Pavle Radonic ~ Merciless


The Real Thing

A few days ago the Chinese con­vert, cab­bie Cha, more than a lit­tle tedious with his long drawn-out sto­ries from one of the less rep­utable hadiths it may have been involv­ing talk­ing she-camels what­not. Totally igno­rant of pace and prop­er unfold­ing the man; lame mat­ter of that kind com­ing from an old cab­bie sur­pris­ing. This after­noon at lunch there was some­thing more com­pelling, grip­ping and in fact rather exces­sive. A friend—not one of the Geylang Serai con­tin­gent, at least not an Al Wadi habitué—had for­ward­ed the mate­r­i­al to the man. You don’t know him, said the cab­bie. Cha had spent $200 plus on a new phone, reduced twen­ty or thir­ty dol­lars at such-and-such out­let. Bargain. The screen was passed across the table laid hor­i­zon­tal, Cha guilti­ly look­ing the oth­er way. A group of men were rush­ing a chap with parangs and hack­ing in a mer­ci­less fren­zy. Initially the vic­tim had been attacked inside some kind of stall at a mar­ket per­haps, before he was dragged out where there was free­dom of move­ment and the cam­era had been mount­ed in order to record the event in all its appalling detail. Wild, force­ful blows of max strength and widest back-lift. Fierce. Pitiless. Dreadful. At which point death or insen­si­bil­i­ty came was a ques­tion. In the last twen­ty-five or thir­ty sec­ond sequence an attempt­ed decap­i­ta­tion had blunt­ed or bro­ken a blade. An exchange was need­ed. The No. 1 man dis­card­ed his piece and was hand­ed a sub­sti­tute by some­one off-screen. Away he went again like a dement­ed lum­ber­jack, as the blows rained down the arms of the ragged body on the ground jerk­ing up reflex­ive­ly in a kind of hydraulic pump­ing. With the con­crete paving for chop­ping-block the sev­er­ance of the head could not suc­ceed even after per­haps twen­ty blows. Remarkable that the blades had not been able to sev­er either limb or head; the long agri­cul­tur­al weapons pro­duced a flay­ing more than minc­ing. Wincing watch­ing. How did one con­tin­ue to the end? Many would have imme­di­ate­ly turned aside. Clearly Cha had watched the vision through and need­ed to share. That was one hot pota­to to hold onto your­self. The final butch­er, the man who swung most lusti­ly when the oth­ers’ feroc­i­ty was quick­ly exhaust­ed, could only have been an aggriev­ed hus­band, or per­haps broth­er of a par­ty who had suf­fered some kind of appalling indig­ni­ty him- or her­self. North Asian prove­nance; Pakistan; India per­haps. Cha did not know which. There were such things in those parts, the man said with anoth­er guilty look. Nothing in the movies could com­pare. If you could not con­ceive mur­der­ous car­nage, the wildest, most unhinged acts of the human ani­mal, this was rev­e­la­tion. There were sites that pre­sum­ably spe­cial­ized in the mate­r­i­al and gath­ered fol­low­ers who shared the files, like Cha and his friend. (The behead­ings in Afghanistan, you would guess, could not be shared like this by devout men like Cha.)

Geylang Serai, Singapore


The Forward-Scout

An Englishman who could­n’t be iden­ti­fied ini­tial­ly either by voice or fea­ture. The mask­ing was remark­able, quite uncan­ny. Tidily med­icat­ed from the out­set, the tongue was twist­ing and bend­ing mys­te­ri­ous­ly. North of Manchester sound­ed utter­ly pre­pos­ter­ous. Was he Eurasian per­haps? The Tiger base­ball cap low over thick brows, and then the glass­es made that part dif­fi­cult too. There seemed to be some wax, some yel­low in the skin. The man was stout, yet light on his feet; he could be believed a cou­ple of days lat­er when he said few passed him out walk­ing the streets. The sec­ond chance encounter found him at the oth­er end of old Ipoh town, which was when the invi­ta­tion was extend­ed to join him at one of his favorite Barber joints. (The old-style Hairdressers of Malaysia are anoth­er sto­ry: part bar, part Gentlemen’s Club and then broth­el.) Eurasian was the best bet at that first meeting.

No, pure Manchester. Twenty mile out to be precise—Burnley. They had a good foot­ball team once Burnley, before a drop through the divisions.

