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
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.
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— http://axialmelbourne.blogspot.com/