THE PADANG, SINGAPORE. FEBRUARY 2, 1345 HOURS
Lianhe Zaobao, the country’s leading morning Chinese daily was the first newspaper to break the story. For the once-in-a-lifetime scoop which every reporter lives for, Roseline Yong had arrived at the scene early after receiving a tip-off at her crime beat desk in her Toa Payoh office.
The police at the scene were as usual, less than forthcoming with information to the press refusing to comment about the on-going investigation.
Staking out the scene, Roseline uncovered nothing but rumours from the crowd that could not be substantiated.
The police had protected the crime scene well, keeping curious spectators far away behind their barricades. They had also erected large canvas screens to conceal their work but still, there were photo opportunities aplenty for the gathering press contingent.
A stream of police vehicles with their revolving red and blue lights on, civil defence men running their equipment near the tunnel entrance – these could make great front-page photos if only Roseline had the story to go with it, and it had to be a good one, she hoped.
The growing crowd pressed forward behind the police barriers five hundred metres away. As crowds do, they speculated of many things going on behind the green canvas screens. The less agile-minded assumed that it was just a gas leak. Others concocted tales of terrorist bombs being found and that rumour spread like wildfire among the spectators eager to see more action.
The mystery only deepened when a convoy of military trucks from the Singapore Armed Forces arrived.
A lone Zaobao photographer stationing himself on one of the upper floors of the Swissôtel The Stamford, a 226-metre-tall hotel that overlooks the Padang, grabbed some intriguing long telephoto shots of crates being loaded onto the military trucks.
But with no official confirmation coming, Roseline was still stuck trying to fill the many gaps in her story. She speculated that this could be some tragic accident or maybe the gas leak theory was right. Perhaps they had uncovered some old bombs from the war. That still happened in Singapore from time to time and it would explain the presence of the army.
Acting on a hunch, she left the scene, choosing instead to stake out the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters in Cantonment Road. She figured if anyone could shed some light on this mystery, the police would be questioning him there.
Like Muhammed before her, Roseline too would soon strike gold of her own.
She had been waiting for hours and with her deadline looming, she was tempted to start biting her fingernails again. The story still had way too many blanks and she could not rely on rumours to plug those holes.
However, if push came to shove, she could always call up the Police Commissioner and tell him of the public speculation that a terrorist bomb had been found. That would force him to give her something if only to quash the rumour. It was a long shot but she was beginning to get desperate.
The new Commissioner had only been at his job for such a short time and now he’s going to be tested by fire over whatever this is – poor guy. He’s such a nice man, she thought. A scholar and a former police commando, he was only recently appointed as the Police Commissioner. Still in his early forties – he was one of the youngest persons ever to hold that rank. “I hope he doesn’t get burned with the fallout,” thought Roseline.
It was just after 4pm that she saw him – the contractor from the worksite, Mr Yee Seng Ghee. She had seen him earlier at the scene talking to some detectives. Tailing him to his van parked across the busy road, Roseline approached the man just as he was about to turn the ignition key.
Slowly she coaxed him to reveal the little he knew. He told her of the missing workers, his return to the site, the discovery of the room full of treasure and the Japanese flag on the wall. He was certainly enjoying his proverbial 15 minutes of fame. He even had an unexpected bonus for this pretty young reporter.
Reaching into the glove compartment of his van, he pulled out his digital SLR camera complete with a pop-up flash and telephoto zoom lens. “I’ve got some pictures – do you want to see?” he offered.
Looking at the little LED screen at the back of the camera, the first few pictures were disappointing – far too underexposed. “Sorry, I forgot to switch on the flash,” he explained sheepishly. She giggled as he scrolled to the next image and there she saw it. Perfectly illuminated, the room and all its contents came sharply into view. There were crates of gold bricks, jewellery and many gleaming idols.
Flicking the pictures forward with her finger, she came to one with the flag. “Oh wow,” was all she could say. Twenty pictures further down, she stopped at another shot that caught her attention. It was the writing in Japanese on the wall.
