Early this year, Murray sent me an e-mail saying he’d be in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days, and could we meet?
It turned out to be a reunion. Simon Elegant, Raphael Pura and Murray Hiebert turned up and we had a lovely, if riotous, meal laced with enough booze to float a small sampan. We’d all been colleagues in the 1990s.
Indeed, Murray had been my first bureau chief in the Far Eastern Economic Review back in 1994. But we were close for another reason: in September 1996, he’d been sentenced by the High Court to three months in jail for contempt of court.
It was a shock to say the least. Our lawyer, Shafiee Abdullah, thought Murray would be fined if found guilty but said we should bring along RM30,000 in bail money, “just in case”.
But Justice Low Hop Bing seemed determined to make an example of Murray – he said as much in his judgment – and fixed bail at RM250,000.
It was 12 noon on a Friday in the Shah Alam High Court. It seemed hopeless and I was sure Murray would spend the weekend in the lock-up. But being frantic helps and a close friend stepped up: Murray was released just before 4.30 that evening. For the record, the magazine paid my friend first thing Monday.
The months to the appeal dragged on and Murray grew restless and frustrated: his passport had been confiscated. Finally, three years later, in September 1999, the Court of Appeal upheld the verdict but cut his sentence to six weeks. To our collective non-surprise, Murray elected to begin his sentence immediately.
And he was whisked off to Sungei Buloh, Black Maria, wailing siren, and all.
The man made an unlikely convict. He neither smoked nor drank and, after reading Gandhi at 16, became a vegetarian: oyster sauce could give him the creeps.
Moreover, he was a Mennonite, an austere Anabaptist denomination that holds to a doctrine of peace and non-violence. I have never heard him swear although a couple of times, he got sufficiently moved to exclaim an annoyed “Judas Priest” or two.
After a few days in Sg Buloh, Murray was transferred to the prison In Seremban: We never found out why, but I always suspected it was because Anwar Ibrahim was in Sg Buloh at the time, and who knew what kind of “scoop” might result?
Seremban is my hometown, and I only found out about its prison during Murray’s remaining three weeks there.
You could visit an inmate on weekends and buy him stuff from the store. At first, my bill was modest (not more than RM15, I think) but by the time his release grew close, my bills had topped RM150. Then I got it: Murray was buying things for prisoners no one came to visit.
He was quite the man there. He’d started growing a beard. I guess he must have come across as an ascetic priest-type figure because people flocked to him for advice, even “confession.”
Indeed, on his last night in captivity, he was given a send-off party complete with a vegetarian tom-yum soup prepared by one of the inmates: a dish which Murray described as “pretty darn good.”
Why am I recalling all this?
I just read that Roger Ng of 1MDB infamy had testified that he could not abide jail again as he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder owing to the “absolute hell” that was six months in a “squalid” Malaysian prison.
In an essay written a few months after his release, Murray reflected that if he had to go through it all over again, he would “prefer the US system of justice but (if found guilty) a Malaysian penal institution.”