Unsolving The 1979 Tan Family Geylang Bahru Murders

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Unsolving The 1979 Tan Family Geylang Bahru Murders

The gruesome murder of four innocent children in the Tan family remains one of the most heinous crime in Singapore’s history

The Morning

It is 6:35am in the wee hours of 6 January 1979 when Tan Kuen Chai and Lee Mei Ying were leaving home for work. Together with four children, the family of six live in a one-room flat at Block 58, Geylang Bahru. Tan and Lee run a minibus business, ferrying students to and fro schools in the vicinity.

The Tan sibiling | Image credits: NewspaperSG

At approximately 7:10am, Lee makes a routine call home to wake her children up and get them ready for school. The three boys, Tan Kok Peng (10), Tan Kok Hin (8), Tan Kok Soon (6) studied at Bendeemer Road Primary School while their younger sister Tan Chin Nee (5) attended the People’s Association kindergarten.

However, there was no response.

After several calls, Lee called her neighbour to knock on their flat; there was no response too.

She had assumed that the Tan sibilings woke up early and had already left home for school.

The Massacre

It is after 10am when Lee and Tan returned home from work. What they saw will without a doubt remain etched in their minds forever.

The mutiliated bodies of the Tan siblings were found piled up on top of one another in the bathroom.

All of the children were brutally slashed, with each of them having at least 20 slash wounds in their head and limbs. Chin Nee, the youngest child, had multiple slash marks on her face while the right arm of Kok Peng, the eldest child, was almost severed from his body. 

Members of the public gathering at Block 58 | Image credits: NewspaperSG

The Investigation

An investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department’s (CID) Special Investigation Section revealed several insights:

  • There was no sign of force entry; suggesting that the children may have opened the doors willingly
  • No items were reported missing, indicating that it is a not a robbery went wrong
  • Strands of hair found on the clenched hand of Kok Peng, the eldest child indicated that he tried to fend of the attacker. This may have attributed to the severe slash wounds on his right arm.
  • The murderer was believed to have used both a chopper and a dagger as slash and stab wounds of varying degree can be found on the bodies of the children.
  • The absences of any screams or loud noises suggested that the massacre may have been done by two murderers; one was in-charge of pacifying the children while the other would bring the child in sequence to the bathroom where the crime was committed.
  • Traces of blood in the kitchen sink and absence of bloodstains in the living room suggested that a clean-up was done and that the massacre was pre-planned.
  • The likely time of murder was between 6:35am and 7:10am, suggesting that it was well-planned and that the murderer knew about the family’s daily routine.
Neigbours and relatives of Tan family outside the crime scene | Image credits: NewspaperSG

Initial investigations concluded that the horrific killing of the Tan siblings were premediated and that it was done by a close contact of the Tan family.

What followed were months of investigations and hundreds of interviews with possible suspects. Several witness had sprung up as a result of the investigation.

A witness who claimed to have seen a couple near the crime scene and soaked in blood turned out to a hoax. Another report revealed that someone had seen Lee arguing with a man but the witness cannot be traced.

An old lady identified as Yam Yin Tin or simply “Granny” would usually sit down at the corridor in the morning and watch the children play. However, on that particular day, she was “washing her hair” and did not see or hear anything.

In a turn of event, a taxi driver came forward telling investigators that he had picked up a man in his 20s not far from the crime scene at around 8am. The man’s left side was covered in bloodstains and he had a knife concealed from the taxi driver; the knife had banged against the door when the man was exiting the taxi. The man was later identified as “Uncle”, a Malaysian and neigbour of the Tan family. It is known that he would visit the family every other day to borrow the phone and call back to his Malaysian home. However, “Uncle” was released by the police two weeks after his arrest due to a lack of evidence. He later moved out of Block 58 with his sister.

Granny Yam Yin Tin sitting on her chair at the corridor | Image credits: SPH & Straits Times

“It is sickening to see the dead little children, It’s so gruesome. It’s terrible.”
– Senior CID officer investigating the case

The Greeting

Two weeks after the murder, Tan and Lee received a Chinese New Year card which depicted children playing together. The couple was addressed by their nicknames “Ah Chai” and “Ah Eng” and wrote “Now you can have no more offspring ha-ha-ha” in Chinese”.

The message referred to the sterilisation that Lee had undergone after the birth of the youngest child five years ago. It was a well-kept secret that Lee had only told to her family and close friend.

The card was signed off as “The Murderer”.

Due to the lack of advanced forensic technology in Singapore in the 1970s, the fingerprint on the card could not be tested. Hence the card cannot be traced to the perpetrator nor can it be concluded if it was a hoax by a close member of the Tan family.

The Theories

Various theories have sprung up over the years, all of which Tan and Lee have vehmently denied:

  • Lee had an affair with a close friend, presumably the “Uncle”  and that the lover killed the children after Lee’s reluctance to leave her family for him.
  • Lee’s brother revealed that the Tan family were involved in an illegal Tontine scheme where individuals would agree to a common pool of money and receive dividend with the last-surviving member taking up everything. Two ladies supposedly to be involved in the Tontine scheme were said to have murdered the children.
  • A relative of Lee had asked her to buy lottery tickets which eventually won. The prize money was between $40,000 and $50,000. However, Lee told him that she had forgotten to buy the tickets. It is said that the relative knew that Lee was withholding he prize money and killed the children in an act of vengeance before fleeing the country.
  • In a similar theory, it was the “Uncle” who had asked the Lee to buy the lottery. It was alleged that people in the area knew it was “Uncle” who murdered the children but kept quiet as he was part of a street gang. It was alleged that Tan and Lee were also involved in drug activities and do not want it to be exposed by the “Uncle” as it would lead to a death penalty

The Re-enactment

In 2005, True Files produced an re-enactment of the videos.

**The content may be disturbing for some individuals. Please watch with discretion.

The Aftermath

The four siblings were hurriedly buried a day after the murder at Choa Chu Kang Cemetery. They were dressed in their best clothes and buried along with their schoolbags and beloved toys. Lee had fainted many times as her children were put in their respective caskets.

Grandmother of the Tan siblings attending the burial ceremony on 7 January 1979 | Image credits: The Straits Times

After the gruesome murder, the couple gave up their minibus business and worked in a plastic bag manufacturing firm. On 30 December 1983, Lee reversed the sterilisation that she had went through and gave birth to a baby boy.

The crime remains unsolved as of 2020 and is still classified as an open case.

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