This story was first published in July 2015 in an e-book titled Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965. A collaboration between The Straits Times and the Singapore Police Force, the e-book appeared in The Straits Times Star E-books app. Read the other crime stories here. (Warning: Some content in these stories may be disturbing for some individuals.)
Huang Na's murder (2004)
When the eight-year-old went missing, Singaporeans from all walks of life helped in the search. But she was already dead — killed by a man she treated as an uncle
Like any other study mama from China, Huang Na’s mother brought her to Singapore in early 2003 for a better education. The girl’s dream was to be a doctor so she could in turn give her mother a better life. Huang Na also learnt to be streetsmart and independent, as her mother had to shuttle between Singapore and Fujian to care for her 11-month-old half-sister.
On Sept 27, 2004, a day before Huang Na’s eighth birthday, her mother returned to their hometown for two weeks.
Huang Na, who once even took a flight back to China alone, was left in the care of friends, who lived with her and her mother in a small room on the upper floor of a fruit and vegetable company at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
The bubbly girl would go to school herself, take her meals at a nearby food court and sometimes even cook for her and her neighbours. She showered in a common toilet. The centre’s auction hall was her playground.
On the afternoon of Oct 10, Huang Na called her mother from a phone booth and asked her to buy a computerised English dictionary and a pair of sandals. They spoke for about six minutes.
That was the last time Madam Huang Shuying heard her voice. And it was the last day Huang Na was seen alive — barefooted and wearing a blue denim jacket and bermudas.
On Oct 31, her badly-decomposed body was found stuffed inside a brown cardboard box less than half her size.
The box was found in dense undergrowth at Telok Blangah Hill Park, just hours after Penang-born Took Leng How was grilled by police.
The vegetable packer, who worked at the wholesale centre and had previously shared a flat with Huang Na and her mother, admitted to strangling the girl with his bare hands in a storeroom where he had lured her for a game of hide-and-seek.
The news left a nation shocked.
Huang Na’s disappearance was first made public in newspapers on Oct 14, four days after she was last seen at around 1pm at the food court less than 500m from her home. The Primary 2 pupil of Jin Tai Primary School was described as 1.2m tall, with a fair-complexion and straight dark hair.
Police urged anyone with information to come forward.
Coffeeshop assistant C.B. Lim, who described her as a familiar figure, was one of the last to see her alive. “As she passed by, I asked her why she had no slippers and she just smiled and went.”
Madam Huang, who had returned to Singapore two days after the disappearance, combed the island for her girl, even searching construction sites and ditches.
She showed photographs of Huang Na to strangers, asking if they had seen her. She also scoured Bukit Timah Hill and Mount Faber after her niece dreamt she was being held on a mountain.
“I looked everywhere, from Clementi to Geylang, from Race Course Road to Woodlands. I’ve tried them all, but there is no news,” she said.
She could not imagine why anyone would want to harm her daughter. “I work here to earn money for my daughter to study,” said Madam Huang, who worked at a vegetable stall at the wholesale centre. “We lead a simple life. I didn’t make any enemies or offend anyone.”
Police searched Huang Na’s favourite haunts, including West Coast Park and the IMM building. Hospitals and transport companies were roped in to keep a lookout for her.
A 60-year-old retired businessman offered a $10,000 reward to anyone with information. Another Singaporean added another $5,000.
Mr Joseph Tan, the founder of Crime Library, a voluntary group which looks for missing people, and employees of his recycling company handed out leaflets to passers-by near where Huang Na disappeared. The general manager of an online design company set up a website to gather tip-offs.
Taxi company ComfortDelGro asked its cabbies to join in the search effort.
In Malaysia, 30 cabbies placed posters of Huang Na on the rear windscreens and front seats of their vehicles. At least five coffee-shop owners in Johor Jaya, Taman Yew and Skudai put up posters.
Those who tried to help Madam Huang said it was heart-wrenching to watch news clips of the mother clutching her daughter’s toys, clothes and pictures, walking through neighbourhoods with tears in her eyes, calling out her name.
On Oct 21, police released a picture of Took and asked for information on his whereabouts.
