updated 8 May 2012, 18:36
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Tue, Mar 27, 2012
The New Paper
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S'pore woman relives ordeal of being detained in a foreign land
by Maureen Koh

SINGAPORE - The moment she saw the big bloody blob in the toilet bowl, her heart sank. She turned cold.

It was the baby she had waited for, yearned for, prayed for, all her married life.

"I knew this was it," recounts Madam Shirley Too, teary-eyed. "It couldn't be anything but my baby.

"No words can describe my pain... how I felt then... no words at all. None," she says in an interview with The New Paper on Sunday in her HDB flat in Sengkang.

It has been a year since the tragedy but the 47-year-old civil engineer is still struggling to recover from the anguish.

Losing the baby was one thing. But how she lost it - while she was locked up and alone in a strange land for almost nine months - was worse.

Madam Too's ordeal began on Jan 30 last year.

"It's a date I will never forget for as long as I live," she says.

She and her 53-year-old husband were on their way to Italy and France, to pray for the safe delivery of their baby.

Both Catholics, they regarded the pregnancy as a miracle. They had waited eight years for a baby.

Madam Too had battled health issues - she declines to elaborate what they were - and had suffered five miscarriages.

She says: "That was why even when I first suspected that I was pregnant, I didn't dare to believe it was possible."

Madam Too recalls her initial trepidation and later, joy, when she missed her period for two months in December 2010.

"I kept putting off the test (to see if she was pregnant) because I didn't want to be disappointed," she says.

But she finally summoned up the courage to walk into a pharmacy and buy a pregnancy test kit after work.

Still, she was in two minds. "I was like, should I or shouldn't I (do the test)? In the end, I told myself, yes or no, it's a reality and I'd have to accept whatever the result was," says Madam Too.

When she saw the positive sign come up slowly in the tiny window of the test kit, her spirits soared. "My husband and I just hugged each other and cried. We were so happy."

Little did she expect her happiness to end so abruptly, so dramatically and in such a cruel manner.

Madam Too and her husband, a civil servant, decided to take advantage of the Chinese New Year holidays to go and pray at Lourdes, which is considered a holy place.

Before their trip, Madam Too, who was born in Malaysia, decided to return to her hometown in Negeri Sembilan, to visit her family members.

That decision changed her life.

At a gathering with some former schoolmates, she happily shared her travel plans.

Shortly after that, a friend asked if Madam Too could keep an eye on the friend's four nephews if they were put on the same flight to Europe.

"My friend explained that her nephews' parents had settled down in London and they had not seen their parents for a while," says Madam Too.

"At first, I turned them down because my husband is quite a private man and not really that sociable.

"I knew he would not have liked it."

But two days later, the children's grandmother approached Madam Too and pleaded with her to reconsider.

"I couldn't bear to turn her down and I convinced myself that it was just to drop off the kids, so it should be quite hassle-free," she says.

When Madam Too met her husband at the airport in Kuala Lumpur on the day of the departure, he was displeased.

She recalls: "His first words were, 'Who are they?'

"He later walked off and I could only assure myself that I would try to appease him later."

That was how the boys, Malaysians, aged 16, 15, 14 and 12, ended up on the Emirates flight with the couple.

While in transit at Dubai airport, the six were held for about two hours by immigration officers, by which time their flight to Rome had taken off.

Immigration officers accused Madam Too of human trafficking and carrying a forged passport.

"I kept trying to explain but they insisted that I was lying. They said, 'You selling all these kids, baby, baby' and refused to hear me out."

Madam Too and her husband were held in a deportation centre at the airport, but in different blocks.

She was not officially informed, but found out later that the boys were released after their parents gave a statement to confirm that they had not been abducted.

Despite Madam Too and her husband's insisting that they were innocent, they were taken to court a couple of days later.

Their hearing was then adjourned for further investigations and they were sent back to the deportation centre.

She and her husband, who were kept in separate blocks, were allowed to call home.

Madam Too called a cousin and her employer in Singapore. But she did not ask for help.

She claims that at first, she had asked to contact someone at the embassy but was told that Singapore did not have one in Dubai.

Says Madam Too: "I didn't know whom I could turn to for help after that. And I was also afraid that they (the authorities in Dubai) would make things worse for me if they found out."

She spent the next seven months in a blur. She was put in a small room at the deportation centre with eight other women from other countries like South Africa and Indonesia.

"We were made to sleep on a cold, long bench. If we wanted to use the toilet, we had to ask for permission before we were brought out," she says.

The women treated one another well, but the officers were less friendly.

Madam Too had a miscarriage on her third day in the deportation centre.

She had been made to clean a 2m-high ceiling despite her protests that she was pregnant.

She believes it was this physical exertion that led to her losing her 13-week-old baby.

Madam Too says: "When the officer at the centre finally sent me to hospital, I knew it was too late.

"The doctor performed a scan. I could feel her hand inside me and later, they washed me up before sending me back to the centre."

Madam Too then asked to see her husband so she could break the news to him.

What happened next was like a scene from a TV melodrama, she says.

"When I saw my husband, I ran over to him and hugged him tightly, wailing and wailing," she adds.

"But before I could say anything, there were loud shouts and a female officer pulled us apart."

It turned out that they were not allowed to have any physical contact.

"It was so surreal. Like a weird dream. I stood where I was, sobbing and said, 'Dear, baby no more'."

The next few minutes seemed like an eternity as her husband took in the news. She became terrified.

"He just stood there, frozen to the spot and stared at me blankly. There was no expression, no emotion," says Madam Too, breaking down again.

"At that point, I suddenly felt like I didn't know who this man was. He was like a complete stranger, all cold and distant."

Her husband finally told her: Don't be upset. Whatever will be will be.

But their nightmare had only just begun. It took nearly nine months for their case to be heard.

Madam Too engaged a lawyer who demanded US$6,000 (S$7,600) but he eventually could not do much.

She finally managed to get some help in September and was able to submit a document in her defence to a judge.

He told the couple they were free to leave.

It was also then that she obtained the number of the Singapore Consulate-General in Dubai.

She recalls: "When I heard a voice with a Singapore accent, I just cried and rattled off my plight.

"The attache had to tell me to speak slowly and coherently."

When contacted, the Consulate explained that they found out about the case only after they were contacted to arrange for temporary travel documents.

The spokesman declined to comment on the case since the couple had gone through various hearings before it was proven that they were innocent.

Madam Too and her husband finally returned home on Oct 18 last year. He declined to be interviewed.

Madam Too says: "What happened during those months went by in a blur. I had to cope with the devastation of losing our baby.

"I want to, I need to, I must put this whole nightmare behind me. But it'll take time before that happens."

Life has returned to normal but there are still nights when she is jolted out of her sleep.

The couple are also trying for another baby.

"What I can depend on now is my husband's love," she says.

This article was first published in The New Paper.



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