Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Can you prove spirits don't exist?

Singapore may be modern country but there are still many people – ordinary, level-headed folk who lead normal lives – and yet, when caught in circumstances beyond their control, they are willing to believe in the supernatural and the effects they can have on the lives of the mortal.

In the early to mid-80s there was a spate of police reports - people said they were cheated out of jewellery worth thousands of dollars and cash by self-professed mediums who claimed that they could see spirits.

The typical story went like this ... the medium (for want of a better term) would befriend someone... usually a person down on his luck and eventually gets himself invited to the victim's home. Once there, the medium would claim that the home is haunted or that a spell was cast on the victim which accounted for him losing his job, his failed relationship, losses at the track – basically whatever was ailing the poor man at the time.

Now in the cold light of day when someone tells you your home is haunted or a hex was placed on you, it's easy to say "Nah - I'll never fall for that". But when misfortune tends to lurk at every corner in your life, you begin to wonder if there could be some truth in this. To make his case even more convincing, the medium usually throws in a dose of proof. Sometimes this can be in the form of "magic stones" that change colour when dipped in water (a sure sign of the supernatural at work - claims the medium) or slicing open a fruit only to expose some bloody innards. These are the usual sleight of hand tricks but they work on those who want to believe that some external force is responsible for their run of bad luck. Once in a while, as in a case I had, the victim would actually be shown the spirit in person. How this was done beats me.

So, convinced something was afoot, the victim would hand over valuables or whatever was left of his life's savings in a sad attempt to be rid of the back luck, spirits – whatever you wish to call it. The medium then says some prayers, makes some offerings allegedly bought by what the victim had given him. He later pronounces the home spirit-free. The victim eventually confides in someone else what happened, realises (or thinks) he was conned (or he feels just foolish) and a police report is made.

The cops treat such cases as cheating under Section 420 of the Penal Code. Statements are taken and sometimes someone is caught. I investigated one such case while at Ang Mo Kio Police Division around 1984/85. The suspect was arrested on a warrant late one night (these things always happen at night) and I was called in to question him.

Questioning usually takes a couple of hours at best - you go back and forth, getting him to repeat the story in minute detail looking for inconsistencies. Handcuffed to a chair, this guy looked ordinary enough and he freely admitted everything ... well almost - meeting the victim, going to his home, telling him that the flat was haunted, taking cash to buy some stuff for a cleansing ritual - the whole works. But he stuck to his guns resolutely stating that he indeed saw the spirit, even showed the spirit to the victim (who admitted this) and he got it to leave after saying some prayers.

Okay... fine... describe the spirit, says me. Female, young, long hair (of course!), dressed in white (no surprises there) with long fingernails. I was bored ... so how long were they? "Five feet long" he says in a very matter-of-fact way. Hmmmm - no wonder spirits walk thru' walls - they can't work the door handle with nails like that!

"You don't believe me? I can call her up now - here - in your office!"

Damn - It must have been about 2am, my coffee was cold and I wasn't expecting such a challenge! "Nah, its okay - you'll get your chance to prove it in court." Quite safe an answer I thought.

So I finally get the paperwork done and I charge him in court a few hours later. In keeping with my luck, he claims "not guilty". The case goes through the system and eventually a trial date is set. Now investigators have to discuss up-coming trials with a Deputy Public Prosecutor assigned to the case. Let's just say mine was less than enthusiastic.

You see the difficulty is this... everyone's innocent until proven guilty and the onus of proof lies on the prosecution. To prove his guilt, you need to satisfy the court that there was never a spirit in the house to begin with (and my star witness - the victim - was going to swear under oath that he saw one - damn!!); that the money given by the victim did not go to the intended cause - buying the stuff for the ritual. Unfortunately the victim in his statement said he followed the man to buy whatever it was that was needed for the ritual (I can't remember what these were). The third criteria was that we needed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused knowingly and with premeditation, intended to deceive the victim. Now I had no doubt in my mind that the accused was guilty as hell - just out to make a quick buck at the expense of the gullible but suddenly what seemed to be an open 'n shut case started to fall apart.

“So we need to prove that there wasn’t a spirit? Damn damn!” The case was beginning to look rather -iffy. Nobody likes to lose. On the day of the trial, we had a little discussion with the accused. We reduce the charge to a lesser offence, he pleads guilty and because he had some prior convictions, spends three months in prison. Sometimes things just work out that way.

It was only several weeks later when I happened to be chatting over a beer to the cop who was in charge of the lock-up that night when the guy was arrested, that the rest of the story emerged.

It was a slow night and the cells in the station were empty when I brought the suspect up to my office. According to the cop, just after I left, he heard someone banging on the cell bars and a woman's voice coming from what was supposed to be an empty cell. Why he didn't freak out? - I have no idea - he said he's been "through this before". Great! Anyways the hitting of bars and occasional wailing continued until just before I brought the suspect back to his cell. After that all was quiet.

Folklore has it that some mediums can "keep" spirits to do their bidding says the cop.

Now – years later – I wonder what would have happened if I took the suspect up on his offer and said "Okay prove to me that you can call up a ghost" Well I'm glad I didn't. There's a fine line between bravery and stupidity ...

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