On July 16, 2009, the body of a young political aide was found dead, having fallen from a 14th floor window of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s office. The death of Teoh Beng Hock would set off one of the most riveting criminal cases in Malaysian history, which today -- exactly 10 years since the incident -- remains unsolved.
Story by:Elroi Yee & Satpal Kaler
On the day before the incident, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) officers raided the office of Selangor State Executive Councillor Ean Yong Hian Wah. His aide, a young man by the name of Teoh Beng Hock, was asked to return to MACC Selangor for further questioning. Beng Hock complied.
Six other Selangor State assemblyman were reportedly investigated at the same time, all from the Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
CCTV footage shows Beng Hock entering MACC Selangor at 6.08PM.
Around 1pm, the body of Teoh Beng Hock was found on the fifth floor maintenance rooftop of Plaza Masalam. It would later be confirmed that he had fallen from a window on the 14th floor, where MACC Selangor’s office is.
An inquest set up to determine the cause of death of Teoh Beng Hock begins, presided over by coroner Azmil Muntapha Abas. Proceedings would go on for 17 months. In general, two theories were pursued -- suicide and homicide.
At the end of the inquest, the coroner delivers an open verdict - meaning he is unable to reach a conclusion on the cause of death. The result causes public outcry, leading Beng Hock’s family and supporters to call for a High Court review and a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI).
Prime Minister Najib Razak announces that an RCI will be established to look into Beng Hock’s death. Within weeks, however, the Selangor government and Beng Hock’s family withdrew from the RCI claiming they were unsatisfied with how it was being conducted.
The RCI concludes that Beng Hock was “driven to suicide” due to aggressive interrogation methods deployed by MACC officers. It named three officers as playing a role in his death: Hishamuddin Hashim, and his junior officers Mohamad Anuar Ismail and Ashraf Mohd Yunus.
The Court of Appeal overturns the inquest verdict ruling that Beng Hock’s death was caused by “a person or persons unknown, including MACC officers”.
The ruling recommends that the police reopen investigations.
MACC agrees to an out-of-court settlement for a civil suit filed by Beng Hock’s family, seeking damages for negligence over his death. MACC would pay RM600,000 in damages, along with RM60,000 in costs.
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law) Nancy Shukri says in a written parliamentary reply that police re-investigation of the case under the purview of the Attorney General found that no criminal offence was committed by MACC officers in the death of Teoh Beng Hock.
After a government change following Malaysia’s historic 14th general election, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Cabinet endorsed a decision to reopen investigations into the death of Teoh Beng Hock.
On a quiet Sunday morning in Melaka, the Teoh family are cooking up a feast - a feast of Beng Hock’s favourite dishes. “It’s been a while since we visited him, so I thought I’d cook something simple, bring it to his shrine, pray for him,” explains Madam Teoh, Beng Hock’s mother.
The spread is anything but simple. Rendang chicken, nyonya sticky rice, mixed vegetables in chicken broth and savoury tomato prawns. His favourites, says Madam Teoh. The smell of chili and spices fills the modest single-storey house. The sounds of chopping, pounding, frying, boiling, Hokkien conversation. The smells and sounds of family.
Beng Hock’s sister Lee Lan, six months pregnant, has just returned from Kuala Lumpur the night before. She looks tired but sits herself at the kitchen roundtable, making conversation with her mother while peeling onions.
“Soon it will be the lunar calendar anniversary of his death,” explains Lee Lan of today's activity. “And since the family is together, we decided to visit him.”
The plain walls are adorned with family photos spanning decades. In a corner on a low table, a portrait of Beng Hock stands next to a handful of pin badges that read “Justice for Beng Hock”.
“What is your most unforgettable memory of Beng Hock?” we ask. “He had called me two days before it happened,” Madam Teoh says, reliving the memory from 10 years ago. “He promised to be back in Melaka that weekend, that no matter how busy, he would be back. He was going to have his wedding photos taken, and the week after, he would register his marriage.”
Why is that unforgettable?
“Because he never came back.”
“He was the type of person who if he said something wrong, he would say sorry. He wouldn’t just let it be,” said Lee Lan. “He was very direct, honest, but he didn’t speak a lot. He was very quiet if you didn’t know him well.”
Many of those that worked with Beng Hock, described him as being principled, honest and idealistic. It came as no surprise to those who knew him when Beng Hock left his job as a journalist to pursue politics, hot on the heels of the 2008 General Elections that saw the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition make major gains. Five states, including Selangor, fell to Pakatan Rakyat, while the incumbent Barisan Nasional failed to gain a two-thirds majority for the first time since 1969.
“I remember him telling me ‘The sky has changed, the sky has changed! We now have hope!’, Lee Lan mimicked. “He was very happy. He said, ‘oh because this is the first time in history. No one thought this would happen. Then it really happened,’” said Lee Lan.
By 2009, he was a year into his new job as political secretary to Ean Yong Hian Wah, the State Assemblyman (ADUN) of Seri Kembangan and Selangor State Executive Councillor.
“We (the family) were very nervous. We told him not to take the job but he was undeterred. He said he’s going to work with the state government, so there’s no reason to be afraid.”
