"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"This story reaches from the gutter to Government House."
To be sure, the MacLennan case pulled back the curtain to reveal an ugly side to Expat Hong Kong. The colonial police inspector's death in 1980 has always drawn considerable attention from the chattering classes — much of this is crass idle speculation or outright distortion. Amateur sleuths, plus armchair detectives allied to conspiracy theories, held forth for decades.
I cannot recall the number of times people have told me, 'it is impossible to shoot yourself five times with a gun'. Then follows a futile attempt to overturn the facts of MacLennan's suicide.
This book, 'A Death in Hong Kong', is probably the last word on the issue unless new evidence comes to light. Nigel Collett, the author, has conducted meticulous research. He has coupled this detail with a clear explanation of the timeline. The examination is forensic and balanced for the most part, as Collett seeks to give an honest account of events. He portrays the key players, sets the scene and speaks to their motivations. Also, he adds details that are significant and some new to me.
Having read TK Yang's 1981 Inquiry report, one came away with a sense of sadness. Collett's book reinforces that sentiment.
Collett lays bare the machinations of a colonial government concerned with appearances instead of the truth. Nobody comes out of this story smelling of roses. Even ardent campaigner Elsie Elliott (later Tu), who did so much to seek the truth, was not above using misleading statements. Having said that, she is the least guilty in this sorry saga. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of government officials, including Sir Murray MacLehose.
This story reaches 'from the gutter to Government House'. Gradually the Inquiry got closer to the Governor, having 'misfired' and run out of official control. Finally, Governor MacLehose fought to reign in TL Yang and the forthright counsel John Beveridge. The Governor's alleged interference lays bare the falsehood of 'British' justice. No doubt, if the post-1997 administration attempted a similar move, London would be screaming about the 'rule of law'.
This book reminds us that colonial governments exercised power with ruthless leanings. MacLennan was easy fodder, while allegations against others, more senior, went un-investigated. The evidence points to colonial officials, including legal officers, engaged in paedophile activities. These people walked away. And as we've since learnt from such cases in the UK, you can't take official denials at face value.
During my service, I witnessed the infractions of senior folks ignored or explained away. However, the same violation by junior officers resulted in their careers ruined, as the total weight of the discipline system fell on them. The response to indebtedness illustrates the point.
I've spent many an evening debating the MacLennan case, including with people mentioned in the book. Yet, I never knew that he had a wealthy lady friend who furnished him with a car. Furthermore, it's now clear he was bi-sexual. This detail changes the trajectory of the story.
The narrative given to the public was of a rogue police unit pursuing MacLennan of its own volition. That action, it's asserted, drove him to his death. However, Collett shows that the SIU remained under the tight control of senior legal officials, which destroys the myth that MacLennan faced pursuit in a vendetta by a cowboy police outfit. Granted, some of the investigators had anti-gay sentiments, but this is incidental to what evolved.
We know that briefings went up the chain of command, and the instructions came down. MacLennan was a target, not of the police but of the colonial administration. In simple terms, the police served as a helpful tool. Meanwhile, MacLehose sought to absolve his Attorney General, the Commissioner of Police and those suspected of paedophilia. This shameless exercise of power erodes his achievements.
If I have any quibbles with the book, these are minor and don't detract from the thrust of the events portrayed. For example, I don't buy the suggestion that officers adopted corruption because funding was inadequate. The instance of buying typewriters gets cited. The scale and the organisation of corruption suggest greed was the real motive.
There is some conjecture about the Yuen Long incident being a set-up to compromise MacLennan. Bob Wilkinson wouldn't be a party to such an action. I met him on my third day in Hong Kong, and he always impressed me as an upstanding man. Moreover, there is no tangible evidence to suggest Rab Nawaz was culpable. So I'd question whether any set-up existed.
A couple of details surprised me. First, it is perplexing that MacLennan didn't tell Elsie Elliot of his reinstatement when they met on 28th November 1978. Was he confused or seeking to apply more pressure on senior police managers? Second, Fulton, the informant, gives gifts to his handler, CIP Quinn, after a trip overseas. That's an odd detail. I'd infer from that a close relationship, which sits uncomfortably with the allegation that Fulton was under pressure.
The book mentions hapless reporter Ian Whitely seeking to prove it's possible to gain access to MacLennan's flat through a bathroom window. I recall watching that attempt, which failed. Whitely almost fell down the building light-well. He had a history of such stunts, including testing security at Government House. He climbed the perimeter wall only to injure himself.
The handling of MacLennan's remains was deplorable. An incorrect name and a drop-off at Aberdeen instead of the family home show crass insensitivity. The Police Force should be ashamed of that process.
The book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand a sad episode in Hong Kong's history. Collett affirms that the simple assumption of murder as a cover-up is palpable nonsense. Although, you will still hear that scenario uttered today. The truth is more complicated and intriguing but as disheartening.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.