As in a dra­mat­ic per­for­mance for the stage from a by-gone era, some­thing from the stan­dard reper­toire, the con­ver­sa­tion unfold­ed with an inevitable log­ic. This was a play that one had attend­ed many years before, the move­ment and atmos­phere clear­ly recalled, if not the script itself. There had been an ear­li­er old drunk­en for­mer killer seen and heard up close. This sub­se­quent devel­op­ment failed to add very much real­ly. Banality prob­a­bly cov­ers the mat­ter suf­fi­cient­ly well. In some ways it can only be a mis­for­tune find­ing one­self in such cir­cum­stances, com­ing into prox­im­i­ty with such char­ac­ters. Even years lat­er in their decline, in their piti­ful years, meet­ing such men amount­ed to sheer bad luck. Most peo­ple were lucky enough to avoid any­thing of the kind their entire lives.

A Forward-Scout was this for­mer sol­dier’s lot. Fearless, if that is the right word. Very dif­fi­cult to find the words for any of this. It was unlike­ly any of the rela­tion was false. The man, Raymond, had killed men alright. Numbers were unknown, prob­a­bly to Raymond him­self too.

The greater part of the killing took place in the jun­gles of Perak in cen­tral Malaysia, not far from where we sat in fact in the Food Court behind Hotel Excelsior at Ipoh, where we found each oth­er in the begin­ning. Raymond had trav­eled wide­ly, most­ly in ser­vice with the British Army. To Perak, how­ev­er, and Ipoh in par­tic­u­lar, Raymond had returned numer­ous times. Six years he had lived there in this last stint with­out a return home. Twenty years now since any con­tact with his daugh­ter, who had lived there in child­hood. The wife had tak­en her back to England at some point and the girl had mar­ried a chap in London whose work took him all over, like her father’s had him. The mar­riage was instru­men­tal in the break­down of the rela­tion­ship with the father; not the whole of the rea­son for the break­down, but a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor. Raymond was alone now.

Raymond the Forward-scout had lived many an hour with the expec­ta­tion of being shot dead, blown to pieces. Flesh and bone scat­tered in var­i­ous ways after the impact of par­tic­u­lar types of weapons. Raymond made the point with­out elab­o­ra­tion. The Forward-Scout had come close to being shot a num­ber of times. He was still here. It would­n’t have mat­tered if he had been killed. The clear under­stand­ings were impor­tant. Other men had lost it at crit­i­cal times under fire; not Raymond the Forward-Scout. One chap com­ing under fire, an Englishman, had stopped, tak­en off his pack and began rum­mag­ing through his belong­ings as if he had just remem­bered some­thing he had mis­placed. Firing all round, the chap stood bent dou­ble sort­ing through his kit. Another, an offi­cer, col­lapsed on the spot, start­ed trem­bling and was utter­ly inca­pable of respond­ing to the unit’s predica­ment. In that instance the Forward-scout had iden­ti­fied the direc­tion from which the fire was com­ing; with cov­er­ing fire he would strike out for the posi­tion him­self. Raymond had been ready to leap into action. No, no, the Officer had replied, hands shiv­er­ing in front of him. Forward-Scout would go round on the oth­er side then, giv­en some cov­er. Same neg­a­tive; same jitter.

Raymond did­n’t care about death. Everyone had to die. How many kind, decent peo­ple had gone to their deaths? The atti­tude helped Raymond sur­vive all kinds of tri­als in jun­gles and deserts. (The Suez Crisis post­ing came before the Emergency in Malaya.)

Sixty-three years Raymond had been drink­ing. He was­n’t going to stop now. Thirteen ring­git for a bot­tle of his favorite; in the Barbershops which he fre­quent­ed eigh­teen for Carlsberg. In Bangkok you got a bot­tle of Heineken that size for nine baht. Raymond liked Bangkok. Whenever he flew in he would catch a taxi to his favorite hotel in Pat-pong.

As coin­ci­dence would have it, here in Ipoh where Raymond had often returned over almost six­ty years, he stayed above a shop oppo­site the Lim Bo Seng cor­ner pra­ta shop, the mamak shop in the old­er, pejo­ra­tive usage. We had been near neigh­bors a week, though not meet­ing on those par­tic­u­lar streets. Again, ele­ments of the well-made drama.

The best sol­diers in the world? No doubt what­ev­er, it was the British SAS. The Americans were use­less. Had the British, the Australians and New Zealanders—the Anzacs—been in Vietnam, that sor­ry war would not have end­ed as it did.

During the Emergency the enclo­sures for the Chinese kam­pungs were for their own pro­tec­tion; they were cer­tain­ly far from con­cen­tra­tion camps. Without them the vil­lagers would have fall­en prey to the depre­da­tions of the com­mu­nists. Eight hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple kept behind barbed wire from sev­en at night until dawn next morn­ing for near ten years could only be count­ed anoth­er British suc­cess. Malaya was saved.

