Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of her death.
Shortly after she was executed on Nov 2, 2001, The Star ran an article with the heading “Bewitched by mystery of Mona” that captured why the entire country was so transfixed on the story of a bomoh who had murdered a politician.
It was written by Star Media Group chief content officer Esther Ng, who had covered the five-month murder trial in 1994 and 1995 in Temerloh, Pahang; missing not one day of the sensational courtroom drama as it unfolded.
To this day, she gets asked about the bomoh whose real name was Maznah Ismail.
Was she as scary as she looked in real life? Was all the supernatural stuff real? Is it true she was evil? Were you scared, being so close to her for five months?
“And all these questions were asked in hushed voices, as though fearing that Mona could hear us. That’s what I found more amusing!” Ng said.
In fact, some of those who attended the court proceedings kept an amulet with them throughout the trial or recited verses to themselves.
Ng was often given unsolicited advice on ways to keep safe from any curses from “the witch”.
“Well-meaning people would tell me to say my prayers. Others kept telling me to bring an amulet, until I had to remind them that I am a rosary-carrying Catholic,” she said.
Recently, Ng went looking for the stacks of notebooks and news clippings that she had used during Mona’s trial.
She found them stored together with pictures of the Sacred Heart, Divine Mercy and Virgin Mary.
It amused her that her 26-year-old self had the notion of keeping those notebooks and articles in that manner!
Looking back, Ng said Mona was very nice to the press.
“She was friendly, always smiling at us.”
In fact, Ng had also spent one month in Raub, Pahang, to cover the 1993 preliminary inquiry into the death of state assemblyman Datuk Mazlan Idris who had been chopped into 18 parts.
So when the trial proper began the following year in Temerloh, Mona recognised Ng and several other pressmen when she was brought to the courthouse in a Black Maria.
She nodded towards the reporters and said hello.
“I kenal you,” Mona said, while pointing at Ng.
“And you and you,” she added, gesturing to two other journalists.
“She even called out my name. She was approachable,” said Ng.
One day during the preliminary inquiry, a “delegation” from the court, including the three accused (Mona, her husband and their assistant), revisited the crime scene – the house where the murder was executed – in Ulu Dong, Raub.
The incomplete, windowless house was almost enveloped by tall grass.
It was the place where decomposing body parts were dug up two months earlier.
(Ng recalled a crime reporter telling her that the recovery of the body was so stomach-churning that even several veteran policemen threw up at the sight of it.)
The stench was still lingering when the court team and press corp visited that day.
“There were pressmen, policemen and officials, and three million flies!” she recalled.
At the courthouse, the security guards were often accommodating to the press people, allowing them to talk to the accused.
On one occasion during the preliminary inquiry, Ng showed Mona a news clipping in The Star that had been written about her.
“Kak Mona, tengok,” Ng told her.
Mona, who was handcuffed to the back, looked happy to see herself in the papers, Ng said.
One day, Mona came into the court, looking very grouchy.
The ever-inquisitive court reporters were curious, so they enlisted the help of a policewoman to find out why.
“Since we couldn’t approach the dock, the cop helped us to relay our question to her,” Ng said.
As it turned out, Mona had gotten up late and had no time to put on her makeup.
“So I don’t feel pretty today,” said Mona, who had often attended her trial in flashy clothes.
Without her makeup on, she did not want any pictures taken of her that day.
In many ways, people were very much afraid of Mona.
Ng, in her write-up about Mona, described how a prosecution witness was thoroughly shaken after he was admonished by Mona.
This took place after the witness listed out the jewellery that Mona and husband had supposedly bought using Mazlan’s money, after he paid them for some mystical items.
According to Ng, Mona shouted at the top of her voice at the witness in Hokkien: “Gua chai lu kong ha mi. You cakap tipu.” (I know what you are saying. You’re lying.)
But there was a side to Mona that had not been written about much.
Ng recalled an occasion when Mona’s four-year-old daughter was brought to the courtroom during the trial.
“She immediately called out to her ‘Diana, Diana!’”
The girl was the light of her life. She sobbed at the witness stand at the mere mention of her little girl, Ng said.
Was Mona a cold-blooded murderer? Yes.
A witch? Who knows?
But like any other mother, she loved her child deeply.
Curious to see more features like this? Visit Starchive on our anniversary website to discover more stories through the decades.