in any contact I might have had with the men’s lawyers and their case worker. She also flagged a text I had sent James the day before: ‘We’re being followed at I12’.
The messages Koh deemed important were then printed. I was asked to verify that these came from my phone and told to sign at the bottom of each page.
By then, it was nine. I thought we were done. But DSP Sim emerged and said I had to answer more questions, this time relating to my refusal to disclose the password to my email account. They also wanted the phone number of the cameraman who had helped me film the interview. I didn’t give it to them
9.07pm. The techonology experts were told to reassemble my laptop and erase from their system, anything they had downloaded from my phone. Connie assured me that the programme they used would ensure that everything was wiped clean. The process took ages.
During this time, I also sensed some kind of a meeting going on further down the corridor. It was hard to tell what exactly was happening, I was getting hungry. My phone kept ringing – friends, relatives and even a reporter from Yahoo were all wondering when I would be done.
At about 9.20, Officer Koh informed me that the SMSes extracted from my phone were irrelevant, and that I should witness the shredding of the print-outs they had made me sign.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel relieved – all that time spent, those questions asked, my home invaded, my property nearly seized, my privacy violated, for irrelevant information? Were the police officers who had allegedly beaten the drivers given the same kind of treatment?
I left Police Headquarters at around 10pm. A group of people had gathered outside the gate. Many of them are my friends, but there were a few I had never met. I am incredibly moved that they cared enough to make the effort to go to Irrawady Road just to make sure I was okay.
At home, I saw multiple Facebook postings about my ‘interview’. My inbox was overflowing with messages of support. A few reporters wrote asking for comment. NGOs wanted to know if they could offer me any help.
Again, to the people who reached out – thank you so much.
I learnt also that my friend, Vincent Wijeysingha, had earlier in the day, put out in his own capacity, an international press release about my situation. He has since pulled the statement because it contained a couple of inaccuracies. I remain grateful to Vince. I know he acted because he was concerned about me. The mistakes were not his fault – he didn’t manage to speak to me before releasing the statement and played no part in the making of the video clips. There were details he would not have known.
Some people have asked if my actions were politically motivated – was I perhaps working with or for the SDP?
The answer is no. Vincent and Soh Lung (both, SDP members) are friends, but I have never once attended an SDP meeting, volunteered at any of their events or tried to become a member of the party, or of any party for that matter.
Was there some kind of conspiracy between the drivers, their lawyers, political parties NGO workers and myself to fabricate the allegations? The suggestion is ludicrous. The men were not coached. There was no script, not even a list of pre-prepared questions. He and Liu were interviewed separately. Each session consisted of just three people – the relevant driver, the cameraman and me. No one else. There were no retakes.
The interviews were not conducted so He and Liu could talk about being beaten. The two men raised the issue themselves. Prior to the taping, I was in fact, more interested in finding out what brought the ex-drivers to Singapore, what caused them to go on strike, and what happened as a result.
As for whether He and Liu might have conspired with NGOs and their lawyers to spin a story against the police, all I can say is this: Why would so many people (most of them smart, accomplished and respected) come together to risk their careers, livelihoods, reputations and safety for a scheme so harebrained?
So why did I post the video clips? The answer, to me, is blindingly obvious. Isn’t this what journalists do? Talk to people and tell the public what we’ve found out? If the Ministry of Home Affairs, or the Attorney General’s Chambers, or the Prison Service, or Police Force had gotten in touch with me to rebut or respond to the drivers’ claims, I would have posted their interviews too. My invitation remains. I would be more than happy to speak with representatives from any of these departments.
Maybe it was necessary for investigators to do everything they could to rule out any wrongdoing on my part, but to borrow Ravi’s words, I think authorities were over zealous. They must think that I am absolutely rubbish at this journalism thing, or believe me dumb enough to throw away my career for a headline.
Over the past 15 years, I have worked for some of the world’s biggest news broadcasters and completed multiple stints at two different United Nations missions. James and I have made documentaries in refugee camps and live minefields, in post-conflict zones and inside the world’s most secretive state. We’ve filmed rebel leaders and Maoists soldiers, interviewed political figures, Nobel Prize winners, a murderer, militiamen and ordinary people. We make a good living doing what we love. We’ve even won a few awards here and there. Why on earth would I throw it all away by manufacturing two little soundbites?
A few concerned friends have advised me to ‘shut up’, to lay low, to not share my experiences or say anything more about the SMRT saga. “You might get ISD-d,” they joke, half seriously. “Operation Spectrum was not such a long time ago.”
But why should the ISD even be interested in me? I believe in transparency, in openness. I would also like to believe that Singapore today is not the Singapore of the 80s. That we have evolved, that the powers-that-be see that draconian methods employed in the past will neither win them love, nor respect, nor entrench their position among a more mature, better-informed people.
Members of the Internal Affairs Office assure me they are taking Liu and He’s allegations ‘very seriously’ and that they would get to the bottom of the matter. I hope so and look forward to learning their findings. If the two ex-drivers lied, they should be punished. If they told the truth, then the police officers who beat them deserve to be brought to justice. Either way, I continue to follow the IAO’s investigations with interest. Maybe when they’re ready, they might even grant me an interview about their work – an on-camera one lasting way less than 7 hours.
In the meantime, I have my job to do – films to make, more questions to ask, stories to tell. Some of these might even be about former SMRT drivers.
‘Police investigates ex-bus driver’s allegations of abuse by going after journalist’, #spuddings, February 7, 2013.
‘Singapore bus strike: Who are the police investigating here?’, Asian Correspondent, February 7, 2013.
‘S’pore film-maker called in to help with police investigation’, Yahoo!News, February 7, 2013.
‘SMRT probe: Police ask film-maker for laptop, phone’, Straits Times, February 8, 2013.