SINGAPORE: The coroner’s inquiry into the death of 14 year-old Benjamin Lim, a schoolboy who was found dead after being questioned by police over an allegation of molest, has confirmed that he committed suicide.
In delivering his findings on Thursday (Aug 18), State Coroner Marvin Bay said that he accepts as true the evidence of Assistant Superintendent Mohamed Razif, who was the investigation officer for the case, that in his investigations into the circumstances of Benjamin’s death, he “had not come across anything that was not in accordance with police or school processes.”
Mr Bay added that according to evidence, the police officers and school staff who had engaged Benjamin “took active steps to handle (him) and the investigations sensitively, given his age and status as a student.”
But he also made what he described as "an additional refinement that may be worth considering" - that the school counsellor accompany the student to the police station. This had not been done in Benjamin’s case.
14-year-old Benjamin, a student of North View Secondary, fell to his death from his Yishun flat on Jan 26.
Earlier that day, at about 10am, he had been taken to the principal’s office and questioned by the police over a molestation allegation. After Benjamin admitted that he had deliberately touched an 11-year-old girl in a lift, officers took him to the police station, where he was placed under arrest. He was released on bail into his mother’s custody at about 2.50pm, according to State Counsel Wong Woon Kwong at the start of the coroner’s inquiry in May. An hour after they returned home, Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his block.
PHONE CALL “NOT THE IDEAL WAY” TO CONVEY NUANCES OF MESSAGE
Mr Bay also said on Thursday that a phone call was “not the ideal way” to communicate the nuances of the message that school counsellor Karry Lung had been asked by the school to deliver to the boy. Instead, she should have spoken directly to Benjamin.
Shortly before Benjamin was found dead at the foot of his block, his mother had received a phone call from Mdm Lung, who said that Benjamin would not be attending a Secondary 3 school camp.
According to Mrs Lim, Mdm Lung had made a “peremptory and brief call” telling her that after a meeting with the principal, the school had decided not to let him attend the camp. Instead, he was to stay at home and do e-learning.
“After the call with the school counsellor, Mrs Lim had simply told (Benjamin) that the school had said he was not allowed to go to the camp. (Benjamin) had said ‘OK’ and continued playing games on his mobile phone,” said Mr Bay, adding that Mdm Lung’s call was followed through with an email to the school principal at 4.28pm, which pre-dated Benjamin’s death at 4.36pm.
“Testimonial and documentary evidence points to Mdm Lung couching the notion of (Benjamin) not attending the camp as a suggestion premised on his perceived best interests, rather than the … directive that (Benjamin) was not to attend the camp,” he said.
“It is possible that in the imperfect transmission of the message via a phone call, Mrs Lim may have interpreted the gist of the message to be a pre-determined decision by the school to exclude (Benjamin) from the camp,” said Mr Bay. “(Benjamin) was unfortunately passed a garbled message that a peremptory decision had been made for him not to be part of the school camp.”
He added that with the benefit of “perfect hindsight”, the counsellor should have asked to speak to Benjamin directly, then relay the concerns and the basis for the school’s suggestion that he stay at home.
“This would have afforded an opportunity to explain that this was predicated on the school’s interpretation of his best interests, and not a punitive or retributive measure against any perceived wrongdoing on his part,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mr Bay reiterated that the inaccuracies in the accounts given by Benjamin’s mother and sister may not have been deliberate. “It is equally plausible that their recollections were affected by the fact that they were frantically searching for answers of what had happened to (Benjamin) at that time”.
CORONER CONCLUDES THAT BENJAMIN DID TOUCH 11-YEAR-OLD GIRL
After viewing footage from the closed-circuit camera in the lift, the State Coroner also concluded that Benjamin had touched the 11-year-old girl.
Benjamin’s father had earlier taken issue with an investigation report that the alleged molestation had taken place. Counsel for the boy's family, Mr Choo Zheng Xi, had said in May that Benjamin's father was of the view that there was "no bodily contact" between Benjamin and the 11-year-old girl. Mrs Lim had also disputed the allegations against her son. According to the investigation report, Benjamin’s mother did not believe her son had done anything, and thought Benjamin had been “set up”.
But on Thursday, Mr Bay concluded that Benjamin did touch the girl, although the contact was momentary, and he did not appear to grasp or grope the girl upon contact with her body.
Based on the footage, which Mr Bay said he viewed “many times,” Benjamin and the girl were in close proximity in the lift. While the girl had a large pink haversack that partially obscured the view of the moment of the asserted touch, the State Coroner said Benjamin had shifted his right arm in a “slight underhand movement” towards the girl.
“The observable trajectory of the path of travel of his hand would have resulted in a contact against either her upper rear thigh or lower buttock area,” he said.
The girl’s instantaneous reaction of flinching and turning slightly to look at Benjamin would support the conclusion of contact, he added.
POLICE AND SCHOOL MEASURES TO PUT BENJAMIN AT EASE “COMMENDABLE”
Mr Bay also detailed measures by police officers and school staff that were meant to put him at ease, describing the measures as “commendable”.
Questions had been raised earlier about the way the police had handled the case, with debate sparked in Parliament about police procedures involving minors. Minister of Education for (Schools) Ng Chee Meng and Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam both delivered ministerial statements on the issue in March.