Twenty years now Raymond was a veg­e­tar­i­an. Animals he would not kill, nor eat. People it was a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Men he could kill. Raymond stat­ed the posi­tion more than once.

Near the end of the con­ver­sa­tion tears came to Raymond’s eyes. They coin­cid­ed with his dis­crim­i­na­tion where ani­mals were con­cerned. How Raymond the Forward-Scout was ashamed of him­self was not clear; the spe­cial case of ani­mals seemed bound up in it.

I am ashamed of myself’, Raymond con­fessed, remov­ing his glass­es and wip­ing his eyes first with his fin­gers, then with a hand­ker­chief tak­en from his pocket.

The tears came all of a sud­den, with­out any warn­ing. It had been all sta­ble lev­el-head­ed­ness up until that point. Had Raymond lost a pre­cious pet recent­ly? Was it the daugh­ter?… In the case of man Raymond seemed per­fect­ly remorse­less. Certain men deserved to be shot. Even man gen­er­al­ly deserved killing, it seemed. There was no room in that fixed posi­tion for any mis­giv­ings, just as Raymond’s res­o­lu­tion where the haz­ard of his own life was con­cerned was firm­ly fixed.

Not many men admit­ted to shame; Raymond was grant­ed that.

It was an unsuc­cess­ful gambit.

I haven’t told you every­thing’, Raymond teased.

Further entice­ment was resist­ed. The tears had dried, the loose flesh firmed.

Earlier through his speech Raymond had waved his hands one way and anoth­er, almost as much as a con­duc­tor before his orches­tra. This too had seemed un-English-like. The tears had stilled the live­li­ness. Once Raymond set­tled the smiles re-appeared and some wav­ing resumed. There was more shop­ping wait­ing for Raymond. In a small bag he car­ried two large cans of fif­teen proof beer for his lady-boy neigh­bor. In order to save her dress­ing, putting on her make-up, Raymond often did her shop­ping. Across the hall she lived; they got on well. A cat was shared. There was noth­ing between them; just friends. Seven or eight lady-boys worked in the stretch of Jalan Dato Onn Jaafar down past the pra­ta place, the mamak shop. Opposite stood rows of begrimed pub­lic hous­ing. Manchester post-war might not have been very dif­fer­ent. Raymond could cook in his room. Egg he ate; occa­sion­al­ly fish. Not any meat for twen­ty years, and very lit­tle a long time before that as Raymond had edged slow­ly and sure­ly away from the appetite of a carnivore.

Perak, Malaysia


The Cane

The fel­low had done five years and received ten strokes; released three days does anoth­er snatch that gets him sev­en more years. This sec­ond time the mon­ey safe­ly secret­ed. A hun­dred grand near enough big mon­ey thir­ty years ago. When he first start­ed count­ing under the duri­an behind the bun­ga­low a few hun­dred meters from the scene the thief got a shock. Seven years for that kind of sum a fair deal he reck­oned sub­se­quent­ly, even if you added the ear­li­er five. Signed a dec­la­ra­tion; did his time; insur­ance paid out the vic­tim. Everybody hap­py more or less.

Let’s say that’s what hap­pened. Let’s say the account received is the truth. It mat­ters lit­tle, because oth­er ele­ments are the chief inter­est here. The truth of the can­ing is unar­guable. Ten strokes was not a great num­ber when men received twen­ty-four in those days in one session—fainting episodes aside. In the years before too forty strokes were known, endured and sur­vived by men like Beefy Mohammed.

For the first stretch Beefy Mohammad let’s call him had slashed a woman who had clutched her mon­ey bag when he tried to roll her. Chinese busi­ness­woman who always gave out $100 hang­bao to her work­ers for New Year thir­ty years ago. The man him­self, Beefy, is Malay. Luckily the knife had only nicked the poor wom­an’s cheek below her ear, carotid artery untouched. Murderers Beef had known at Changi, housed in dif­fer­ent blocks, hung.

Short chase by the cops out near present-day Paya Lebar MRT fol­low­ing the first snatch; on the small island suc­cess rates for cap­tur­ing crim­i­nals and solv­ing crimes has always been high. In oth­er juris­dic­tions twelve years might be exces­sive for first and sec­ond offens­es involv­ing minor injury; and not many juris­dic­tions even thir­ty years ago con­tin­ued with cor­po­ral punishment.