The Malaysian, who was 22 then, had disappeared after police twice interviewed him in connection to Huang Na’s disappearance and he agreed to take a polygraph test. He had claimed to police that he had seen four gang members abduct the girl. Despite having surrendered his passport, he was able to sneak into Malaysia.
Those who worked at the wholesale centre said Took and Huang Na were close, and that he would give her rides on a motorcycle. He was also one of the last people seen with her.
But Madam Huang did not believe Took, whom her daughter called “shu shu” (uncle), could be involved in anything sinister.
“I don’t believe he’s the one who took my daughter. He has no reason to — we’re just acquaintances,” she told the media. “He was very fond of her. He always bought things for her to eat, but never took her outside of the market. I know he would never hurt her.”
Took’s 52-year-old father in Penang, who sold fried kway teow at the family’s coffee shop, told the Malaysian press that his son, the second of four siblings, had phoned him and said that he had not kidnapped the girl.
He only ran from Singapore because he felt pressured by the police, the father added.
Took’s Indonesian wife You Li, who was living with his father, also revealed that he had called her to say that he was in Johor, and that someone else had taken Huang Na.
He claimed that the last time he saw the girl, he gave her two mangoes and sent her on her way. Took’s brother described his older sibling as a “timid” man, who did not have the courage to borrow money or get into fights – let alone kidnap a child.
Nine days after being on the run, Took surrendered to police in Penang and was brought back to Singapore on Oct 30.
He claimed that he secretly entered Malaysia because he wanted to see his 14-month-old son but failed to do so. The past nine days were “hell”, he insisted. “How good can it be, hiding here and there?”
In the interview he gave to the Malaysian press, he also claimed that he sympathised with Madam Huang. “I want to tell her, I also love Huang Na because I have a child myself. I hope that people won’t make wild allegations about me, because the truth can be dug out.”
In the morning of Sunday, Oct 31, some three weeks after Huang Na went missing, a team of 20 police officers and trackers fanned out to search the slope at the Telok Blangah Hill Park. They were acting on information provided by Took.
After 30 minutes, at 10.30am, officers came across a box measuring 50cm by 40cm by 30cm in thick vegetation. The box, which resembled those used at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, was sealed with masking tape. Still, a foul smell emanated from it.
Inside was the naked body of a young girl, forced into a crouching position. It was so decomposed that forensic tests had to be done before it was confirmed that the body was Huang Na’s. But the girl was also visually identified by her mother.
Took was arrested for murder and charged the following day.
The park was just minutes away from Took’s Telok Blangah flat, and about a 15-minute drive from the wholesale centre where Huang Na was last seen.
Police also revealed for the first time that they had uncovered signs of a struggle in a storeroom at the wholesale centre.
The size of a three-room Housing Board flat’s living room, it was rented by Took’s boss for storing vegetables and dried goods. The shutters in the room were always drawn.
Police believed that was where Huang Na was attacked.
On Nov 5, Took, his hands bound, was led through the wholesale centre where he was questioned by investigators.
The news that the girl was found dead left many horrified.
Mr Tan, who had been organising the search through his website crime-library.org, said as he choked back tears: “I can’t imagine what that little girl had to go through. How could anyone have done this?”
On Nov 8, more than a thousand people, many of them strangers, attended her funeral.
They followed the procession which went to the West Coast Market, a playground and Jin Tai Primary School – places which Huang Na frequented.
The lid of her coffin was covered with her favourite Hello Kitty soft toys, the sides plastered with Hello Kitty stickers and a Hello Kitty toy hung from each corner of the hearse. Mourners brought many of her favourite sweets and snacks. She was cremated at Mandai.
It was later revealed that Huang Na’s stepfather, who had flown to Singapore for her funeral, her mother and natural father all had trouble with the authorities here previously.
Her stepfather Zheng Wenhai was jailed for two years and four months in 1999. Huang Na’s natural father Huang Qingrong had also been jailed for working illegally in October 1999, when he was employed as a vegetable packer at the wholesale centre.
It was the second time Mr Huang had entered Singapore. In 1996 he had landed a job here, but was sent back in 1997 after it emerged he had lied about having a degree.
