Some still missing

But most people reported lost are found, say ex-police officers; tech makes it easier to locate them

When a missing person case makes headlines, people often darken Madam Tay Mee Na's door.

They try to persuade the 80-year-old to talk about her son's disappearance 34 years ago.

But Madam Tay, whose son Keh Chin Ann, known widely as one of the McDonald's Boys, who went missing with classmate Toh Hong Huat in 1986, insists that her son's case is unique.

"The cases are very different... (My son's) case was very long ago," the petite Madam Tay cuts in, without needing much elaboration on the recent developments on Ms Felicia Teo, classified as missing for 13 years before two men were accused of her murder earlier this month.

Speaking from her home in a central part of Singapore, Madam Tay added that her memory is not what it used to be and she did not wish to talk about her son.

She also told The Sunday Times that her husband, Mr Keh Chin Poh, died a few years ago.

On Dec 17, Ahmad Danial Mohamed Rafa'ee, 35, was charged with murdering Ms Teo, 19, at a Marine Terrace flat. He is said to have committed the offence in the early hours of June 30, 2007, with Ragil Putra Setia Sukmarahjana, 32, who is still at large.

While new evidence helped investigators shed light on Ms Teo's case, the disappearance of Chin Ann and Hong Huat, who would have been 46 this year, remains one of the most baffling unsolved missing person cases.

MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE MCDONALD'S BOYS

The two Primary 6 boys from Owen Primary school went missing on May 14, 1986. The pair have since been legally declared dead.

The case got its moniker after the fast-food giant put out a $100,000 reward for any information on the boys' disappearance. The decision was reportedly a spontaneous one influenced by McDonald's strong ties with children, as well as to renew interest in the case months after the boys went missing.

  • 1,968

    Number of missing person reports received by the Singapore police last year.

  • 1,808

    Number of reports made in 2018.

  • 1,841

    Number of reports made in 2017.

One neighbour said that after Chin Ann's disappearance, Madam Tay would spend the day at her old address in case her son came back.

"They moved here just after the son went missing, so for a few years she would go back to the old house a lot to wait for him or for any news," said the neighbour, who declined to be named.

Another neighbour said Madam Tay hardly ever smiled. "Every time she would sit at the void deck looking at other kids playing... For more than 10 or 20 years, she never smiled. Only more recently she can open up and smile at us," he said.

NO LUCK ACROSS THE CAUSEWAY

Datuk Seri Michael Chong prides himself on having a 70 per cent success rate when it comes to locating missing persons.

But Mr Chong, who helms the Malaysian Chinese Association's (MCA) Public Services and Complaints Department, cannot forget a handful of cold cases, including the McDonald's Boys', even though it occurred more than three decades ago.

Mr Chong, 72, still recalls the day in 1990 when he was visited by Madam Tan Geok Kuan, the mother of Hong Huat.

"She was different, she wasn't crying or looking anxious," he told The Sunday Times in a telephone interview. "She looked as if she had cried enough and was resigned to fate that her only son may never be found. She was prepared for the worst."

Madam Tan is Malaysian and had gone to his office at the MCA headquarters in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Chong recalled that Madam Tan, who was alone, brought photographs of Hong Huat, as well as missing persons posters and an advertisement for the $100,000 reward by McDonald's.

"I'm generally confident of receiving tip-offs from the public once a missing person case has been publicised," he said. "Despite the McDonald's Boys case being major news that's been widely reported, to this day I have not received any information from the public. Not even prank calls."

On a few occasions, Madam Tan checked with him for updates about her son. But later, she stopped calling.

NO STONE UNTURNED

The police said they received 1,968 missing person reports last year, slightly higher than the 1,808 cases in 2018 and 1,841 in 2017. This works out to about five cases a day.

While they did not say how many of these cases have been solved, former police officers said a large majority of those reported lost are found.

The police said investigations include interviews, checking with agencies such as the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority and hospitals. They also use closed-circuit television footage and appeal for information through social and mainstream media.

A gazette is issued for officers on the ground to look out for the missing person and it remains in force until the person is found.

For cold cases, the police said they regularly review missing person reports. "A case may be referred to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as part of a process where selected cases which have been outstanding for a protracted period of time are surfaced to CID for a fresh review," the police said.

When a loved one is reported missing, John (not his real name), a former senior police officer, would work with his colleagues as if the missing person was his family member. "As a father, I worry about young children who go missing," said John, who is in his 50s and served more than 30 years in the police force.

"We have to move quickly because children are more vulnerable to negative influences or people with bad intentions."

Others who go missing include foreign workers and domestic helpers, children in custody battles, spouses, the elderly and wayward youth.

Sometimes, the person who is being sought by the police cannot really be classified as missing, said John, who has not encountered a cold case during his watch.

"It was not uncommon for us to locate a person reported missing within a day of the report being made," he said. "We would leave a message on the missing person's mobile phone and he would call us back almost immediately because he would be shocked to see a message from the police."

More often than not, the "missing person" would have decided to leave home without informing his parents.

With modern technology, the work of finding missing persons has become easier.

Police cameras at Housing Board lift lobbies, mobile phones and social media are exploited to locate a person.

"But it still boils down to police officers going to the ground to speak to witnesses and joining the dots, especially when the trail ends without a trace," John said. "This is the heart of police work."

NOT ALL WHO GO MISSING ARE LOST

Several years ago, John's team encountered a case of a young man who was reported missing. It was discovered the person had voluntarily left Singapore and flown to a European country. Checks with the police there confirmed the man had arrived in that country. It was believed he had left Singapore to join a foreign army.

According to John, missing persons' cases are reviewed once every few months. "While unsolved cases are very rare, what's more common are cases of people who habitually go 'missing'," he said.

"They disappear and are later found but choose to run away again from their homes."

On very rare occasions, runaways have reunited with their families years later, said Crime Library Singapore founder Joseph Tan. He cited Portugal-based singer-songwriter Shaik Salwa Shaik Hanif, now 25, as an example.

She was just 11 years old when she ran away from home, but reached out to her family eight years later when she was 19, according to an online profile.

Mr Tan, whose organisation helps families search for their missing loved ones, called this case a "one in a hundred".

He told The Sunday Times: "With social media today, light can be shed on cold cases, which can help families with closure, no matter what the outcome."

He added: "It can give the family a tiny bit of hope."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 27, 2020, with the headline 'Some still missing'. Subscribe