A Singaporean mother’s quest for police reform after troubled son’s death

Justin Lee. Photo: Cecilia Ow
Justin Lee. Photo: Cecilia Ow

Seven months after Singaporean teenager Justin Lee was arrested for suspected drug dealing, he fell 12 stories to his death. 

His mother, Cecilia Ow, 51, remembered her son acting reclusive in the months following his arrest earlier this year, and after his death was shown his paranoid, handwritten notes about being stalked by the authorities. Photos of the notes were shown to her by an officer investigating his death, the polytechnic lecturer said. 

“I was shown these 13 pages and asked to help interpret what Justin has written because there were some things that they didn’t quite understand because they didn’t know him,” she said on Thursday. “So at the end of it, the conclusion was that he was suffering from paranoia and anxiety. He wrote a lot about his paranoia with [the Central Narcotics Bureau], stalking him, watching him, laying traps for him, his paranoia about being raided again.”

His mother believes that paranoia fed his mental instability and precipitated what she is certain was suicide. Now, she’s hoping her son’s case will get the attention needed for law enforcement to reassess and reform how they treat minors.

“I think he wanted so badly to escape the persecution and this mental and emotional trauma that he just couldn’t take it anymore,” she added.

The police are still investigating Lee’s death. Many of Ow’s assertions could not be independently verified, and the police have yet to respond to specific questions about the case sent Thursday.

Ow believes Lee was subjected to harsh conditions upon his Feb. 3 arrest which affected a teen she said suffered from chronic clinical depression. She remembered her son recounting to her his experiences in police custody, which she detailed Oct. 1 in a letter to Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.

“Six to nine CNB officers chased him down, handcuffed him and then brought him to my house and raid his room,” she wrote. “They found nothing. After that, Justin was taken to Bedok police station where he was interrogated in an abrasive manner (vulgarities were used), intimidated, and even denied a drink of water …”

In the same letter, she said she “believed that the CNB officers and the prosecutorial system drove Justin to his death.” 

The Central Narcotics Bureau, or CNB, confirmed Wednesday that Lee had spent the night behind bars after he was arrested at Serangoon North Avenue 4, where they recovered drugs – Ow says it was LSD – they believe he meant to sell.

Lee was back behind bars on June 23, when he was charged with several drug-related crimes including trafficking, and released again that night, which the police implied was an unusual exception made “because he was 17 years old.” Lee was charged in court the next day.

Ow said she had no clue her son was selling LSD.

“It was a rude surprise to me when he was arrested, that was like the first time I found out,” she said. 

CNB says it is investigating her allegations about law enforcement’s role in her son’s death and expects to release the findings after its probe wraps up by month’s end. It announced Wednesday that it had offered counseling to Ow after her son’s death, which she rejected. 

“CNB understands ‘Justin’’s mother’s grief and will continue to render assistance to her,’” Wednesday’s statement said. 

But Ow insists her suspicions and concerns are not solely animated by the grief she is experiencing. She said that she is focused on making his Sept. 16 death mean something by changing how law enforcement treats juvenile offenders, calling for an “authentic and thorough review” of policies, procedures, and processes. She also wants officers to undergo mental health first aid training.

“Yes, every parent will feel guilt. I am experiencing all that. The grief, the guilt, everything, you name it. But I refuse to let that derail me because that’s my agenda, to see real change in the law enforcement,” she said. In her letter to the minister, Ow cited the 2016 case of 14-year-old Benjamin Lim, who committed suicide after he was interrogated in connection with an alleged sexual molestation. A coroner later suggested that a school counselor could have accompanied him to the police station. 

Shanmugam called Ow after receiving her letter, telling her that investigations led by Minister of State for Ministry of Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim were underway, she said. CNB confirmed that the latter’s contact details were also provided to her.

Ow decided to take her police conduct concerns to Shanmugam after weeks of hearing little from CNB, which she first reached out to after her son’s burial. She said a senior CNB officer met her twice, on Sept. 30 and Oct. 8, to return Lee’s belongings and notify her of the timeframe of the investigation, which she was told would take around two weeks.

“I kind of felt that they were just dragging things out a little bit. Again, it’s just my speculation,” she said. Before sending out the letter, Ow recalled telling the CNB representative that the issue was “beyond” him and had to do with the “whole system.” 

CNB said Wednesday that the Home Affairs Ministry may take “further steps as necessary” when the probe is completed. Ow half-expects nothing will change after the investigation, but a part of her is still optimistic. 

“I told my MP that I wanted this issue discussed in Parliament. That is my wishful thinking, I know. But if it happens, I will feel that I’m one step closer to my goal,” she said. 

Other stories:

Drunk drivers, jaywalking seniors are the worst road users in Singapore: survey

Unvaccinated Singaporeans banned from malls, dining at hawker centers from today

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