12 CUTS

At 64, Mr Balakrishnan Periathamby Nagan has
been present at many of the key moments in
Singapore’s modern history, bringing professionalism,
sensitivity and skill to his duties as a forensic technician.

Here are 12 scenes from his life and career.
Mr Balakrishnan Periathamby Nagan

Mr Balakrishnan Periathamby Nagan

1 As a teenager, Mr Bala was cycling home with several glass bottles when the bicycle chain snapped. He fell and his neck was cut by broken glass. Mr Bala was rushed to the Singapore General Hospital. There, his father joked, “We’re in the mortuary, you know.”

Mr Bala turned his eyes away from the rooms around him.

2 The next thing he knew, Mr Bala was starting work at the mortuary. He was 18 when he joined the renowned forensic pathologist Professor Chao Tzee Cheng at the Department of Pathology of the Ministry of Health. He’d signed up to work in a laboratory, but Professor Chao told him: “There are no lab roles now. You’ll follow me.”

This was in 1969, the year forensic medicine emerged as a specialty practice in Singapore. Professor Chao would blaze a trail in the field, and he instilled in his young team an unshakeable sense of professional pride.

3 In those early years, Mr Bala’s work kept him strictly in the mortuary, where he laboured under the feeble light of 60-watt bulbs. “It was very quiet, very scary,” he recalls.

Relatives wondered why he’d taken the job. After all, weren’t there better ones out there?

But by then, Mr Bala had learnt enough to know how important his work was. “Forensic pathologists are trained doctors who’ve studied very hard for years to do this job,” Mr Bala would reply. “Why shouldn’t I do it too?”

4 12 October 1978. Mr Bala got a call from Professor Chao: Come to the mortuary now.

A flash fire had broken out on the Greek tanker Spyros at Jurong Shipyard. Mr Bala rushed to the mortuary, prepared the cleaning, packing and tagging equipment, and waited for the victims to arrive.

Seventy-six of them were brought in. The forensic team worked for a week, sometimes for up to 24 hours each day, as relatives came in to identify the victims. As always, Mr Bala and his fellow officers treated each body with care, revealing only what was necessary to aid in the identification process. By the end of the week, the forensic team was exhausted, but each officer knew that he’d done his part.

5 With such long hours at work together, the forensic team is very much a family. “Any time boss calls, we come down immediately – we must finish the work,” he says. “Back then, Professor Chao’s wife would bring us kopi and makan if we worked late.”

The call could come at any time. In the 1970s, the police would knock on Mr Bala’s door during emergencies, if they couldn’t get him on the phone. He’d ask the officers to wait for him at the carpark. “I didn’t want my neighbours to think the policemen were after me,” he recalls with a smile.

6 Mr Bala doesn’t only deal with death; his work also involves learning and life. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was part of the forensic team that examined the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning from cars and gas heaters. Such information was crucial in preventing accidental deaths. The team also analysed the effects of drugs on bodies and helped educate the public about drug addiction and abuse.

7 15 March 1986. Mr Bala was done for the day, had just taken his dinner and was listening to the headline news: Hotel New World collapses.

He shrugged it off. Never mind lah, this is in some other country.

He continued listening: Hotel New World, at Serangoon Road... Then the call came.

8 This time, Professor Chao and his fellow senior forensic pathologist Dr Wee Keng Poh brought him to the scene. “It was the worst feeling,” Mr Bala recalls thinking when he witnessed the ruins at the junction of Serangoon Road and Owen Road.

They immediately got down to work. Mr Bala was thin, so he and Dr Wee squeezed into a 1m-wide tunnel to reach a survivor under the rubble. Climbing into the tunnel, they gingerly avoided the broken glass and stone in their path.

The task was far from straightforward – with little room to spare, they had to remove a body that was blocking the survivor. This required the skills of a forensic technician, and Mr Bala was the man for the job.

As they worked, Mr Bala and Dr Wee were careful not to shine their flashlight at places where the survivor could see what they were doing. It took two hours before they could remove the body and come out again.

At the tunnel entrance, Professor Chao tossed Mr Bala a new uniform. “Change your clothes first,” he said.

Mr Bala understood; the public would be taken aback if he emerged, covered in blood. Back at the mortuary, Mr Bala and his fellow officers took care with the body before returning it to the family.

9 Mr Bala helps with the post-mortems of four to 10 bodies every day. Each autopsy takes from two hours to a few days, as some bruises only surface after 48 hours.

The enduring tools of Mr Bala’s post-mortem work: a scalpel, bone-cutter, scissors and forceps. DNA testing and CT scans have added new tools to the team’s arsenal.

Nowadays, Mr Bala also supervises the mortuary technician team, assisting forensic pathologists in complex cases and in the training of new doctor-trainees in pathology. A beacon of constancy to his younger colleagues, he’s someone they can readily turn to for advice and guidance. “Sometimes they call me ‘Ah Gong’, to tease me,” he says with a smile.

10 For Mr Bala, post-mortem work is very much an art, for two reasons. First, it requires nimble fingers. “The scalpel is very sharp and must be handled carefully,” he explains. “That’s one of the first things I help to remind new doctor-trainees in pathology.”

Second, astute post-mortem work requires experience and a trained eye. “Sometimes, we can tell straight away if foul play is involved,” says Mr Bala. But this is only possible after decades of learning and observation.

11 When he encounters grieving families of victims, Mr Bala reminds himself to focus on the task at hand, in order to do his best for them. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, bodies were packed in double bags as an added precaution, and the mortuary grounds had to be cleaned with special chemicals every day. That year, Mr Bala was awarded the President’s Commendation Medal for his service.

12 His son tells him to stop working, but Mr Bala won’t quit. He isn’t used to staying at home. Lately, he’s been fascinated by angiograms, the process by which special dyes are injected into arteries and the blood flows analysed.

“How to go?” he asks. “I still have a lot to learn.”