SINGAPORE: Full-time national serviceman Kok Yuen Chin had bruises on his head, as well as small injuries scattered around his body after he was pulled out from the 12m-deep pump well at Tuas View Fire Station, a forensic pathologist revealed in court on Friday (Jun 14). 

There was also plant material found in his lungs and swelling in his brain, said Dr George Paul, who conducted the autopsy on May 14 last year, a day after the 22-year-old NSF died after being pushed into the well during celebrations to mark his impending Operationally Ready Date. 

The larger bruises were found on the back of Corporal (CPL) Kok’s head and there were small injuries on spots like his arm, fingers, toe and ankle. 

There were also two patches where blood had collected under the skin on his scalp, said the doctor. 

BLOODSTAIN FROTH IN HIS NOSTRILS, AIRWAY

Dr Paul said CPL Kok’s death was caused by a lack of oxygen due to drowning. The NSF had been pulled out of the water only 36 minutes after he was pushed in. 

The doctor said “extensive bloodstain froth” was found in CPL Kok’s nostrils and airway, formed from mucus, water and air that had been churned up in an attempt to breathe. The blood staining occurs when the blood cells dilate to get more oxygen and some red blood cells leak out, staining the material.

READ: Death of SCDF NSF Kok Yuen Chin – A timeline of events

Dr Paul opined that the larger bruises found on the back of CPL Kok’s head could have been “from impact”, but stressed that this was only conjecture.

He further suggested that the injuries on CPL Kok’s body could have arisen either from his struggling or it could be a result of rescuers trying to retrieve his body.

It was difficult to determine whether the injuries occurred before, during or after death, he said.

Dr Paul explained that a person drowns when red blood cells are unable to get oxygen as “there’s water in the way” and tissues are starved of oxygen. The brain shuts down when it is deprived of oxygen and different organs may die at different rates, he said.

He added that a microscopic picture of CPL Kok’s lungs, which had water in them, showed that the lungs contained “a lot of plant material”.

READ: Fellow SCDF NSF says Kok Yuen Chin gave a “scared smile”, resisted being taken to well for “kolam” ritual

READ: NSF Kok Yuen Chin told group he could not swim while at ledge of well he drowned in

These were either remnants of leafy material washed into his lungs or larger algae, said Dr Paul.

“Looking at all this, it is certainly not clean water (in the well) and such water can have an irritant effect, which could compound respiratory distress,” he said.

The prosecutor said CPL Kok was found underneath a platform at the 6m mark of the 12m-deep well, through a smaller hole that was 1m-wide.

Dr Paul said it was possible that CPL Kok had “multiple contacts” with the platform itself, which could have contributed to many of the small injuries.

CPL KOK A NON-SWIMMER WHO WAS NOT EXPECTING THE PUSH

Dr Paul also spoke about the sequence in which the events of the night occurred. CPL Kok had been sitting on the edge of the well when Staff Sergeant Muhammad Nur Fatwa Mahmood pushed him into the water from behind. 

Dr Paul said there is a difference between a person who can and cannot swim, as well as someone prepared to enter the water and someone taken by surprise.

READ: SCDF officer who pushed NSF Kok Yuen Chin into well describes incident he has guilt, nightmares over

A swimmer diving into water inhales before entering, he said, and holds his breath. To counter the pressure of the water upon entry, a swimmer slightly exhales.

“In the case of a non-swimmer, he does not know any of this,” said Dr Paul. CPL Kok could not swim and had allegedly informed his rota mates about this.

Dr Paul said it was well-established that if a standing person is pushed from behind, there is a “startled inhalatory response”, and the person inhales.

“In this case, he knows he is entering water,” said Dr Paul. “He’s pushed in. The first response is – ‘I need to inhale’.”

POSSIBILITY OF DISORIENTATION

The court heard during previous hearings that CPL Kok did not resurface after he was pushed into the water on the night of May 13, 2018.

Giving his views on this, Dr Paul said CPL Kok had entered feet-first, in a dark environment.

“It is known that if you are submerged to some extent, disorientation might lead you to instead of surfacing, go in the opposite direction,” he said.

READ: I’ve never witnessed a “kolam” ritual but I would’ve stopped it, says Tuas View Fire Station commander

READ: Rota commander knew his men would make NSF Kok Yuen Chin enter well, court hears

“That could have a role … in compounding the fact that he never came up.”

Dr Paul also debunked what he said was a common misconception that a person who enters water must float up immediately.

In traditional drowning, he said, a person with his head, arms and feet down, is in the position of drowning in open water, “and they sink”. 

When they float back up again, it is usually because of decomposition and they often have a bloated stomach.

Dr Paul also told the court that even if CPL Kok had not drowned but instead nearly drowned – in which case there is a chance of resuscitation – he would have had to “fight very hard” to survive.

This was because there would likely be complications including hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy, a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation and pneumonia.

“Very, very few … survive near-drowning,” he said.

Dr Paul was giving evidence in a trial against rota commander Lieutenant Kenneth Chong Chee Boon and deputy commander First Senior Warrant Officer Nazhan Mohamed Nazi.

Fatwa, who pushed CPL Kok into the well, was sentenced to a year and four weeks in jail last October and is now on home detention. 

Chong and Nazhan are contesting a charge each of causing grievous hurt to CPL Kok by a rash act, by not stopping their men from putting him in the well.

Chong’s defence lawyer Wee Pan Lee asked Dr Paul if having a swimming instructor around would have helped. On the night of the incident, one of the officers gathered around the well for the “kolam” ritual was a swimming instructor and was told to be on standby to help out if anything went awry.

“If he (CPL Kok) is not going in willingly … I can only speculate how much having a swimming instructor around would help, but it’s not much,” said Dr Paul.

The trial continues in the afternoon.