Mr. Wong: pirate or law-abiding citizen

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BATAM ISLAND, Indonesia, April 13, 1999 — "Why should I continue this night business life if he is really the mastermind of the pirates?" Ayu Nani Sabri demanded, plopping her size-three figure into an old sofa inside a dimly lit karaoke bar in Batam.

Ayu lives in a three-story bar and apartment house in the business district of Nagoya in Batam. On the first floor is a karaoke bar where visitors can sit and take their pick of more than a dozen sex workers. Some of the girls, as well as some bar attendants, also share the shop-house with Ayu.

She is not reluctant to talk about Mister Wong, her client and boyfriend, but she is defensive about his alleged occupation.

“I know him as a ship owner. I don’t know much about his business. But he is a kind and serious person,” said the 27-year-old cewek, the euphemism for a sex worker in Batam.

Mister Wong does not look at all like a bad guy. He is usually dressed in a white, short-sleeved shirt and dark trousers. His Malay is spoken with a strong Chinese influence. He looks more like a mom-and-pop businessman than the pirate captain romanticised by writers and film makers as a one-eyed, bearded renegade sailing the wild seas with his raven-haired pirate bride.

But this Singapore businessman — whose passport identifies him as Chew Cheng Kiat, but who is widely known as Mister Wong — is no ordinary law-abiding citizen of straight-laced Singapore. He is allegedly a pirate.

An Indonesian intelligence source told The Nation that Wong actually heads the Strait of Malacca operations of a major crime syndicate headquartered in Hong Kong. The other branches are based in Johor Baru in Malaysia and in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

The boss of this alleged syndicate is a Hong Kong businessman named Ling Sau Pen, whose key men include Tan Chan San in Johor Baru, Chang Kee Ming in Hong Kong and Wang Yi Lung in Taipei.

This syndicate usually not only robs members of the crew, but also takes over their ship.

But Ling, Tan, Chang and Wang were not available for comment. People who know them declined to give their addresses or telephone numbers.

Wong allegedly masterminded a number of pirate attacks on the straits of Malacca and Singapore in recent years, controlling his operation from the MT Pulau Mas tanker, which is usually anchored in a Batam port.

But there are two extremely conflicting versions of his arrest as well as his occupation. The Indonesian navy asserts that Wong is a bad guy who has organised a series of violent ship hijackings.

Meanwhile, Singaporean friends, Wong’s lawyers and close friends like Ayu and Pulau Mas captain Arief Lasenda believed that Wong is not so bad. Perhaps, they say, Wong was involved in some dirty business deals, but not piracy.

So far, it is still not clear whose judgment is correct. The Batam district court will make the decision in coming weeks, although many Indonesian legal experts said they doubted whether an Indonesian court can produce a fair decision that is based on internationally recognised legal standards.

Nevertheless, the case has forced a reluctant Indonesia onto centre stage before a rapt audience of international piracy watchers who believe it will help either to clear the tarnished image of the Indonesian navy or to provide conclusive evidence that the Indonesian navy is incapable of dealing legally with pirates.

According to Indonesian Rear Admiral Sumardi, who held a press conference after the arrest, his men had detained Wong following a raid in the Batam-based Hotel 88, where Wong and Ayu were spending the night of Dec 1.

His men also arrested seven Pulau Mas crewmembers. Wong and his associates are now detained in a Batam prison while awaiting trial in the Batam district court on charges ranging from producing fake immigration stamps to hijacking foreign ships such as the MT Atlanta and MT Petro Ranger in Indonesian waters.

Sumardi said that his men had been focusing their attention on Pulau Mas for months as it was repeatedly sighted in the Indonesian waters of Batu Ampar, close to Batam. But every time an Indonesian patrol boat approached the vessel, it would sail into international waters.

Through an ex-member of the Wong syndicate, Sumardi received information that Pulau Mas would be sailing closer to Batam in late November. Sumardi’s men were waiting. The vessel was immediately detained and Wong arrested.

Inside the Pulau Mas, the navy found ample evidence of criminal activity which included 15 handcuffs, 14 facemasks, knives, fake immigration stamps, paint, and ship stamps that let the pirates convert hijacked vessels into “phantom” ships.

But Ayu and other sources in Batam questioned what they call the “irregularity” of the Wong arrest, saying that they initially learned of the arrest on the night of Nov 23 — one week before the Hotel 88 raid — when Wong made an international phone call to Ayu from the Pulau Mas while anchoring in Malaysian waters close to Johor Baru.

Wong told her an Indonesian hoodlum named Franky Kansil, with the help of three Indonesian officers and two other hoodlums, had boarded Pulau Mas and asked Wong to give them 50,000 Singaporean dollars.

“It’s a lie if they said that Mister Wong was arrested in the hotel,” said captain Arief Lasenda, who is among those jailed in a Batam prison.

