Tapping the spirit world to bust crime leaves police and believers divided
By Chong Chee Kin & Esther Tan
TEN years ago, Taoist medium Lou Ai Pang was approached by a frantic housewife who told him that her husband had disappeared after leaving Singapore to seek his fortune.
Mr Lou, 61, said his psychic powers revealed that the man was alive and in Thailand.
But the news came with an ominous warning.
'I told her she had to find him quickly. If not, he would not be able to return home with her,' he recalled recently.
The woman eventually tracked down her husband, only to find him rail thin and begging on the streets. He had lost all his money in doomed business ventures and died soon after the couple were reunited.
The housewife was one in a small group of Singaporeans who turned to a psychic in their desperate search for answers about loved ones who had disappeared or been murdered.
The topic of paranormal help was raised last week at a conference organised by security firm Certis Cisco and the Malaysia-based International Centre for Security Management.
Malaysian criminologist Justin Loh recounted a case early this year when a missing businessman was found with the help of a bomoh. By then, he had already been murdered by a group of youths, who had robbed him and used his ATM and credit cards.
Although the police suspected that he had been abducted by foreigners, his family turned to many mediums to find him.
'Some said he was dead, some said he was alive. But among all of them, one accurately predicted where he was held, where his body would be found and the race and nationality of the ones responsible,' Mr Loh said.
Law-enforcement officials here and abroad have long been sceptical about purported connections to the spirit world, saying that paranormal tips are a waste of time and resources.
'These leads will never stand up in a court of law as evidence. It's just rubbish,' said private investigator Lionel de Souza, a retired detective with over 20 years' experience.
It is a view shared throughout the police and legal community.
Retired senior detective Lim Beng Gee said psychics had never successfully helped the police solve a case in Singapore.
'But there certainly have been many instances when victims have parted with lots of money to these mediums with no results,' he said.
Crime Library founder Joseph Tan said he had seen some people cheated by shady psychics.
He pointed to one case, where a teenage girl had disappeared from home. Her mother searched Pulau Ubin and Kusu Island on the advice of a temple medium.
A $3,000 bill later, the woman's daughter came home on her own. She had been staying with a friend all the while.
Mr Tan said: 'More often than not, they may end up being cheated. But when religious beliefs are involved, how do you argue with them, especially when they become defensive and think I am belittling their faith?'
While psychics have claimed to help police investigations everywhere from the United States to Malaysia, Singapore police are loath to turn to paranormal clues.
A senior police officer, who has been in the force for about 15 years, told The Straits Times: 'As far as I know, we do not get the help of mediums to look for missing persons or solve our cases - not now, not in the past, not ever.'
A retired detective with 30 years' experience said it was a matter of pride: 'Nothing beats solid policing work. After hard work has cracked a case, you can gloat about it with your colleagues. If you do it through the supernatural, there's no pride.'
However, Mr Eugene Toh, the president of the Society of the Paranormal Investigators here, said paranormal help should not be dismissed out of hand.
'There are still some things around us which cannot be explained. At the very least, paranormal help could provide the police with some leads if (the investigation) does not turn up anything,' he said.
The most prominent case here which highlighted how desperation can drive one to give the paranormal some credence was in 2004, when an eight-year-old girl, Huang Na, was murdered by a Malaysian vegetable packer.
Her desperate mother, Madam Huang Shuying, scoured Bukit Timah Hill and Mount Faber after a relative had a vision that she was being held on a hill.
In the end, the vision was on the money. The decomposed body of little Huang Na was found stuffed in a box in Telok Blangah Hill Park three weeks after she had gone missing.
Some legal experts say police should keep an open mind about the paranormal world.
'Officially, any policeman worth his salt will tell you that he does not employ such assistance,' said Mr Loh. 'Any psychic or medium would be most reluctant to come forward to help. They will easily become the prime suspects in, for example, a murder case, because the police will wonder why they know so much.
'While some instances of a psychic or a medium helping to solve a crime can be explained by coincidence or science, there are others which one cannot fully account for.'
Most mediums The Straits Times spoke to said it was rare to receive a request from a person looking for a loved one.
Medium Chew Hon Thin, 62, said: 'Most people come to me to ask for help in getting rich or in improving relations among family members.'
Lawyer Amolat Singh said that evidence submitted by mediums would not be accepted in a court of law.
'Most of our literature and the training of experts is science-based. So the evidence of mediums is considered to be in the legal twilight zone,' he said.
'If such evidence is used and accepted, we're opening the floodgates to the realm of the unknown and the unprovable. Then, where do we go from there?'
It is not uncommon for psychics in the US and United Kingdom to claim that they have helped the police to crack cases where there are few leads, although these have rarely been acknowledged by the police forces.
Last year, on a documentary televised on CNN, the New York police turned to prominent psychic Phil Jordan in the unsolved murder of a woman.
The psychic was able to describe her two assailants, pick their photos out of a stack of mug shots and described the house where they went for a party after the murder.
However, police forces in countries such as the US, UK and New Zealand have officially said that they do not regard psychics as credible or useful in cases.
Last year, a New Zealand newspaper asked the police if they would act on a psychic tip that said a missing man had been murdered and buried near a waterfall.
The answer from an officer?
'While we would love to go up there and start digging away, spiritual communications were not considered a credible foundation for investigation.'