From undocumented people to a slain crime lord, Malaysia author Suganthi Suparmaniam writes about social issues plaguing her community
By Elena Koshy New Straits Times July 17, 2022
Author Suganthi Suparmaniam
KUALA LUMPUR – TEN-year-old Suganthi Suparmaniam eavesdropped on her father’s conversation with his friends about an Indian gangster shot dead by the police in Kuala Lumpur. “I had never heard the name Kalimuthu before and I didn’t know who he was or the crimes he had committed,” she recalls candidly in the preface of The Story of Bentong Kali, before continuing: “But I remember the excitement with which people talked about him in the days that followed.”
Almost three decades later, the excitement is still there whenever people talk about him. “People can’t help being fascinated with Kalimuthu,” she says wryly, adding: “He may have been a horrific criminal, but the myth that surrounded him was strong.” For one, he purportedly wore a special amulet from Thailand that was believed to have protected him and prevented the police from arresting him.
Continuing with a shake of her head, Suganthi remarks: “After I began researching and writing about Kalimuthu, I realised it wasn’t the amulet that helped him to continue his reign of terror, but the money he spent on bribes that allowed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted!”
The book on Kalimuthu began as a final year project for her post-graduate degree in media studies at Universiti Malaya back in 2019. “We had to pick something that was reported in the media. So, I picked the story of Bentong Kali,” she confesses.
As a former journalist, Suganthi Suparmaniam was exposed to many of the deep-seated issues faced by Malaysians in the early 1980s and the 1990s such as crime, drugs, economic insecurity, lack of job opportunities, bullying, resentment and desperation. Bentong Kali, she tells me, was just a microcosm of what poverty does to the desperate and the marginalised.
TRUE LIFE ACCOUNTS
Suganthi is keen on writing on social issues faced by marginalised communities.
“The hardest was getting gang members to open up to me,” confesses Suganthi, adding: “They didn’t trust me and initially thought I was an undercover policewoman!” But once she assured them of her intentions, some eventually opened up.
She tells me about her experience sitting down with Kalimuthu’s former right-hand man for 10 hours as he recalled his time with the late criminal. “It was excruciating,” she confesses, laughing. “But I can’t help but be amazed that his former associates and close friends still cherish the moments they’d spent with him!”
How did she manage to get in touch with Kali’s ex-associates, I ask in curiosity “Pure kismet!” she replies blithely. She and her husband attended a wedding ceremony where one of the guests was a notorious gang lord. “Ask him!” her husband urged her, adding: “He might be able to get you in touch with Kalimuthu’s contacts!”
She gathered up her courage and approached him at the wedding. “He was suspicious at first but eventually he opened doors for me,” she tells me, adding as an aside with a wink: “My husband has always been my backbone as you can see!”
Suganthi is keen on writing about issues that’s close to her heart. “I’ve always wanted to write about the struggles faced by marginalised communities in Malaysia. I’ve covered topics like gangsterism and statelessness and hope to venture eventually into more complex issues like love, sex and relationships,” she reveals.
Her second book Between the Cracks is based on true stories that she encountered as a reporter with The New Straits Times. “I was usually sent to cover stories on statelessness and the struggles faced by stateless people. Many of the stories in my second book are based on true stories that I’ve personally witnessed as a reporter,” she tells me.
One particular story was about a young stateless girl who worked as a menial servant for a family and was forced to sleep outside with the dog. “That is just one story and there are so many others that are heart-wrenching,” she recounts softly.
In her captivating and evocative second book, Between the Cracks, Suganthi aims to tell “the full story” of what it means to be undocumented in Malaysia, in all of its fraught complexity, challenging the usual good and evil categories.
Over the many years of reporting, the former journalist travelled the country, gaining access to vigilantly guarded communities whose stories are largely absent from modern journalism and literature.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” she writes in the epilogue of Between The Cracks. “Those who are stateless are not able to register their marriages and that in turn, prevents their children from being registered after birth or unable to prove their citizenship, leaving them in limbo for the rest of their lives.”
There are many hidden stories out there of struggles, pain and suffering. More importantly, stories of the human spirit rising above or falling under the waves of injustice are just the things that Suganthi intends to carry on writing about.
“I’ve always wanted to be an author,” she reveals, before adding with a smile: “And these are the kind of stories I’ll continue to tell. Of the struggles, the triumphs and the pain of marginalised communities that are rarely told. They deserve to have their voices heard.”
THE STORY OF BENTONG KALI: CRIME AND SOCIETY IN THE 90’s IN KUALA LUMPUR
Author: Suganthi Suparmaniam
Publisher: Gerakbudaya Enterprise
The Story of Bentong Kali details the rise and fall of one of Malaysia’s most notorious gangsters, Kalimuthu Pakirisamy, better known as Bentong Kali, who terrorised the nation in the early 1990s.