The captain added that Kansil had most probably had a secret arrangement with some Indonesian officers to both extort money from Wong and to use the Indonesian navy to extend their interests.

When asked about the handcuffs and face masks, Lasenda said it was normal for a captain to possess such equipment. “A captain onboard his ship also functions as a policeman, a prosecutor and a judge,” he said, adding that facemasks are needed to work in the cold of the night.

Lawyers Ahmad Dahlan and Masrur Amin also questioned the validity of the arrest, alleging that Wong was apprehanded without official orders or arrest warrants. “He wasn’t caught red-handed,” said Dahlan.

But Wong managed to walk freely into Batam on Nov 24 and stayed the night in his regular Hotel Kolekta, next door to Hotel 88. He used the one-week period between Nov 24 and Dec 1 for unknown activities — “Waiting,” he said — but disappeared from Batam. Ayu also did not know what Wong had actually done during the period.

Meanwhile, Kansil repeatedly made phone calls both to Ayu and Lasenda, threatening to beat and to kill Wong if the Singapore businessman did not pay a ransom.

Wong only came back to Batam on Nov 29 and decided to spend the night with Ayu at Hotel 88, rather than the Kolekta Hotel. “We saw some navy intelligence officers at Kolekta,” said Ayu.

But Wong did not look nervous. Perhaps, he was confident that an Indonesian army officer, whom Ayu had intially contacted, had helped secure his problem. Probably the army officer managed to persuade the navy not to arrest Wong. So Wong spent the nights together with Ayu until the raid on Dec 1.

Indonesia’s media, including the Batam-based Sijori Pos daily, never mentioned anything about Franky Kansil or Ayu Nani Sabri. They mostly quoted navy and police officers in charge of the Wong case. They also quoted Wong’s lawyers, Dahlan and Masrur, but garbled the official version of the arrest, suggesting that Indonesian media, both those in Batam and in Jakarta, did not know much about the clash in the Johor anchorage.

When asked, Batam journalists said they had not heard anything about Kansil, or Rahudin Sibuea, another member of the crew of the Pulau Mas. Sibuea happened to be ashore when Kansil and his gang boarded Pulau Mas and took it into Indonesian waters. Sibuea wrote a letter to Dahlan and Masrur, chronicling the Nov 30 commotion and promising to come to Indonesia to testify if his safety was guaranteed.

“But who could give him such a guarantee? We cannot do it,” laughed Dahlan. Sibuea, an Indonesian seaman, is now living in Johor Baru in Malaysia, which is close to Singapore.

Hotel Kolekta staffers said that Wong usually checked in with another passport, using the name of Chong Kee Fong instead of Chew Cheng Kiat. “But people here usually call him Mister Wong,” said a receptionist.

The Singapore government has also issued a statement, saying that the real Chew Cheng Kiat is actually another Singaporean who had lost his passport a few years ago. But it cannot confirm whether Wong is a Singaporean or not.

Based on an observation of his accent — his English is regularly accentuated by the typical “lah” — it’s obvious Wong is either a Singaporean Chinese or Malaysian Chinese.

Wong declined to give his real name but insisted in a brief interview with The Nation that he is a Singapore national who graduated from the school of economics at Nanyang University in 1972. His wife is now working in Singapore in a denim company, he said, while his two children are studying in Australia.

He declined to talk about the charges, complaining a lot about his prison cell, which he has to share with several other prisoners. He hoped his wife and children did not know about his arrest, “No need to know. What could they do?”

Indeed, the case raises questions here about his reluctance to disclose his real name and the whereabouts of his family. If they live a luxurious life, people are likely to question the source of his money. Wong has known Ayu for only six months, they say, and it would look more natural if Wong gave more money to his children than to his new girlfriend.

But the handful of people who know him in Batam doubt that he is a rich person. He lacks the “style” of a get-rich-quick entrepreneur, and waiters and guests at the Rose Garden karaoke bar of the Kolekta Hotel said Wong is stingy.

“He rarely gives a tip,” said a waiter.

Wong even bought his beers at a discount rate and shopped for his men himself. Ayu claimed that she has sometimes lent money to Wong. During their six-month relationship, Wong only gave Ayu two cell phones and some money to do shopping, she said.

Those who believe in Wong’s innocence also say that a pirate would not use a slow-moving tanker such as the Pulau Mas. Others said Wong believed that his only mistake was to produce false immigration stamps.

But Ayu really did mean it when she said that she was the only woman who cared for Mister Wong. She would like to wait for Mister Wong, who is now awaiting trial on the Indonesian charges.

“As a night life worker, I do need someone who understands me. I think Mister Wong does understand me as I understand him as well,” Ayu said, as she excused herself to go back into the bar to return to work.

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