Sheng Siong kidnap: Kidnappings common in the past; stories from the archives

In Singapore, kidnap hoaxes are far more common today than actual abductions. Con men try to extort ransoms for family members who are temporarily out of touch. -- ST ILLUSTRATION: ERIC ROCA
In Singapore, kidnap hoaxes are far more common today than actual abductions. Con men try to extort ransoms for family members who are temporarily out of touch. -- ST ILLUSTRATION: ERIC ROCA

A 79-year-old woman kidnapped on Wednesday is the mother of Sheng Siong supermarket chief executive Lim Hock Chee. She was said to have been kidnapped along Hougang Avenue 2 (not Hougang Avenue 8 as previously reported based on what the police said). Kidnappings are a rare occurence in Singapore.

Below is an article published in The Sunday Times on March 20, 2011 about kidnappings in Singapore.

In Singapore, kidnap hoaxes are far more common today than actual abductions. Con men try to extort ransoms for family members who are temporarily out of touch.

In the past decade, there were just three substantiated cases of kidnappings for ransoms. In the preceding 10 years, there was only one known case.

In the 1950s and 1960s, though, kidnapping was an all too real nightmare for Singapore's rich and famous. Hardly a month passed without news of an abduction.

Kidnappers were armed to the teeth with guns and grenades and backed by triads and secret societies.

Retired detective Lim Ah Soon recalled the wanton reign of kidnappers back then.

"They were highly organised gangs," he told The Sunday Times.

"They carefully sussed out those who were the lifeblood of the family. They even had legitimate fronts to launder money quickly and get to know people."

One of the most notorious kidnappers, Oh Kim Kee, pulled off 12 kidnappings over a 10-month span in 1959. The 30-year-old's spree ended only when he was killed by the police in a gunfight at his hideout the following year. He had a gun gripped in each hand when the police recovered his body.

Some hostages were killed even after ransoms were coughed up.

Mr Tay Kie Thay, a 48-year-old shipping tycoon, was shot and buried in 1961 even though his family forked out a ransom of $130,000. "Dead men tell no tales," said Mr Lim.

Business tycoons were forced to surround themselves with bodyguards keeping watch 24 hours.

Memories of those early years were rekindled when a Singapore businessman reportedly paid $9 million for the safe return of his wife, daughter and maid. A gang of parang-wielding men was said to have hijacked their car in late January, setting them free only after the sum was paid. Malaysian police have yet to make any arrests.

Retired detective Lim Beng Gee said: "In Malaysia, it's so much easier to hide a hostage because the country's full of jungles. But in Singapore, with all the HDB flats, how to hide? On top of that, the law is so tough."

In 1961, the maximum punishment for kidnapping was raised from 10 years' jail to death or life imprisonment. The powerful law even allows police to tap phone lines. Many suspected kidnappers were held under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows detention without trial.

The Government was determined to stamp out kidnapping because the lack of security could scare off wealthy industrialists, getting in the way of Singapore's industrialisation efforts.

Capital punishment was also introduced for gunmen in 1974. Other legal changes allowed the confiscation of illegal proceeds, which prevented kidnappers from spending their ill-gotten gains.

By 1970, the major kidnapping gangs had been smashed, said Mr Lim Ah Soon.

In later years, kidnappers tended to be less sophisticated.

Ms Mayuri Thong was kidnapped in 1992 from an amusement centre in Ang Mo Kio when she was only three. The 17-year-old kidnapper released the girl after two days, because her victim was too young to know her family members' telephone numbers.

Interviewed recently, Ms Thong, now a 21-year-old financial consultant, said her mother told her about the event when she was older.

"She was sniffing my pillows and everything, she was just so upset. She spent the whole day walking around in Ang Mo Kio asking everybody," she said.

"Now that I've a son of my own, I can't imagine if anything ever happens to him, so I now understand how my mother felt at that point in time. "

The former policemen interviewed reckoned that kidnappers targeting Singaporeans these days are more likely to stage their attempts abroad, prompting some businessmen to hire bodyguards while overseas.

One chief executive, who is worth several million dollars, does not hire bodyguards but ensures she never travels alone.

She said: "On my overseas business trips, I am almost always accompanied. I make sure I do not go anywhere alone to places that are considered unsafe.

"At the start of each day, I say a prayer for guidance and protection. As a CEO, I am expected to exercise caution when travelling. And we must have a strong management team in place for succession planning."

Another wealthy businessman, who also declined to be identified, does not have bodyguards but tries his utmost to keep his activities under wraps.

He said: "The important thing is you must be very low-profile. Don't let people know what you are doing."

While many wealthy foreigners have flocked to Singapore in recent years to live, invest or just for leisure, security experts doubt there will be a corresponding rise in kidnapping cases.

They point out that some of these foreigners, wary of "outsiders", bring in their own bodyguards passed off as aides. They include former soldiers skilled in martial arts.

Some ultra-rich Singaporeans also deploy guards for themselves and their families even when they commute within the country.

Mr Lim Ah Soon, who runs a security agency, said: "There will always be people who are scared of their own shadows."

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