Paid to be nosy

For a family of private investigators, going abroad for work can result in hairy situations.

When they were probing a case of financial fraud in Kunming, China, five years ago, Ms Sheila Ponnosamy, operations director for Mainguard International and Mainguard Security Services, which were founded by her father, recalls how her "so-called clients" showed their menacing true colours.

"They were harassing us for bribes, asking us to buy a small gold bar worth more than US$5,000. They also split us up: My mum and I didn't know where my dad was for an hour. We eventually bought them US$2,000 worth of cigarettes because we feared they might harm my dad.

"Later, in the middle of the night, housekeeping staff knocked on the door of our hotel suite. We didn't open it as we had not called for housekeeping. We felt that our hotel room was not secure and left the next day," says Ms Ponnosamy, 43, who is the first Asian woman elected president of the Council of International Investigators (CII), a US-based organisation with more than 300 members from over 50 countries.

In assuming the post on Sept 1, she followed in the footsteps of her father, investigator and security expert Ponnosamy Kalastree, 67, who was president of the CII in 2001.

Mr Kalastree, an ex-soldier, won the CII's International Investigator of the Year Award in 1998. Ms Ponnosamy won the award in 2010.

Mr Kalastree and his Chinese wife, Dora, a 63-year-old former hairstylist and beautician, have been private investigators since Mainguard was formed 40 years ago. They have another daughter, Shirley, 41, who is a nurse in Perth, Australia.

The family is Indian Peranakan, a community who, like the Peranakan Chinese, are the result of inter- ethnic marriages. Indian Peranakans trace their origins back a few centuries, when Tamil merchants from South India began marrying local women.

Ms Ponnosamy worked as a conference producer in Perth for almost 10 years after studying business administration at Edith Cowan University there. She joined the family business in 1997 after returning from Australia. She is married to a 58-year-old sales executive in the travel industry and the couple have no children.

"People sometimes think we are on holiday when we go overseas but we are not. We spend a lot of time together and the work is enjoyable, like a hobby. We bond through our work," says Mrs Kalastree.

Having an unusual family firm means "we have fun together", adds Ms Ponnosamy.

How did you become interested in private investigation, Ms Ponnosamy?

Ms Ponnosamy: During school holidays, I did the reception and administrative work. I caught the bug when I wrote a report for the case for which dad won his Investigator of the Year Award in 1998, when we had to monitor the movements of a Japanese girl in her 20s in Bali, Indonesia.

Mum and dad went undercover as tourists for a month and befriended the girl. It was exciting because it was surveillance at very close quarters, sitting at the same table. Most investigations are usually conducted at a distance. What are some of your family's most memorable cases?

Mrs Kalastree: About eight years ago, we had a case where a Singaporean woman who married an American got divorced. She won custody of their four-year-old daughter and returned to Singapore with her. We were hired by the ex-husband to locate the child.

A team of six to eight of us performed surveillance at different exits in a HDB estate. We spotted the child boarding a bus with her mother. We followed them and located the child's kindergarten and the mother's address.

The American man later found out that his ex-wife was living in the same flat as his best friend, also an American.

Mr Kalastree: Sheila and I were investigating a case involving counterfeit cigarettes six years ago in Pematang Siantar city in North Sumatra. We expected to find something small, but it turned out to be on a much larger scale, with a highly organised cigarette- manufacturing plant housed in a cluster of godowns.

We also worked on the case involving American singer-actress Leandra Ramm. (She was cyberstalked by Singaporean Colin Mak for six years and he was jailed for three years last December.)

What qualities do you have as a family that help you be successful in this field?

Mr Kalastree: You have to be tough and firm. You must be curious.

Ms Ponnosamy: We're paid to be kaypoh (Hokkien for nosy). People want us to get information that they can't get on their own. You must want to not let go.

Once, in an intellectual property case, I spent a day in Batam just to get one word mentioned on tape, which I won't disclose. I posed as a buyer and had to ascertain that someone had stolen a design in the fashion industry.

We do a lot of commercial cases and a few years ago, while investigating allegations of financial fraud at an offshore bank here, I was thrown out and escorted off the premises by security guards.

Do you experience any friction working together?

Ms Ponnosamy: Of course, dad and I are different, but he's the boss so what he says goes. He sees things I wouldn't have thought of. He thought that my sister Shirley, not I, would join the business. She's more like him.

Mr Kalastree: The combination of qualities we have is very useful, though. I'm streetwise, more of a man on the ground; Sheila is more detailed and meticulous.

Mrs Kalastree: I'm the calm one, I'm more quiet and observant. Working together means it is not boring. We always have new subjects to talk about. It's like bonding.

How would you describe your upbringing, Ms Ponnosamy?

Ms Ponnosamy: I grew up in Katong in the 1970s. I had a wonderful childhood playing with the neighbourhood kids.

Mr Kalastree: We are Chetti Melaka (Peranakan Indians). My wife is Buddhist, I am Hindu, Sheila is Catholic and Shirley is Pentecostal Christian. We can fit into different cultures.

Ms Ponnosamy: In a way, it helps me blend better with different cultures when it comes to cases. If I know a person is Christian, I can talk to him about charismatic services, for example, and he doesn't feel uncomfortable.

Which parent are you closer to?

Ms Ponnosamy: Both, equally. I'll ask both of them questions I may have, at the same time, because we work together.

Mr Kalastree: She will confide more in her mother.

Mrs Kalastree: Girly stuff, such as relationships.

How did you discipline Ms Ponnosamy as a child?

Mr Kalastree: By yelling. She was very inquisitive and active, running around here and there. I would discipline her for her own safety.

Ms Ponnosamy: My dad yells all the time. I remember picking up a mouse-trap and wondering what it was. I was also accident-prone.

Mrs Kalastree: I would normally talk to the children, to explain why not to do certain things. I did not have many problems with her. She would listen to what you said.

What are your views on caning?

Mr Kalastree: It's not good, it doesn't help. Why make your children suffer when you would feel the pain yourself? We never caned them.

Mrs Kalastree: There was no need to cane them. They were not spoilt. When you told Sheila something, she would listen.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you have done differently?

Mrs Kalastree: Nothing. She was a good girl.

Mr Kalastree: If the roles were reversed, I wouldn't listen to my daughter.

Ms Ponnosamy: I would smack him if he were the child. He would probably be very playful.

This article was first published on Dec 7, 2014.
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