That was the same thought Lee Lan had on July 16, 2009, when news started filtering through that someone had died at MACC Selangor, where Beng Hock was being held for questioning. “I told my mother not to worry, he didn’t do anything wrong,” recalls Lee Lan. “There is no danger, after all, it is a government department.”
By nightfall, the family were identifying Beng Hock’s lifeless body.
Around 1pm, Beng Hock’s body was discovered by a cleaner working in Plaza Masalam. Within a few hours, word had spread of a death in the building. The building was closed off and entry restricted.
It would be hours later before the family were notified. When Lee Lan arrived with her brother, Beng Kee, and Beng Hock’s fiancée Cher Wei late in the evening, they were already prepared for the worst.
“The whole floor was very dark, the lights were blinking on and off,” she said, describing the scene at the fifth floor, where Beng Hock’s body had landed.
“The police were surrounding his body. They only allowed one of us to go and identify him, so my brother went.” She remembers waiting anxiously, hugging Cher Wei, waiting for Beng Kee to return. Around her, many were already weeping. In her heart, she continued pleading that he was still alive, or that it wasn’t Beng Hock at all.
“You’d never imagine how someone could just be gone. He was alive when you last met him, and then the next day he’s just lying there, dead. What more can you say? You can only cry.”
By sunset, a small crowd gathered at the base of the building, planting candles and holding a silent protest. By the next morning, the crowd bloomed into the hundreds, including prominent politicians like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang, and the protest was no longer silent.
“This was being labeled as the first ever political death in Malaysia,” said Tricia Yeoh, then an aide in the Selangor Menteri Besar’s office, who subsequently produced a film about the case. “There were always cases of deaths in custody, but this was the first directly implicated in an ongoing political investigation.”
“In that one night, I felt like I suddenly grew up,” said Lee Lan. “I never knew that our police, forensics, Attorney General could be so unprofessional.”
A coroner’s inquest was ordered by then-Prime Minister Najib Razak. Coroner’s inquests are typically held in cases where the cause of death of a particular case is of public importance.
“It is held in an open public manner which allows public concern for accountability to be factored in," said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, who was the lawyer representing the Selangor government during the inquest.
Malik and Yeoh both agree that authorities could have done better. “There were fingerprint smears on the 14th floor window, and the fingerprints were not lifted,” said Yeoh, who at the time was observing the inquest proceedings on behalf of the Selangor state government. “The police simply said it was not possible to lift them anyway."
“Beng Hock’s bag was moved from its original position. There was a clear -- unwitting or not -- tampering of evidence,” said Malik Imtiaz.
And then there was the instance when a lawyer representing MACC suggested that Teoh Beng Hock had strangled himself. He was laughed at in the courtroom.
As intended, the inquest started revealing what happened on that fateful night.
Beng Hock’s body sported a bruise on the neck and two of the pathologists that testified for the inquest opined that it was caused by blunt trauma, while Beng Hock was still alive. Dr Shahidan Noor, one of the pathologists, noted that an injury of such nature could lead to loss of consciousness - making suicide an unlikely cause of death.
However, a year into the inquest, a mystery note suddenly emerged. MACC’s lawyers presented the note as a “suicide note”.
Then, a witness testified that he had faced harsh interrogation methods at the hands of MACC while under their detention. He named Hishamuddin Hashim, who was one of the officers involved in Beng Hock’s case.
“He claimed to have been beaten badly by MACC officers, and that he was shown the window as a threat,” said Malik Imtiaz. “The question was if that was enough to conclude that this was the norm at MACC."
The question would go unanswered. Coroner Azmil Muntapha Abas ruled an open verdict -- meaning that based on the evidence presented, he was unable to determine a cause of death.
“The coroner ruled out accident and suicide, but he stopped short of saying it was murder which led to the open verdict,” said Malik Imtiaz.
The verdict left the family in tatters. A video of young Lee Lan, facing the gathered press after the verdict, screaming for justice for her brother, would become one of the enduring images of the case.
Shortly after that, the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) was announced, but within days, the Teoh family pulled out of the RCI, despite having called for it since the beginning.
“We were not satisfied that the deputy public prosecutors were in the commission (as conducting officers). It clearly showed that the RCI was biased from the start,” said Lee Lan. “It was a very sad decision for us to take, because we tried using many ways, we tried our best, we even traveled the whole Malaysia to get a hundred thousand signatures to support the establishment of an RCI, but we ended up being forced to back out.”
Moreover, an RCI is essentially a fact-finding exercise, and has no bearing on the legal proceedings that had already been set in motion through the coroner’s inquest.
Instead, the family waited for the RCI to conclude before applying for a High Court review of the inquest verdict. When that application was rejected, the family filed for another review at the Court of Appeal.
In a landmark ruling in 2014, the Court of Appeal overturned the findings of the inquest. Five years after Beng Hock’s death, it appeared that there may finally be a chance at reckoning. The three presiding judges unanimously found that the death of Beng Hock was “caused by multiple injuries from a fall... which was accelerated by, an unlawful act or acts of person or persons unknown, inclusive of MACC officers”.