Mr Shanmugam had said then that the individual police officers involved in the case had “carried out their duties faithfully and properly, in accordance with the rules”. He had told Parliament that a review of the protocol for police interviews of young people was being carried out, following the case.
On Thursday, the State Coroner noted that the police officers at the school were in civilian attire and went in unmarked cars. Benjamin was “discreetly” brought to the principal’s office during recess, and the school principal had spoken to him before his police interview.
Only one police officer – Inspector Poh Wee Teck – had interviewed Benjamin in the school, in the presence of four school staff including Mdm Lung. And before he was taken to the police station, Benjamin was allowed to speak to his mother and finish his food and drink.
Benjamin was also taken to the police station unrestrained, in an unmarked car. Staff Sergeant Muhammad Razlan Abdol Hakim had also conversed with Benjamin to put him at ease, and once at the police station, Senior Investigation Officer Mohammad Fareed Rahmat had interviewed him in an open-plan office, separate from other adult persons in custody, said Mr Bay.
COUNSELLOR SHOULD ACCOMPANY STUDENT TO POLICE STATION
But along with the measures he detailed, the State Coroner also elaborated on the “additional refinement” he suggested - that school counsellors accompany students to the police station.
He said that while parents generally have a justifiably high degree of confidence in the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of the police, they may feel “rather more conflicted” when their child is a person of interest in a criminal investigation, and “may feel a degree of anxiety and uncertainty” if their child is taken to a police station unaccompanied by any member of the school.
He noted that such anxiety was evident in Benjamin’s mother and sister when they arrived at Benjamin’s school after he was taken to the police station.
An accompanying counsellor would be an ideal person to monitor the child’s emotional state, and give real-time information to parents of the location of their child to put them at ease, he said.
School counsellors could also give the police a heads-up if the child has a psychological health treatment record, and an on-site counsellor could also contact other teachers or allied educators to provide more background information that could help the police better understand the student and circumstances of the case, he added.
But Mr Bay reiterated that he is not suggesting that counsellors become “advocates” for the child, or actively participate in the interview process “but rather, to be present as resource persons to meet any arising needs from the police, the student, or his caregivers.” Counsellors should, he said, remain in close proximity, perhaps by waiting along the corridors of the workstations, as a “reassuring presence” for the child and his caregivers.
‘NO WARNING SIGNS’ THAT BENJAMIN LIM HAD THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE
While the State Coroner concluded that Benjamin’s fall from height was a deliberate case of suicide, it is “very likely” that a “combination of factors were at play”, as well as unfortunate that Benjamin did not leave a suicide note to explain his motivations.
He added that while Benjamin was never formally diagnosed with any clinical psychological disorder, he did show predisposing traits of anger management and difficulties with emotional regulation in his primary school years.
But there were “no warning signs” that Benjamin had any ideas of suicide from the time he was first brought to the principal’s office on Jan 26, to the time he left the police station, he said. There were, however, signs that he was internalising a “considerable degree of inner conflict.”
For one, Benjamin appeared to be an introverted person who “did not seem inclined to openly discuss his problems”. He had “reacted visibly” when his mother spoke loudly to him while he was in the principal’s office, and had “sport(ed) a perplexed and troubled expression, suggesting that her approval was important to him”, said Mr Bay.
Despite this, Benjamin had not sought to explain himself to his mother and sister when they questioned him, instead “stating cryptically” that “you all said it was me who did it - then it was me”. After returning home, Benjamin had maintained his silence and “curiously ambivalent attitude”, preferring to engage with his mobile devices rather than attempt to confide in or work through his problems with his mother and sister, noted Mr Bay.
MULTI-AGENCY RESEARCH INTO YOUTH SUICIDE
The State Coroner added that the motivations for youth suicide are not very well understood, and Benjamin’s death “conforms to this paradigm”. In line with this, he revealed that work is being done to study youth suicides by a group comprising the Ministry of Health, the Institute of Mental Health, the Health Sciences Authority, the Samaritans of Singapore, and the Courts.
He said the group’s objective is to understand the pathology of youth suicides, and thereafter work with other stakeholders to devise effective strategies to address the stressors and influences that “gravitate young persons in Singapore towards self-harm”.
The group has last met two days ago, he added.
POLICE, MOE ‘WILL CONSIDER’ CORONER’S SUGGESTION
The Singapore Police Force (SPF) said it would consider the State Coroner’s suggestion of school counsellors accompanying students before and after police interviews, without interfering with police investigations.
In a statement responding to the findings of the coroner’s inquiry, the SPF said it had announced in February that it was conducting a review to consider whether young offenders should be accompanied by an appropriate adult. Details will be released once the review is completed, said SPF.
SPF added that the findings “put to rest” many of the questions raised prior to the coroner’s inquiry.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) said it is "currently studying the suggestions that the Coroner has made in relation to certain school processes and will consider them in tandem with the on-going review by the police of their protocols for interviewing young offenders."
In its response to the coroner's inquiry, MOE also noted that the State Coroner accepted that the school acted in accordance with its processes and that its staff took active steps to handle Benjamin and the police investigations sensitively, given his age and status as a student.
Both SPF and MOE again sent their condolences to Benjamin's family.