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  • Alien
  • Catherine Lim (bio)

I am an engineer from Madras, India, with Permanent Resident status in Singapore. I came to work in Singapore some years ago, enticed by what I had heard of the city-state's cleanliness, orderliness, and ambitious commitment to the goal of front position among the world's most technologically advanced, successful, prosperous, and gracious societies in the twenty-first century.

Singapore is also one of the most superstitious societies in the world. I have never met people who so enthusiastically (though discreetly) consult fortunetellers and believe in ghosts and evil spirits. It is thanks to this belief that I, an alien, can afford to own an apartment in this unique country, part of whose uniqueness must be based on the astronomical price of property. One can spend one's entire life paying off the loan for a tiny, three-room apartment. When I tell my friends back home in India how much I have paid for my little flat on the fourteenth floor of a block that is one of six packed together in one of numerous such housing estates in Singapore, their jaws drop and they gasp, "But you can get a mansion here with that kind of money!" As I said, it is thanks to Singaporean ghosts that I, my wife, Kamala, and our little boy, Ravi, are comfortably, happily settled in a place of our own in Singapore.

It all began with a small advertisement—one of hundreds—in the "Houses/Flats for Sale/Rent" section of the Straits Times. I yelped with joy, circling it with a bright-red pencil. At last: a flat that suited my requirements concerning location and size and my very modest budget. I called the advertiser and owner, a Mr. Yap. He made arrangements for me to view the place. He was a thin, middle-aged, nervous man. He said that if I were a genuine buyer, I should make an offer quickly as there were many interested buyers.

One of the first things Kamala and I had learnt when we first came to Singapore was that Singaporeans love the act of bargaining. Nothing gives them greater satisfaction than the feeling that they have succeeded in knocking a substantial amount off the original price—whether of fish, shoes, car, or property—regardless of the fact that the price has been [End Page 23] impossibly jacked up in the first place in readiness for the knocking off. Indeed, Singaporeans have raised the act of bargaining to the status of a complex social ritual, giving pleasure to both sides.

So I coolly made Mr. Yap an offer that was so grossly below the asking price that I blushed inwardly. Waiting for the exhilarating process of bargaining to begin, I was astonished when he accepted my offer. "OK," he said.

The flat was mine!

I phoned my good friend Boh Yuen in great excitement.

Boh Yuen and I work for the same engineering company. His immediate reaction was, "There's a catch somewhere. No property in Singapore goes that cheap. You'd better find out, Prem."

It was too late, but I decided to find out. The truth was so unnerving that I decided to keep it from Kamala.

The flat had once belonged to a relative of Mr. Yap. One night, many years ago, the man killed his entire family—his wife and three young sons—and then himself. It was the most systematically carried out murder-cum-suicide, planned to the last detail and meticulously recorded, in advance, in a letter, which the man wrote just before his death, addressed to no one in particular, and left on a table with a glass paperweight on top.

Clearly a stickler for factual accuracy, the man provided, in his letter, precise details of time, sequence of actions, motive. In his neat handwriting, he had written, very simply and matter-of-factly:

I, Jek Chai Mun, killed my three sons, Jek Wen Yong, Jek Wen Kee, and Jek Wen Shin, between 11:30 and 11:55 PM on 12 June 1980, with the help of my wife, Lily Lim Eng Siew. [The three boys—aged eight, six, and four—were...