Ten strokes. (Had the knife slipped to the artery Beefy Mohammad would have hung with­out the cane—a con­ces­sion for cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.) Caning con­tin­ues in Singapore to the present day, with a num­ber of recent ame­lio­ra­tions. In the present day no more than a dozen strokes are per­mit­ted at a time, under med­ical super­vi­sion as thir­ty years ago; and no longer can male­fac­tors above the age of fifty be caned. Males above six­teen then; eigh­teen now.

For all his size Beefy could not have been too wild and fierce a thug, one can tell. He drank but nev­er used and rarely smoked weed. An idea of just deserts seems to reign in the man’s think­ing, if one has him right. Did the crime and then the time: some kind of implic­it acknowl­edge­ment of jus­tice involved.

Possibly had he got away with it, with­out being caught—a snitch gave him away—that would have been sim­i­lar­ly rec­on­ciled by Beefy.

No com­plaints and no resent­ments. Twelve years served; ten strokes endured.

On a casu­al acquain­tance the time is dif­fi­cult to sum­ma­rize; there was almost no ref­er­ence to it. It seems Beefy wait­ed out his sen­tence as well as any­one. Finding his stash under the stone below the big rice pot at his uncle’s house no doubt helped draw a clear, sat­is­fac­to­ry line under the whole episode. Caning has been described many times; its pro­ce­dure is care­ful­ly laid out in the British Penal Code that the suc­ces­sor author­i­ties have main­tained in Singapore. One man’s par­tic­u­lar per­spec­tive here.

The Chinese at the A‑frame, the Flogging Stand, scream and whim­per, ham­strings throb­bing and puls­ing like the pis­tons of a steam-train. Not the Malays after their tutor­ing by the old hands. So Beefy maintains.

At the Stand limbs are spread wide and wrists and ankles tied, feet with­in struts that force an inward turn­ing of pigeon-toes. Bent nine­ty degrees at the waist and stretched so the anus is opened and the but­tocks rise firm.

Flogging” seemed odd usage. Though hav­ing lit­tle for­mal school­ing, Beefy’s English was sur­pris­ing­ly good. It was the accent and bit­ten-off enun­ci­a­tion that caused dif­fi­cul­ty. The cane is the instru­ment of pun­ish­ment; the pun­ish­ment itself alter­nate­ly “flog­ging” or “can­ing”.

A man of the track reached six­ty now with two ear­ly teens to his wife on Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia, an hour on the fer­ry. Prison had delayed father­hood. The fam­i­ly Beef sup­ports by gam­bling win­nings using a basic numer­i­cal sys­tem devised by him­self con­cen­trat­ed on Australian and Hong Kong tracks. The crooked­ness in the indus­try one would have thought might be irrel­e­vant with a num­bers scheme; not accord­ing to the punter. For the past num­ber of years $300 month­ly reg­u­lar­ly remit­ted from win­nings to Tanjung Pinang, Beefy cheer­ing gal­lop­ers under the whip on the TV at the Paya Lebar Post Office build­ing. One after­noon a thou­sand dol­lar wad was flipped to back up skit­ting. (Understandably, only many months lat­er did admis­sion final­ly fol­low about anoth­er lucra­tive enter­prise that brought in more depend­able dol­lars. Not for tittle-tattle.)

Twenty or so men were flogged at a time by order of Prisoner Number. Those await­ing their turn caught glimpses of the action through the flap­ping can­vas: the tying down, flex­ing of the cane, the dance steps, strike and any cries.

The Chinese were known for scream­ing and cry­ing both at the stand and recu­per­at­ing in the weeks lat­er, espe­cial­ly nights. Without the prep of the Malays the Chinese took two months to recov­er; Malays a week. A mis­take the Chinese com­mon­ly made was exer­cise and the build­ing of mus­cle, which only made mat­ters worse with the rat­tan slic­ing the flesh and result­ing in bleeding.

The length of the cane is about the height of Beefy’s chil­dren on Tanjung Pinang: in the Penal Code 1.2m—four feet. Thickness of the mid­dle fin­ger for stan­dard can­ing; for rapists Beefy shows the ring. (Slight up-grade for that offense.)

A red line was marked two feet from the post, the Sergeant or one of the oth­er Commanders tak­ing three long strides to reach it. Dancing steps like a bal­let star and piv­ot­ing for the swing. (Maximum force is enshrined in the Code.)

The thun­der strike makes Beef squirm and wince in the telling, wry look turn­ing stern with the sus­pi­cion he was not being under­stood or believed.

