The State Coroner gave an open verdict in the death of the boatman who jumped from his burning vessel into the water on Marina Bay on 12 July last year.
The State Coroner Marvin Bay recorded Ong Hock Long (32), was S$30,420 in debt and had earlier broken up with his girlfriend. The coroner also noted he was under drugs influence when he set fire to a pile of life jackets on his bumboat and then jumped into the Singapore River.
Mr Ong’s body was found the following day, but what made him set fire to the boat, which belong to his employer Singapore River Cruises, will remain unknown.
Unwilling to rule Mr Ong’s death a suicide, Mr Bay recorded an open verdict instead. Several of Mr Ong’s colleagues testified he had acted strangely the day of the incident. To a colleague, Mr Ong had claimed to have cancer and said it was better to die.
Mr Bay said that it is not disputed that Mr Ong deliberately started the fire, but ‘the inquiry needs to consider whether he acted with a conscious intent to take his own life, or set fire and jumped out of the boat in a state of drug-induced psychosis, without intending to die’.
Forensic pathologist Dr Paul Chui found high levels of amphetamine and methamphetamine in Mr Ong’s blood, that it was likely he consumed them within an hour before his death. He also had a record of methamphetamine use and had been admitted to a rehabilitation centre in 2010 and 2011.
“In the absence of any known condition, it would be reasonable to infer that the presence of the drugs had played a major role in Mr Ong’s behaviour and possibly affected his cognitive faculties,” the State Coroner said.
Dewi Sutra Razali, a crew member of the boat, was the last person on board Mr Ong’s boat before the incident.
Ms Dewi said they had been plying their usual route on the river, but when Mr Ong was asked to pick up passengers at Clarke Quay, he steered the craft towards Boat Quay instead.
She asked several times why he was going in the wrong direction, and he finally said he could not go to Clarke Quay because there was ‘someone there’.
Reaching the Boat Quay area, Mr Ong told Ms Dewi that she ‘cannot be there’ and to get off the boat. Finally, she waved a colleague’s boat when one passed, and when it slowed down she jumped onto it.
She said she then saw Mr Ong’s boat collide against the wall of Elgin Bridge, explaining that it was unusual for boat drivers to hit the walls of the bridge. Her statement was supported by two other boatmen – including the one who picked her up from Mr Ong’s boat.
Ms Dewi added that earlier in the day, Mr Ong seemed unreasonably upset when a pre-scheduled trip was cancelled on short notice.
Based on Mr Ong’s behaviour that day Dr Chui concluded that the boatman was suffering from drug-induced psychosis. “Symptoms include delusions of persecution or severe paranoia, where a person acts in a disproportionate manner to an otherwise innocuous event,” he explained.
Mr Ong had also borrowed money from several colleagues, the coroner noted; his boss and friend told the inquiry he seemed ‘engrossed’ in his debts. They said the Singapore River Cruise office had received calls from banks requesting Mr Ong to repay his loans.
The coroner said, “The evidence points to Mr Ong being in a deeply troubled mental state in the period prior to his death, possibly contributed by the prolonged burden of his debts and further compounded by the neurological effects imposed by the high levels of methamphetamine in his body.”
Mr Bay then pointed to the fact that Mr Ong had called his mother that evening to ask her to cook dinner for him. “The evidence does not irresistibly lead to Mr Ong’s actions being motivated by suicide.” he said.
“It could also be possible that Mr Ong might have been motivated by a transient state of drug-induced psychosis to commit acts which were likely to endanger his life, without actually intending to commit suicide,” he said.