Geylang Bahru family murders (1979)
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On the morning of 6 January 1979, four children from the Tan family were violently murdered in their Housing and Development Board flat. The four children, aged between 5 to 10 years old, were found hacked and slashed to death in the bathroom of their one-room flat in Block 58, Geylang Bahru. Their parents, Tan Kuen Chai, 38, and Lee Mei Ying, 30, were out at work when the murders took place. The murders remain unsolved.
The deceased children were Tan Kok Peng, 10, Tan Kok Hin, 8, Tan Kok Soon, 6, and their sister Tan Chin Nee, 5. The three boys were students at Bendemeer Road Primary School while their sister attended a kindergarten.
At 6:35 am, the children’s parents left their flat to transport students to school in their mini-bus, which they operated together. Their children were sleeping when they left. Mei Ying telephoned home at 7:10 am to wake them up, but received no response after three separate calls. She then asked one of her neighbours to help wake the children. The neighbour knocked on the door of their flat, but also received no response.
The Tans arrived home after 10:00 am, and Mei Ying found the slashed bodies of her children piled on top of one another in the bathroom. The four children were found in T-shirts and pants, and all four had slash wounds on their heads. Slash wounds were also found on Chin Nee’s face, while Kok Peng’s right arm was almost severed. According to the pathologist’s report, each child had a minimum of 20 slash wounds on his or her body.
The police concluded that the murders were premediated and the perpetrator or perpetrators took care to avoid leaving incriminating evidence. However, there were bloodstains in the kitchen sink and the killer or killers were believed to have cleaned themselves before leaving the flat. There was no evidence of forced entry, while the flat was not ransacked and there were no items reported missing. The murder weapons were believed to be a chopper taken from the kitchen of the flat as well as a dagger, but were not found.
The investigation into the murders was conducted by the Criminal Investigation Department’s Special Investigation Section. They did not establish a definitive motive but acknowledged the possibility of the killings being motivated by revenge. Mei Ying’s brother told the media that the murders could have been related to an illegal tontine scheme, and police pursued the possibility of the killer being a discontented gambler. However, that angle of investigations did not lead to the murderer and the Tans told the media that they had not offended anyone.
The police also believed the murderer or murderers had intimate knowledge of the Tans and their background, as they apparently were aware that Mei Ying had undergone sterilisation after the birth of her last child. In addition, the Tans received a Chinese New Year card two weeks after the murder, which may or may not have been a hoax. The card showed happy children at play, taunted them with the words “now you can have no more offspring ha-ha-ha” and was signed “the murderer” in Mandarin. The sender of the card appeared to have intimate knowledge of the family as it addressed the parents by their nicknames, “Ah Chai” and “Ah Eng”.
On 7 January 1979, homicide investigators questioned two women in connection to the murders but later released them, and refused to comment if the women were of help. Despite interviewing over 100 of the Tan family’s neighbours and public appeals for witnesses, the police had difficulties obtaining useful information. Residents in the area claimed a witness had seen Chin Nee struggling with a man from his flat in another block, but the witness could not be located. The children’s parents were also questioned by police.
While a witness told Chinese newspapers he saw a couple leaving the scene of the murder, one of them bloodstained, police investigations later revealed it to be a hoax. One of the Tans’ neighbours, 68-year-old Yam Yin Tin, said she usually sat along the common corridor to watch children playing, and would have seen anyone coming and going from the Tan family’s flat. However, on the morning of the murders, she was washing her hair and did not see anyone entering or leaving the Tans’ flat.
A taxi driver from Toa Payoh later reported that a man in his 20s who walked with a lurch had boarded his taxi near Block 96 along Kallang Bahru Road, nearby the scene of the murder, at about 8:00 am on the morning of the murder. The taxi driver said that the man had bloodstains on the left side of his body and carried a knife which “banged against the taxi door” when he alighted at Lavender Street. Kuen Chai matched the taxi driver’s description to a neighbour of his, a young man who visited the family’s flat almost daily to use their phone and who was known as “Uncle” to the whole family. In a police line-up, the taxi driver picked out the neighbour as the man who had boarded his taxi. However, the neighbour was released after two weeks due to a lack of evidence connecting him with the murders. The man, who was Malaysian, later moved out of Block 58 with his sister.
The children were buried at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery on 7 January 1979 together with their schoolbags, books and toys. Their mother passed out several times as her children were being placed in their respective coffins. The murderer or murderers were never caught and brought to justice. Soon after the tragedy, the parents of the murdered children gave up their mini-bus operation and found work with a plastic bag machining firm.
A year after the gruesome murders, the Tans were featured in The Straits Times and referred to their home as “four walls of emptiness”. The Tans also registered with the Social Welfare Department, hoping to adopt two children. Eventually, Lee underwent a sterilisation reversal operation and was able to conceive again. On 30 December 1983, at the age of 35, she gave birth to a baby boy.
The Straits Times noted the “sheer brutality” of the murders and described them as the most inhuman in Singapore’s crime history. The newspaper also described police sources as being shaken and sickened by the murders.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.