By Tan Kaiyi
“No, I did not commit those murders.”
“But the evidence was overwhelming.”
“Overwhelmingly false. The judge dismissed the case and I was not convicted.”
“Everything, from the knives to the bags to the photos were found in your HDB flat. How can you deny that?”
His eyes shifted. “I…I am not denying anything. If the public is unhappy, they are free to disagree with the ruling of the Supreme Court.”
The faces froze on the projector screen. Mahesh placed the remote on the table.
“There,” he indicated to Leong. “When you said you were not denying anything, there was a slip. If you did not do it, you should be confident. Viewers might notice these things.
Leong took a sip of water. For a thin sixty-five-year-old man, he looked radiant and alert. His appearance was such that it seemed to acquit him already from the murders he was accused of. But Mahesh believed that Leong could pull them off if he was half his age. Though his client worked as a simple administrative assistant for most of his life, Leong was one of the sharpest people he had media trained.
“Isn’t it natural to stutter? Even when I speak sometimes, I might not utter the exact words in mind,” Leong said.
“People are more forgiving in a casual conversation. Here, you will be in front of the nation talking about killings you did not commit.”
“It sounds like I’m on trial again.”
“Unfortunately, Mr. Leong, you’ll always be on trial.”
When they first met, Mahesh didn’t think much of Leong. In fact, he was surprised that a man of Leong’s age knew about public relations and had the money for his services. The client had come through a fellow freelancer, Marcus. They had worked in BCW for many years until they decided they had enough of working for people. “Who commissioned the media training?” Mahesh asked. Marcus was sheepish and vague. All he responded was that it was someone from linked to the government.
“Wouldn’t it have come from GeBIZ?” Mahesh asked. Government contracts usually came strictly from the online tender portal.
“Would we be talking if it was on GeBIZ?” Marcus replied.
The circumstances didn’t matter. As long as he was paid, Mahesh was happy to oblige.
Mahesh and Leong ran through a few more practice interviews. Each time, Mahesh sharpened his questions, trying to steel up Leong for the upcoming onslaught on CNA(Channel News Asia). About an hour later, Mahesh called for a break. They sat down and had their refreshments.
“You were very hard in the last round of questions,” Leong said.
“Rather hard now than suffer later on TV,” Mahesh said, taking a gulp from his Coke Zero bottle.
Leong sipped on his green tea. During the break, Mahesh studied him. He looked exactly like how the witnesses described the National Day Killer in the report. Lanky and not very tall, the perpetrator looked as if he was a homeless cardboard collector. However, he had the fitness of an NS commando. A police report stated that a pursuing officer was unable to catch up with a masked figure leaving the scene of a murder. The policeman was in his twenties and won numerous fitness awards in his cohort. Despite that, he couldn’t keep up. Mahesh examined Leong. The old man was certainly lean and walked in steady strides.
The media trainer shook off those thoughts once he was aware of them. He reminded himself that the Supreme Court’s decision was final. Leong was innocent and he was here to help him reinforce that to the public.
“Shall we go again?” Mahesh asked Leong. The old man nodded wordlessly.
“Let’s do one last round,” the younger man said.
Leong indicated that he was ready to go with a thumbs up.
Mahesh introduced himself as a fictional TV presenter and began the questioning. Leong learned fast. He now was able to deal with the unpleasant topics around the time before he was acquitted as the National Day Killer: the comments from the public, the stares and flashes he received from cameras when he was shuttled between the prison complex and the courthouse and the crushing sense of injustice that the real murderer was out enjoying the serenity and freedom that rightly belonged to him. He flinched before but now, it was as if he was truly innocent. As if, Mahesh caught himself thinking. There’s no as if. Leong was not the murderer.
“The killer left messages about how it never rains on National Day. What do you make of that?”
“I don’t know. Why not you ask him?”
“Him? What makes you think it’s him?”
“I don’t think I’m fit to answer these questions. It should be left to the police.”
Leong was getting more confident.
“In the notes he left behind, the killer said that his killings were a tribute. It appeases what he calls the great spirits of the earth and calls on their blessings for whoever rules the land. The fact that it never rains on the parade was proof of his success. What do you think of that?”
“I have no insights into the mind of a madman. I’m sure you’re curious but this is a question, again, for the police,” Leong said it assertively while maintaining a steady gaze at Mahesh. Good, the younger man thought.
