Jailed: Caretaker who set fire at St Hilda’s Church and tried to hide tracks by writing a ‘jihad’ note

Photo: Hildan SG / Facebook
Photo: Hildan SG / Facebook

A 60-year-old church caretaker will be serving 18 months in prison after he started a fire in a room of St Hilda’s Church on Easter Sunday. Even worse, he tried to pin the blame on extremism by showing an investigating police officer a note that had the word 
“JIHAD” at the scene — a note that he wrote himself.

Yeo Liang Chai was sentenced in court yesterday for one count each of committing mischief by fire and intentionally perverting the course of justice, Channel NewsAsia reported. It was revealed that Yeo started the whole thing out of frustration with his colleagues, who apparently didn’t take his concerns with security lapses seriously enough.

His discontent came to a tipping point on Apr 16, when he arrived at the church at 6.45am to check on the premises before Sunday service. He discovered that a room was unlocked even though there wouldn’t be any activity held until 11am.

This he considered to be a safety lapse, according to CNA’s court report.

Upset, he took a bottle kerosene from his backpack (do caretakers usually have it on them at all times?) and poured its contents over a pile of items — donated books and clothing — in the room. Yeo then set it ablaze and left the room.

When people started gathering at the church’s compound, the caretaker joined them and pretended not to know what happened. He even helped to extinguish the flames.

Later on, when the Singapore Civil Defence Force and police arrived at the scene for investigations, Yeo showed an officer a note that he pretended to have found. The note with the word “JIHAD” on it was actually written by himself before starting work.

His intention was to create the impression that some Malay-Muslim folks caused the fire. Back in 2016, the church’s in-house Malay contractors had been arrested for theft, and Yeo wanted to pin the blame on people who wanted take revenge. Pretty dumb, not to mention racially insulting.

On the same day, Yeo eventually admitted to his deeds after further probing by the authorities, and was promptly arrested. His reckless stunt caused damage that amounted to over S$32,000 in the church along Ceylon Road.

In court, the prosecution condemned Yeo for betraying the trust of the church and argued that his “JIHAD” note could have stoked racial and religious tensions, CNA reported.

“…because of the potential severity of the case, officers from the Major Crime Division of the Singapore Police Force were deployed to investigate the case,” noted the deputy public prosecutor.

Yeo’s defense lawyer argued that the 60-year-old had been suffering from persistent depressive disorder, and that he was just attempting to “highlight facility lapses”.

St Hilda’s Church, however, seemed to have forgiven him, according to its vicar Reverend Wong, who promised to extend pastoral care and support to Yeo and his loved ones.

The caretaker could have been jailed for up to 14 years and fined for committing mischief by fire and intentionally perverting the course of justice.

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