Harrowing three-hour ordeal to find her kidnapped family

Madam Rita Zahara (right) with her daughter Sharifah Nadhrah, speaking to the reporter at home. PHOTO: ST FILE
Madam Rita Zahara (right) with her daughter Sharifah Nadhrah, speaking to the reporter at home. PHOTO: ST FILE

A Singaporean woman could not find her car after she had stopped to buy some fruit in Johor.

What followed next was a harrowing three hours, which involved keeping her wits about her as she dealt with the two men who had driven away with the car – and four occupants – over the phone.

The men were armed with a gun and knife.

Madam Rita Zahara, 37, had gone to Kempas to visit her eldest sister and was on her way home. Her two young children, maid and younger sister had accompanied her.

The hijacking took place at about 12.45am on Sunday, said Madam Zahara at her Pasir Ris home yesterday.

She had parked along a busy road about 40m from some stalls to buy rambutans and mangosteens before heading back to Singapore.

The entrepreneur said the area where she parked was not well-lit but she chose to stop there to avoid obstructing traffic.

The five of them were returning home after a family gathering at her eldest sister’s home in Kempas, about 40 minutes away from the immigration checkpoint in Woodlands.

After she found the car missing, she called her younger sister Rita Zuhaida, 25, an events manager.

A man answered and threatened to kill her family if a ransom was not paid. He warned her not to go to the police.

“I dropped all the fruits on the floor when the man said they had my family,” said Madam Zahara, adding that he did not specify how much money he wanted but just told her to cough up everything she had.

Ms Zuhaida said the two men had turned up while the car was parked. They demanded for the car’s doors to be opened and started smashing the window.

Fearing that they would shoot, she complied.

“They held a knife to my neck while the car was moving, I didn’t know where they were going. They kept our heads low and did not let us look up,” said Ms Zuhaida.

Madam Zahara, a former crime reporter with Channel NewsAsia, said the men told her that she had 30 minutes to bring all her money and meet them at a bus stop near the Jusco shopping mall in Tebrau City.

Not knowing the contact number for the Johor police, she called her eldest sister to alert them. She also notified the authorities in Singapore.

After her eldest sister arrived at the fruit stall to pick her up, they headed to the main police station in Johor Baru.

“I didn’t know if that was the right choice, I was wondering if I should have just geared myself up and gone to meet them in a taxi as requested by them,” said Madam Zahara.

Throughout the ordeal, she spoke to the men every 10 minutes to make sure that her family was fine and ask for more time.

“Many things were running through my mind. I did not know if I would see my children again,” she said.

Ms Zuhaida said at about 4am, the men decided to give up and left them by the roadside near a town called Ulu Tiram where they sought help and were taken to a police station. “We broke down for a while but gathered whatever strength we had left to seek help,” she added.

The hijackers got away with the car, cash and belongings amounting to about $78,000.

Madam Zahara’s two children – Syed Muhammad Luqman, 13, and Sharifah Nadhrah, 11 – said they are still frightened over the incident.

“But I think one of them was actually quite kind; he told me not to go to that place again as it is dangerous,” said Sharifah.

Madam Zahara said she will be monitoring her children to see if they need counselling. “They seem fine but there are moments when they start crying over the incident,” she added.

She said the close shave will not stop her from going to Johor as her sister has been living there for 19 years.

She added that they normally do not leave Johor that late at night. “I’ve learnt that I need to know all the emergency numbers and my husband has said that we are no longer allowed to go without him,” she said.

Madam Zahara has filed a police report in Singapore.

A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said that during the incident, the Singapore consulate in Johor Baru was in contact with her and rendered assistance to her and her family members.