“So, are you the National Day Killer?” Mahesh asked abruptly. He noticed that Leong tended to get tired around eight minutes into the interview. A direct question was meant to throw him off and test him.
Leong responded brilliantly and firmly, “No, I am not.”
Mahesh switched off the camera. “Fantastic, I think we’re done.”
Leong smiled, patted his hands against his legs as if congratulating himself on a good day’s work done and stood up. The old man thanked his trainer for the session and offered his help to pack up.
“You did very well today. If you need to revise before the broadcast in three days, just give me a call,” Mahesh said as he kept his cameras, laptop and other equipment.
“I’m afraid that’s all the money I have for this,” Leong said, chuckling.
“I hope it’s worth the investment. Not a lot of people would think to prepare themselves before going on camera. CEOs have frozen on screen for answers that were not as pointed as what you’ll be receiving.”
“Well, it wasn’t entirely my idea,” Leong said.
Leong had walked off to the far corner of the room to dump the empty cans of beverages they had consumed during the session. He returned and said, “That’s the last of it. Shall we?”
The two men left the room and Mahesh locked up the office he had rented based on a favour from a friend. The younger man offered the older man a ride to the nearest MRT. “Thank you, it’s quite a walk,” Leong said. “This old man needs to protect his legs,” he said while walking untroubled to the car.
During the journey, Mahesh went through what would happen on the day itself again. He assured Leong that he’d be there on the 12th of August and reminded Leong of what he should wear and when he should show up at the studio. When he discussed the schedule with Leong in the car, Mahesh was worried that he might be overbearing. He had run through these details multiple times with the older man, but he knew that people could be forgetful under stress, and it was better to be sure. The media trainer wondered why they would want to air such as controversial story three days after National Day, but he guessed that the producer must have been desperate for exciting content. He or she must have fought the government censors ferociously to get the green light.
Once he was satisfied that the Leong remembered all the details, he switched to other topics of conversation for the rest of the drive.
“Mr. Leong, do you ever feel that it’s unfair to you?”
“That you’re put on trial by the public like this and the real killer is out there still.”
“There’s no fair or unfair. You just accept what the world gives you.”
“That’s quite a grim outlook.”
“Not really. We just have to live with history, with what is given to us and what we should do next.”
Mahesh drove on quietly, taking in the Leong that was slowly unveiling beside him. During their time together, they were so focused on the media training that the younger man had no time to strike up a personal conversation with his client.
“What do you mean by live with history?”
“It was that outlook that made us. Our country went through a tough time before it got to where it is today. We forget that our streets were riddled with crime and blood. Just about sixty years back, we were killing each over the colour of our skin. And then, for some reason, we made it.”
“We had good leaders.”
“Yes, but facing the uncertainty of this world, even great leaders cannot succeed if they haven’t been elected.”
“But our people elect them.”
“I’m not just talking about people. History must elect them. That is the ultimate reason for success.”
“What do you mean by history?”
Leong went on, “The flow of events, the spirit of the ages, the soul of the people. All of these must be aligned for our success. And is it too much to thank these forces that have allowed us to flourish?”
Mahesh couldn’t really piece together these momentary revelations immediately. It was only after a few weeks after the broadcast of the interview, which went seamlessly, that he thought of whether he should contact the police.
The judge dismissed the case and I was not convicted. That line of Leong from the video replayed in his head.
The judge dismissed the case and I was not convicted.
The car approached the pickup and drop off point of the nearest MRT station. Mahesh, not fully knowing what to say, told Leong as the older man exited the car, “It was very nice meeting you, Mr. Leong. What you said was interesting. Perhaps, there are some truths to be learned from the pioneer generation.”
“There’s nothing. All we need is to be thankful,” Leong said as he smiled and shut the passenger door.
 Housing Development Board flats. Nearly 80% of the population stays in HDB flats.
 National Service or a two year compulsory uniformed service for all male Singaporeans and Permanent residents, normally served from age 18-20. Subsequently, the have to return and serve for a short period (few weeks) for a given tenure.
 Metro rail. Mass rapid transit
Tan Kaiyi is on a literary odyssey to unearth the wonders and weirdness within the mundane. His poems have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS). His play, On Love, was selected for performance at Short & Sweet Festival Singapore. He has also been published in Best Asian Speculative Fiction (2018), an anthology of science fiction, fantasy and horror stories from the region.
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