Malaysia short of forensic anthropologists, says expert

03 Nov 2023 08:36am
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX

KUALA LUMPUR - In 2016, when the Malaysian police stepped in to investigate the case of a Malaysian woman who was believed to have been murdered, with her skeletal remains found in the septic tank of a rented house in Ranong, Thailand, one of the first experts they called to assist them was Prof Dr Faridah Mohd Nor.

It turned out to be one of the most intriguing cases she had ever handled in her 24-year career as a consultant in forensic pathology and forensic anthropology.

Dr Faridah, who is attached to the Faculty of Medicine at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), told Bernama she was initially in two minds about assisting in the investigations and helping to unravel the cause of the woman’s death as she knew it would be a tough case to crack.

"It was the most challenging and interesting case I had ever been involved in,” remarked Dr Faridah, whose expertise in forensic anthropology had been sought by police for over 5,000 criminal cases including high-profile ones such as that of Mona Fandey.

The remains of A Fairos Ahmad Sulaiman, aged 37 and from Kuala Kangsar, Perak, were found in the cemented septic tank by Thai police in October 2008, about a year after she was reported missing by her family. The victim’s husband, a Dutch national, is a suspect in the murder case and is believed to have fled to Holland.

Eight years after the woman’s remains were found, the Dutch government decided to reopen the case as the Thai authorities had failed to resolve it following difficulties in extraditing the suspect due to the absence of a mutual agreement between the two countries. On May 15, 2006, the Kuala Kangsar Magistrate’s Court approved the Dutch government’s request to exhume and conduct a post-mortem on the remains of Fairos.

Dr Faridah’s expertise in unravelling victims’ gender and cause of death is also sought for non-criminal cases such as accidents and fires, as well as illnesses like cancer and heart conditions.

She said she and a colleague who assisted her found it tough to unravel the cause of Fairos’ death as her skeletal remains had decomposed significantly due to being submerged in water for a long time. The bone tissue had also completely deteriorated, further complicating the forensic team’s investigation, she added.

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The case is still ongoing in the Dutch court.

While Dr Faridah is happy their expertise and contributions to the investigations were acknowledged by the Dutch government, she is however concerned about the shortage of forensic anthropologists in Malaysia.

"Not many people want to specialise in this field. We’re facing a critical shortage as (nationwide) we have less than 10 experts in forensic anthropology,” she said.

Forensic anthropology is a special sub-field of physical anthropology that involves applying skeletal analysis and techniques used in archaeology to solve criminal cases.

Dr Faridah said the shortage of experts in forensic anthropology can hamper investigations involving human remains as their expertise is required to determine the identity of the deceased, which is the most fundamental aspect to uncover before further investigations can be conducted by the police.

"Only those with expertise in forensic anthropology are able to confirm the deceased’s identity in a more accurate and comprehensive manner,” she said, adding that she reached retirement age two years ago but was reappointed by UKM on a contract basis as it has only two experts to teach medical students about forensic anthropology.

"We retired experts are being recalled as there are simply not enough experts in this field. Crimes are now being committed in various forms and some bodies are disposed of in ravines wrapped in thick blankets. In a tropical country like ours, bodies can sometimes decompose within a month... this is why it is crucial that we have more experts in forensic anthropology,” she said.

She said forensic anthropologists are able to identify the gender, age and height, as well as the cause and estimated time of death through the examination of skeletal remains.

"The gender, for example, can be confirmed through an examination of the skull bones, which provide an accuracy of 92 per cent, and the pelvic bones with an accuracy of 95 percent,” she said, adding that she can ascertain the gender of a victim with just one bone scan.

"Interestingly, bone fragments that are thousands of years old can also be examined to identify the gender of the deceased. Among the oldest skeletal remains I’ve ever examined was one that was approximately 8,000 years old and found in Gua Cawan in Lembah Nenggiri, Kelantan, in 2018. Such cases are not classified under forensic anthropology but fall under forensic archaeology.”

She added that the "secrets behind the demise of individuals who died in mysterious circumstances” can be unravelled through their bones because each bone such as the shoulder blade or pelvic bone can "open the door to solving a criminal case”.

Dr Faridah, an expert in conducting forensic examinations on shoulder blades, pelvis, jaws, long bones of the arms and legs, and the skull, also said the forensics field has various branches, one of them being forensic entomology which can determine the time of death through the examination of insects found on the corpse. This is applicable to bodies that are still intact.

"As for skeletal remains, only forensic anthropologists can identify the identity of the deceased which will then be matched with the police investigations,” she said.

Other methods such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) sampling and X-rays are also used in identifying victims but the results are not as precise and comprehensive as forensic anthropology examinations, especially in complex cases where the victims died in a fire or their remains underwent extensive bone decomposition.

Commenting on some of the high-profile cases she and her team had assisted the police in, which include the murder cases of cosmetics millionaire Datuk Sosilawati Lawiya and Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu, Dr Faridah said Sosilawati’s case was also a complicated one.

She said the police needed their expertise to identify the victim by examining the bones as the body was burnt and thrown into a river.

Malaysia, meanwhile, is not the only country facing a shortage of forensic anthropologists - it is actually a global phenomenon as not many educational institutions offer courses in this field.

According to Dr Faridah, a Ph.D programme she had attended at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom after completing her doctorate in forensic anthropology was discontinued in 2010 due to the lack of teaching staff.

Dr Faridah, who is also a member of the National Specialist Register committee, also sees a need for Malaysia to set up a forensic anthropology centre to address the shortage of experts in this field.

She said this approach would be the best way to introduce medical students to forensic anthropology, which is not as widely recognised as other forensic fields.

"But its importance is critical in investigations involving skeletal remains,” she stressed.

Dr Faridah said she became aware of the acute shortage of forensic anthropologists back in 2000 when she was asked to examine the remains of singer Along Spoon who was found murdered.

"That case ignited my interest in forensic anthropology and till today, I am passionate about it,” she said.

"An average human has 206 bones. There is still so much more to explore when it comes to the various types of human bones. This is why I see the need for a forensic anthropology centre to be established to train and produce more experts in this field.”

She also said the time has come for Malaysia to attract medical students from abroad.

"For example, our expertise can be used as an attraction for them to study forensic anthropology in this country,” she said, adding that she has been approached by several universities in Thailand wishing to send their students to UKM for training in forensic anthropology.

"Even the University of Otago in New Zealand is interested in sending their biology students for training and exposure in this field with us here.”

Dr Faridah is also currently focusing on producing books on forensic anthropology investigations pertaining to local cases as existing reference materials predominantly focus on foreign cases. So far, she has produced over 15 books, either as the sole author or in collaboration with others. - BERNAMA