The Disciplinarians, the men admin­is­ter­ing the pun­ish­ment, sweat and weary themselves—bear that in mind, sug­gest­ed Mohammed.

There were always three tak­ing turns; a required Sergeant and the oth­er two Commanders or ordi­nary warders; in addi­tion med­ical man, SOP (Superintendent of Prison) and a court rep­re­sen­ta­tive. In Beefy’s day the rate per stroke for the men was fifty cents; each man admin­is­ter­ing remu­ner­at­ed. (In the lit­er­a­ture this com­mon knowl­edge pass­es with­out men­tion.) More than pock­et-mon­ey thir­ty years ago six or sev­en dol­lars once or twice month­ly in noto­ri­ous­ly low-wage Singapore.

On the appoint­ed morn­ing a smoke for steady­ing nerves. (Disallowed cur­rent­ly.) Chinese tobac­co could be bought from the can­teen with the earn­ings from the workshop—the laun­dry, bak­ery, print room, the rose-wood shop. In the days of prepa­ra­tion the Post await­ed like an oppo­nent in the ring. It required clear focus.

Turning aside the approach was watched and care­ful­ly measured—holding tight, steady ordered breath­ing, clench­ing rear molars first to last.

Overhead a clock count­ed the inter­vals and the Commander the numbers.

— Rotan satu… Rotan dua… Rotan tiga… Second hand back to the top of the dial.

The strokes were giv­en in sequence start­ing at the top of the but­tocks just below the can­vas for the kid­neys; a sec­ond belt pro­tect­ed tes­ti­cles. The Disciplinarian worked his way down the buttocks—one, two, three, four and five. Second round over the welts.

The well-pre­pared Malay hold­ing tight, breaths through the nose and clench­ing back-teeth in-step with the clock and bus­tle behind.

Under the force of the blows susok and rak­sa nee­dles were known to spring from under the skin. (The low­er back, the shoul­ders and legs, or even the face in the case of the susok.)

Strong set­tled mind that matched the force of the Disciplinarian; snort­ed breaths and clench­ing. Breath; clenching.

The arm of the Disciplinarian was not stronger than the prop­er­ly firm and set­tled mind. Beefy’s brow and jowls showed the res­olute work­ing with­in. Strength in Beef was not all muscle.

The Chinese had their own par­tic­u­lar cry at the blows and the Indians anoth­er. Beefy Mohammad could mim­ic both like he could bird-calls from the jungle.

Brief laugh­ter soon choked off.

When a man emerged from behind the wing of can­vas those wait­ing quick­ly fanned the wounds. The Malays avoid­ed the parac­eta­mol Chinese took dur­ing recu­per­a­tion; it pro­duced itch­i­ness and scratch­ing led to infec­tion. You slept with your legs crooked and flip-flops under but­tocks. Wounds reg­u­lar­ly washed; in the after­noon a sun-warmed area of paving in the yard soothed.

Beefy’s father died mid-term of the sec­ond stretch at Changi with­out vis­it­ing; the moth­er and sis­ter came month­ly. In his ear­ly twen­ties in a mem­o­rable cer­e­mo­ny the father had blessed his son Mohammed. Earlier that year the old man had gone with a cou­ple of pals to Cirebon in north­ern Java to learn the rites from the wali. Purchased at Cirebon a besi kur­sani, yel­low-col­ored heavy met­al ring that bore nine words from the Qur’an. Taking his father’s hand Beefy felt a cur­rent enter his arm, cir­cle across shoul­ders and down into the base of his spine. Coursing through the body. Though the old man had not per­formed the cer­e­mo­ny for that pur­pose, pad­locks and heavy doors opened with ease there­after. In oth­er places in Indonesia, black places, they sold fak­ery to the unsus­pect­ing; not at white Cirebon.

A bus dri­ver lacked the means for the dia­mond susok nee­dles or the heav­ier rak­sa; Beefy’s dad could not pro­vide those. The susok were for girls’ beau­ty and allure, $1,000 and $2,000 a pop; rak­sa twice that. Impossible for a bus dri­ver. With the heavy rak­sa nee­dles a man could not enter the water. Old timers had seen both nee­dles forced out by the cane.

Singapore & Malaysia, 2011–2020


Australian by birth and Montenegrin ori­gin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years liv­ing and writ­ing in SE Asia has pro­vid­ed unex­pect­ed stim­u­lus. Previous work has appeared in a range of lit­er­ary jour­nals and mag­a­zines, most recent­ly Panoply, Modern Literature, The Blue Nib, and New World Writing. A moun­tain­ous blog hold­ing main­ly the Asian writ­ing is here—