In fact, Judge Hamid Sultan Abu Backer in his judgment explicitly ordered the Attorney General’s Chambers and Inspector General of Police to re-investigate and charge those found responsible.
“(The judge) is basically saying, and this is concurred by the other judges as well, that there was foul play involved in the death of Teoh Beng Hock. And it could have been the work of MACC officers,” said Ramkarpal Singh, the current legal counsel for the Teoh family. “And I think you cannot ignore something like that, as it is coming from the second highest court in the land, the Court of Appeal.”
Essentially, the Court of Appeal was telling the coroner that its open verdict was a mistake. That the cause of Beng Hock’s death, based on the evidence presented, could be homicide.
Four years would pass before Lee Lan heard of fresh investigations into Beng Hock’s death. In that time, the government changed hands. Many of Beng Hock’s former colleagues now occupy high offices. A cabinet decision was made to reopen investigations. A new Attorney General, a new Inspector General of Police, and, more recently, a new MACC Chief Commissioner had taken office.
But when investigations were finally reopened, it only caused the Teoh family more hurt.
“They said they will be investigating the case under Section 342 of the Penal Code, and when we looked it up, we learned that it was related to wrongful confinement,” said Lee Lan.
We spoke to her on the 14th floor of Plaza Masalam, now left abandoned. It is her first time looking out from the window from which Beng Hock fell.
“The officer told me directly that they have not even looked at the reports, the court of appeal judgement, the court documents or even the pathologist reports. They just received instructions to reopen the case under Section 342.”
Lee Lan pauses to breathe. Her eyes shine with tears, her frustration evident. “Why is it that Beng Hock’s case, having so much evidence, and has been judged as homicide, that the police would still investigate under Section 342?”
“This reclassification (of investigations) is not commensurate. It does not fit the offence,” said Ramkarpal, when we met him at a candlelight vigil organised by the Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy outside Plaza Masalam.
“The Court of Appeal verdict had said that he was constructively under arrest, so this (his confinement) is a non-issue. The issue is on whether or not there was a murder or a manslaughter. The Court of Appeal was of the view that there was foul play.”
“They can continue with such reclassification but it cannot stop there. It must go further than that.”
Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was asked about the matter during a press conference a few weeks earlier, and his comments were widely criticised for implying that the family was asking too much.
“This case has been concluded for a few years, and according to the information we’ve received, it has gone through almost every legal process, including a Royal Commission of Inquiry and payment of compensation,” he said.
“So from that perspective, there’s nothing left to do. But because the family is not satisfied, even though they have received compensation, they are appealing for more. Therefore, I will leave it to the Attorney General, as I am not a legal expert to make a decision on what to do next.”
Muhyiddin responded to the criticism by saying he had been misunderstood, and reiterated that the matter was now in the hands of the Attorney General.
We reached out to the Attorney General’s Chambers for comment but were told to wait for a media statement. The new MACC Chief Commissioner Latheefa Koya declined an interview request.
At the Seck Kia Eenh Temple in downtown Melaka, a short drive from the Teoh family home, the feast was laid out carefully. Buddhist chants hummed from a tiny speaker perched on a temple pillar. Joss stick smoke and incense hung in the air.
The sounds and smells of loss.
The family gathered around and prayed in turns. Beng Hock’s brother held his own son and taught him how to perform the prayers. He softly whispered instructions to his child, explaining the significance of the prayers.
A small photo of Beng Hock, set into a plaque, watched the scene.
We catch Madam Teoh staring at the photo for an eternity. “Why would someone just be gone? I want to ask him why, what was the reason, why did he die? What happened?” she said later, when we asked her what she was thinking. “No matter how many questions I ask him, he can’t answer me. So I can only stare at him.”
“I told Beng Hock that it has been ten years, and we are still waiting for answers,” said Lee Lan, fighting back tears. “I told him to please work harder, help us find the killer.
“I told him all his former colleagues, those who fought alongside him for so many years, are now in power. They have been in government for a year.
“I hope we don’t have to wait another nine years to find our answer.”
“The family deserves closure, but beyond that, we (as a society) need some sort of truth and reconciliation so that we can all unite and see how best to do things moving forward,” says Malik Imtiaz.
“These agencies do not serve the government of the day, they serve the people. Transparency and accountability - that’s how these agencies work. Fundamental liberties and human rights are to be entitled, to be asserted, even in the face of authority.”
The death of Beng Hock has been a test of the Malaysia’s democractic institutions, a test that it has so far failed in the eyes of many. But there is hope yet.
“I believe the case can be solved,” says Yeoh. “If the right people are charged, these people would then talk. All the officers who were either involved or in the know are still around, whether employed by MACC or otherwise.”
“All it needs is a call to these people, to ask what they know.”
“This is no longer a question of forensic evidence” said Malik Imtiaz. “The fact that he fell out of the window is established. The injuries, are established. It’s the human factor of what happened that night that needs to be looked into further.”
The perpetrators are still out there, as are the witnesses.
They hold the answers, and we as a society need to find them.