The Tontine killing (1974)

Guilty As Charged: Sim Joo Keow strangled sister-in-law, chopped up her body

She owed the victim, who headed a tontine group, money but couldn't pay up

Police officers removing an earthernware jar containing a woman’s torso. It belonged to Madam Quek Lay Eng.
Police officers removing an earthernware jar containing a woman’s torso. It belonged to Madam Quek Lay Eng.PHOTO: ST FILE

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.)

The Tontine killing (1974)

Sim Joo Keow  fought with her sister-in-law over money, strangled her and hid the body in different places

On May 9, 1974, Sim Joo Keow first strangled her sister-in-law, dismembered her body and kept her torso in two earthen jars in her home. The 44-year-old killed Madam Quek Lee Eng after a fight over money — money that Sim owed Madam Quek, but that she did not have.

Sim was sentenced to 10 years in jail in January 1975, after being convicted of manslaughter and hiding evidence.

On the day of her death, 53-year-old Madam Quek, the wife of a wealthy local textile merchant and the head of a tontine group, went to Sim’s Upper Perak Road home to collect the $2,000 that Sim owed her.

THE VICTIM: Madam Quek's legs were found in a toilet, and her head and arms were dumped in Kallang. PHOTO: ST FILE

It was then that things soured.

Sim claimed that Madam Quek threw a punch at her eye, leaving it blue-black. Sim retaliated in anger.

Before, Sim and Madam Quek shared a good relationship. Sim had a share in Madam Quek’s tontine group, an informal micro-financing scheme in which members make regular contributions to a common pool.

Madam Quek had left her home at about 8.30am, telling her sons that she was going to visit her brother’s wife.

When she did not return to her Pheng Geck home in Sennett Estate by nightfall that day, and her family could not find her, they got worried and lodged a report at Paya Lebar Police Station. Madam Quek was classified as a missing person.

Two days later came the shocking discovery of  dismembered legs, hacked from the knees, in a toilet near a mosque in Aljunied. The police received an anonymous call informing them of the gruesome find.

Pathologist Chao Tzee Cheng, who was summoned to the scene, confirmed that the pair of legs belonged to a female person, and that they had been cut off less than 24 hours before.

Sim had used a meat chopper and hammered it down with a block of wood after strangling Madam Quek, in a desperate attempt to get rid of the body. She apparently got the idea from seeing fish being chopped up in the market.

The legs were quickly linked to the missing woman. When police arrived at Sim’s rented two-storey colonial home, the heavy stench almost drove them back.

They found Madam Quek’s upper torso, wrapped in plastic bags from then-popular department store Yaohan in the most unlikely of places: a huge earthern jar located on the ground floor.

They also found another jar on the top floor, near the kitchen. In it was a similar bag containing the lower half of the torso.

The police then painstakingly searched for the remaining parts of Madam Quek’s body.

Just before the search was almost called off for the day, they detected a stench near the Kallang River bank, where a parcel was found.

It contained Madam Quek’s head and arms.

The day the legs were discovered, Sim called her husband Quek Huang Phoew, and he went home immediately. In his statement, he said that he saw blood trickling out of one of the earthen jars, that there were flies hovering around, and there was a “strong smell”.

When police went to her home the next day on May 12, Sim told Inspector Daniel Tan from the Special Investigations Section that she wanted to tell him “everything”. After she was arrested on the spot, she proceeded to show police where she had hidden Madam Quek’s clothes and handbag.

Then, she led them to to the kitchen, and showed Inspector Tan a chopper that she used. She brought him to the bathroom where she said she cut up the body, but no blood stains were found there.

THE KILLER: Sim Joo Keow being led out of court. She was sentenced to 10 years in jail in January 1975 after being convicted of manslaughter and hiding evidence. PHOTO: ST FILE

She also brought them to Kallang Bridge, where she said she had dumped Madam Quek’s head and arms.

It was later revealed in court that on the day of the murder, Sim told two different versions of events to her daughter Quek Pek Hiah.

A page from The Straits Times on Jan 28, 1975. According to the report, Sim was afraid of getting her husband and six children involved after killing her sister-in-law in a fight. PHOTO: ST FILE

First, she said that Madam Quek had arranged to meet her at a bus stop, where the two of them would meet another person to settle some money matter. However, a car with a man and a woman pulled up. Madam Quek asked Sim to follow her into the car, but Sim refused.

Later, she said that Madam Quek had gone to her house with a couple. There, the couple and Madam Quek quarrelled over a money matter.

She claimed that the man then slashed Madam Quek with a knife, and punched Sim  in the eye when she tried to help. She ran out of her house, and when she came back, there was no one there.

That very day, May 9, Sim was called in for a witness interview with Inspector Tan when it became apparent that Madam Quek’s last destination was Sim’s home.

While she was being interviewed, her daughter, who was seated outside the interview office, heard Sim giving the police another version of events. She interrupted her mother and told her to tell the truth.

Inspector Tan then followed Sim to the home, but did not detect any stench or find any clues at that point.

When interviewed several years later, in 2005, Madam Quek’s son, a lawyer said: “During my mother’s death anniversary, we’ll talk about what happened and we’ll cry. But it’s something that happened 30 years back, and I don’t want to bring this up again for fear of hurting my father”.

Tontine scheme: How it works

Its roots go back to the the 17th century and is a mix of group annuity and lottery. Each subscriber pays a sum into an investment pool, and then receives annual dividends.

As subscribers die, their shares go to the other members of the scheme — increasing the yearly payout.

The scheme comes to an end when every member is dead. In some cases, the entire fund goes to the final survivor, which explains the comparison to a lottery.

How it all unfolded

The house where the murder happened in 1974. PHOTO: ST FILE

May 9, 1974

Sim Joo Keow strangles and dismembers her sister-in-law, Madam Quek Lee Eng. She throws her head and hands, wrapped in plastic, into the Kallang River, leaves her legs at a site on Aljunied Road, and keeps her torso in earthen jars at home.

She tells her daughter two versions of what happened.

She is called in for a police interview in the capacity of a potential witness.

May 11, 1974

Police get a call reporting on a pair of legs found in a toilet on Aljunied Road.

Sim calls her husband on the phone to go home, and he sees blood trickling from an earthen jar.

Police arrive at Sim’s home, and are almost driven back by a heavy stench.

Sim is arrested on the spot, and confesses everything. She shows police where the different body parts are.

May 13, 1974

Sim is charged in court. About 500 people turn up to catch a glimpse of her.

May 20, 1974

Second mention of her case, and she is remanded for psychiatric evaluation at Woodbridge Hospital.

July 30, 1974

Two-day preliminary inquiry held. She commits to stand trial at the end of it.

Jan 27, 1975

Sim is convicted of manslaughter and hiding evidence, and is jailed.

Read other stories from Guilty As Charged: 25 Crimes That Have Shaken Singapore Since 1965 here.

More Singapore crime stories here.