“Got to get that translated,” she made a mental note. After running through all the forty-nine pictures, Roseline then took the camera and fired off a few pictures of the beaming man himself to go with her interview. In a few minutes, she had downloaded all his photographs into her trusty Compaq CQ40 laptop.
“But didn’t the police ask you about these pictures? Do they know you have them?” she asked.
“No, they were very busy. They didn’t ask so I didn’t say anything. The police were more concerned about getting the names of the workers. They wanted all their work permits. Miss, do you think there will be a reward for finding all this gold?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it but maybe you should ask the police that,” said Roseline, whose mind was already racing ahead planning how she would write the story of her career.
Waving him goodbye, she found a quiet corner and switched on her laptop again. Within seconds she began sending the pictures back to her office. She would call them in a minute, flushed with victory over her scoop.
Mr Yee too was one very happy man. He did not tell the police of his little trip down the hole into the room. He had climbed down the rope that his workers had left behind soon after he spotted the room. There was still so much gold and jewellery just left there. He grabbed what he could – the temptation was just too much. That was a little secret he kept to himself. He did not tell anyone of the twelve gold bars and a handful of rings that were now tucked safely under the seat of his van wrapped in a plastic bag. He would have taken much more but the twelve bars and the jewellery were all he could manage and still climb up the rope by himself.
Mr Yee knew he had to call the police. He could not keep this discovery to himself. But taking just a little of that treasure … nobody would miss that. “Why should only my workers get rich from this? It was my site, so I too should get something out of it,” he reasoned with himself.
Besides, the sergeant who had interviewed him was clearly in too much of a hurry to get the statement recorded and out of the way. The officer only questioned him about the workers and the time he called for the police. He did not ask if Mr Yee had taken any pictures or even if he had entered the underground room. So, technically, the man had not told any lies. He had just conveniently left those parts out of his police statement.
As a contractor, Mr Yee had many friends, among them second-hand dealers and owners of pawnshops. Selling the gold bars one at a time to different people should not be difficult, he reasoned. “I can sell most of it and maybe I’ll keep a few bars as souvenirs,” he said to himself as he drove home, intent on giving his wife a ring with a large diamond. It would be her belated anniversary present from her very generous husband.
Roseline watched intently as the green bar on her screen grew longer. The high-resolution photographs were being slowly transmitted from her laptop back to her office at the News Centre. These she was sure would make it to the front page of her paper the next morning. Maybe the editors might even decide to print a special late-night edition that very evening and her byline would be there for all her colleagues to envy.
But for all that she had learnt in the past few minutes – far more than any journalist had until now – Roseline was missing out on another critical part of the drama as it unfolded back at the Padang.
The drab green military trucks were still lining up close to the field when sirens began wailing in the distance and the sound was getting louder. Cameras clicked into action as the first of what was to become a steady stream of ambulances suddenly came into view on the far side of Saint Andrew’s Road bordering the Padang.
Police outriders on their oversized motorcycles quickly stopped traffic as the white and red Civil Defence ambulances were guided directly to the tunnel’s entrance.
The waiting crowd could only catch frustrating glimpses of the drama hidden by the canvas sheets the police had erected. But the lone press photographer stationed at the hotel had a much better view. He knew instantly the pictures he was taking would be seen around the world within a day, perhaps even within an hour.
As he pushed his zoom to the maximum, they began coming out. Stretcher after stretcher, men in uniform strapped down with oxygen masks over their faces. There must have been at least a dozen or two casualties as they were rushed away by the ambulances.
Still, he waited patiently, connecting his camera to his laptop and sending the disturbing images remotely back to his office. Something big was surely happening and so he waited.
Thirty minutes later, the last three stretchers were brought out. This time, there was no frantic rush to the awaiting ambulances. Instead, they were carried out reverently. The faces of the men on the stretchers had been covered with white sheets. Only their mud-covered black boots were visible as a steady drizzle began yet again.
Soon more civil defence men would arrive at the scene – only this time, they would be wearing white protective biological suits. The authorities were only now starting to understand the dimensions of the crisis on their hands.
Yamashita’s sword had been unsheathed and the carnage was just beginning.