In 1999, Madam Huang had also been repatriated for overstaying her visa. After this revelation, she was put under investigation again for entering Singapore illegally, but was let off with a stern warning. By the end of November, she returned to Fujian carrying Huang Na’s ashes.
Took, who was defended by famous criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan, was put on trial on July 11, 2005.
According to the prosecution’s case, Took’s colleagues last saw him at 1pm on Oct 10 walking side-by-side with the girl near the storeroom, with a bag of mangoes in his hand. Several workers were surprised to see Took hanging around the wholesale centre, as there was little work on Sundays.
At about 1.40pm, Took coaxed the girl to play hide-and-seek with him in the storeroom and offered her mangoes to eat. Remnants of the fruit were later found in her stomach during the autopsy.
Took stripped her, bound her limbs with raffia string and sexually assaulted her.
To make sure she could not report what he did to her, Took smothered her. He covered her mouth and nose for at least two minutes, until her body was limp.
To ensure she was dead, he stamped on her and kicked her before packing her body inside nine layers of plastic bags. He then put the bundle in a cardboard box and sealed it with adhesive tape.
It was still daytime, and so too risky to dispose of the box. So Took rested until 5.30pm at the wholesale centre. Then he borrowed a motorcycle from a friend who also worked at the centre. He went home to his Telok Blangah flat and watched TV.
At about 8pm, he returned to the storeroom to retrieve the box, tied it to the back of the motorcycle and drove up to Telok Blangah Hill Park, where he dumped it. At 9pm, he returned the motorcycle to his friend. An hour later, Huang Na’s guardian, Madam Li Xiu Qin, told police the girl was missing.
“The accused was often Huang Na’s playmate despite the age difference,” said Deputy Public Prosecutor Lawrence Ang.
“How was she to know that the person whom she trusted most among all the people at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre would soon ravage her and snuff out her life, cruelly and mercilessly?”
Forensic evidence played a big role in the trial.
Analysis showed that the adhesive tape used to seal the carton came from the same roll of tape found in the storeroom.
Part of Took’s fingerprints were also found on the roll.
The bags used to wrap Huang Na’s body were found to be similar to ones in the Pasir Panjang shop where Took worked.
Hundreds of cloth fibres from both Took and Huang Na’s clothes were also found in the storeroom.
The statement Took gave police after his arrest was also presented as evidence. He claimed that Huang Na knocked her head while they were playing a “special” game of hide-and-seek in the store room. It involved him tying her ankles with raffia string with the lights off. “If she was able to untie herself before I finished counting and switched on the lights, then she would be the winner,” he said.
But he heard a loud thud and flew into a panic when he saw Huang Na on the floor having spasms, with her eyes wide open. Blood was trickling from the corner of her mouth.
He strangled her. Then using his hand, he “chopped” Huang Na on the back of the neck three times to “put her out of her misery”. He also stamped on her neck three times. He then stripped her and molested her with his fingers “so that people will think she was being raped”.
Next, he used scissors to cut her clothing to “make it real”. A chilling video of him demonstrating these actions on a dummy of a child was played in court.
He also told police that he fled to Malaysia because he feared being hanged.
Took’s colleagues who took the stand had seen him scolding the girl on several occasions, and said he had even hurt her at least once.
Took’s employer Kelvin Eng Chow Meng recalled confronting him after seeing bruises on the girl’s hand back in July 2003.
“The accused claimed that Huang Na was making too much noise and he was unable to sleep,” he told the court.
Another witness, packer Tan Ban Tiong, recalled “one or two” occasions when Took tied the girl’s hands with raffia string to “teach her a lesson not to disturb us”.
Madam Huang, the murdered girl’s mother, returned to Singapore to take the stand.
She said she had seen Took lose his temper and throw things when he was agitated. She recounted an incident in which she claimed Took had hit Huang Na when they all went on a crab-catching excursion.
“I told him that if he wanted to play with a young child, he should not lose his temper. If he was offended, then he shouldn’t have been playing with her,” she said.
She also told the court she first came to Singapore in 1999 on a social visit pass to visit her first husband. But after she found out he was cheating on her, she decided to stay on to look for a job.