As part of her final year project for her postgraduate degree, author Suganthi embarked on a journey to document the life of one of Malaysia’s most notorious crime lords, tracing his journey from the son of poor labourers Pakirisamy and Supamma, to a hardened criminal whose reign of terror resulted in 17 murders committed between the years 1991 and 1993.
As a child, Kali was afraid of his own shadow and soon became a target for bullies, in particular the local Chinese boys who’d often beat him and throw his bicycle in the nearby river. The beatings and the bullying became a daily occurrence until he decided enough was enough. Kali soon started fighting back and eventually the bullying ceased.
Kali’s first brush with the law took place when he was just 13. He was arrested on suspicion of theft and was given a severe beating by the police officers despite his claims of innocence. Although nothing was documented about his first experience, it helped to change the young boy’s view of the world, of justice and of the police.
He started to feel that no matter what he did or how much he tried to be a good person, he would always be labelled as a no-good and a bad influence to others. It was at this time Kali decided that instead of changing that perception, he’d live up to that notoriety.
After dropping out of school at 14, he became part of Gang 04, which was a spin-off from a Chinese triad. Soon he began carrying a parang and would resort to fist fights to resolve any disputes. Eventually, criminal activities would send Kali behind bars for a year when he turned 19.
Bentong Kali soon became involved in the drugs trade and protection work before forming his own gang and amassing a group of loyal followers. He had a vision of making his gang the most powerful and feared in the country and would soon earn the nickname “tiger general” among his men. Ruthless and vengeful, he armed himself with guns and hunted down former gang members whom he believed had betrayed him.
On June 29, 1993, Kalimuthu, 32, and two members, S. Gunalan @ Billard, 31, and T. Gugaran @ Raub Guna, 32, were shot dead by a police special operations team in a skirmish in Medan Damansara.
Based on first-hand interviews with former gang members, family members, members of the police force, Tan Sri Zaman Khan and journalists who covered the case, The Story of Bentong Kali gives an in-depth account of the life of Kalimuthu and the events that led to a crime spree and his own brutal death which captivated the nation.
BETWEEN THE CRACKS
Author: Suganthi Suparmaniam
Publisher: Ukiyoto Publishing
With a piece of a torn Malaysian flag placed next to the slain body of a Member of Parliament, Between the Cracks starts off explosively as two men dressed in black casually leave the scene of crime and drive away on a stolen motorcycle.
Anbu, Selvam and Navin — stateless men who through no fault of their own aren’t citizens of the country of their birth — are thrown into a life of crime when they grow increasingly frustrated at the injustice they faced on a daily basis. Denied of education, decent jobs and identification cards, they become killers-for-hire for a shadowy character with his own corrupt agenda.
Anbu’s mother, Vijaya, was stateless when his grandmother failed to register her when she was born. When she was older, Vijaya attempted to get her identity card but failed despite numerous attempts and appeals. In turn, Anbu and his sister were born stateless as well and were subject to lives of hard labour and misery.
Born to an Indonesian woman and an Indian father, Selvam’s mother left for her hometown one day and never returned. Selvam remembered the day he turned 12. His father took him to the National Registration Department office to get his identity card.
Looking at his fair skin, the officer insisted on his mother being present and refused to issue any temporary card or take his thumb print until the matter was resolved. Caught between the cracks and unsure where the future lay, Selvam eventually stopped schooling and soon fell into a life of crime.
Navin was severely depressed and wanted to just die. He was the adopted child of Ramalingam and his wife, Jaya. Months after the couple took him to their house, they submitted the necessary papers for adoption and ever since then, the battle had been ongoing.
Because Navin didn’t have his birth certificate, the authorities were reluctant to issue him a certificate that would declare him a Malaysian. As a result, the young man’s dreams of pursuing music were thwarted, much to his despair and anger.
Stateless and undocumented in a country they call home, Anbu, Selvam and Navin become unwitting pawns to the man “in the shadows” who communicates his commands to them over the phone. The young men, while being brutal murderers, find themselves tangled in a web they can’t free themselves from. They may be able to slip away from detection but for how long?
Between the Cracks attempts to highlight the plight of stateless people in Malaysia who are subject to gross injustice and denied their basic rights to healthcare and education.
“While this book doesn’t mean to imply that all stateless people are violent and angry,” writes Suganthi. “…the story explores the extent of what one would do when the entire government system has been unfair to them from birth.”
SOURCE: New Straits Times, Malaysia July 17, 2022