She was jailed for overstaying in 2001, after immigration officers raided the Pasir Panjang shop where she worked. While she was in prison, she realised she would have problems returning here to work after she was repatriated to China, as the immigration authorities had a record of her fingerprints.
But her fellow inmates taught her how to “beat” the system.
After serving her sentence, she returned to China and “scarred all my fingers on the right hand and the left thumb on a hot iron plate”. After the injuries healed, she paid a trafficker $8,000 to arrange for her and Huang Na to come to Singapore in May 2003. Shortly after they arrived, they met Took.
The accused never took the stand in his defence. Instead, Took relied on the testimony of defence psychiatrist Dr R. Nagulendran to claim diminished responsibility and escape the noose.
The psychiatrist told the court that Took’s “irrational” and “inexplicable” strangling of Huang Na, whom he “considered as a daughter”, and his reactions to her death indicated schizophrenia. That meant Took could not be fully accountable for his actions.
The accused’s family, he said, also told him how Took had acted strangely whenever he returned to see them in Penang. His mother Loo Swee Heow said her son talked about “having spirits in him” and “often smiled to himself”.
Dr Nagulendran added how Took looked to mediums for help on two occasions, once in Kulai, Malaysia, and another time in Geylang.
Prosecution psychiatrist G. Sathyadevan however argued that it was not possible that Took could have been suffering from delusions and hallucinations, much less schizophrenia, when he killed Huang Na.
He said: “I have never seen such a case in my entire years as a psychiatrist where a patient becomes mentally ill right at the time when the offence is committed. There are usually disturbances before that.”
Took was not mentally dull either, he added, even though his IQ of 76 put him just above the mentally retarded bracket, which is usually considered 70 or below.
In its submissions, the prosecution also pointed out that he had no history of mental abnormality, and there was nothing disorganised about the way he went about killing Huang Na.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Ang said: “He had calmly and systematically gone about killing the deceased. His every action during the killing was pregnant with reason.”
On Aug 26, after a 13-day hearing, Took was found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Justice Lai Kew Chai noted the meticulous manner in which Took had planned the disposal of Huang Na’s body and clothes. He chose a rubbish bin that was not monitored by a camera to dump her clothes.
He wrapped her in nine plastic bags, encased her in a box and used the cover of night to dump the body.
“His conduct after the killing was clearly the product of a cold and calculated mind.”
In January 2006, Took’s appeal was rejected in a rare split decision. Chief Justice Yong Pung How and Justice Chao Hick Tin both upheld the conviction, but Justice Kan Ting Chiu dissented.
Forensic pathologist Paul Chui testified that Huang Na had been smothered to death, most likely by Took pressing his hand over her mouth and nose, but he also said that signs on Huang Na’s body — a bruised tongue, vomiting and loss of bowel control — were consistent with her having a seizure.
While the pathologist told the court that the seizure was part of the “dying process” and not the primary cause of death, Justice Kan was not satisfied that there was enough conclusive evidence.
A last ditch appeal to the President for clemency also failed.
Took was hanged in Changi Prison on Nov 3, 2006, but not before choosing his own obituary picture after a photo-taking session in prison, dressed in new clothes brought by his family.
How it all unfolded
Oct 10, 2004: Huang Na reported missing
Oct 13: Police appeal for information
Oct 17: Public put up posters at bus stops
Oct 20: Family friend Took Leng How, 22, disappears; Retired company director Yeo Aik Seng, 60, offers $10,000 reward
Oct 26: Missing person posters are up in Johor Baru; Mr Low Tiam Soon, 48, offers $5,000 as a reward
Oct 29: ComfortDelGro Corporation urges its taxi drivers to be on the lookout for the girl
Oct 30: Took surrenders to police in Penang, returns to Singapore
Oct 31: Police find body of a young girl at Telok Blangah Hill Park
Nov 1: Took is charged with murder
Nov 8: Huang Na is cremated
July 11, 2005:
Took’s trial begins
Aug 26: Took is found guilty and sentenced to hang
His appeal is rejected in a rare split decision by the Court of Appeal
Nov 3: Took is hanged