Unsolving The 1979 Tan Family Geylang Bahru Murders

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

The Morning

It is 6:35am in the wee hours of 6 January 1979 and 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.

Picture of children in 1979 Geylang Bahru Tan family murder
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) studies at Bendeemer Road Primary School while their younger sister Tan Chin Nee (5) attends the People’s Association kindergarten.

However, the phone was not picked up. Several calls followed but again, there was no response from the children.

Lee then phoned her neighbour to knock on their flat. Again, there was no response.

Lee and her neighbour assumed that the Tan siblings 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 next will remain etched in their minds forever: the mutilated bodies of the Tan siblings piled up on top of one another in the bathroom.

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. 

newspaper clipping of Geylang Bahru Tan Family Murder
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 led to several insights:

  • There was no sign of force entry, suggesting that the children may have opened the doors willingly to someone they knew.
  • No items were reported missing, indicating that it is 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 off the attacker. This may have attributed to the 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.
  • The absence of any screams or loud noises suggested that the massacre may have been done by two murderers. The investigators theorised that one was in-charge of pacifying the children while the other was responsible for bringing 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 premeditated.
  • The likely time of murder was between 6:35am and 7:10am, suggesting that it was well-planned and that the murderer(s) knew about the family’s daily routine well.
neighbours grieving at 1979 Tan family Geylang Bahru murder crime scene
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 premeditated and 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 investigations.

A witness claimed to have seen a couple near the crime scene and soaked in blood. This turned out to a hoax conjured up by the witness. Another eyewitness recounts a time when he saw Lee arguing with a man although this was refuted by Lee. 

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

In a turn of event, a taxi driver came forward informing 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 and dropped when the man was exiting the taxi.

The man was later identified as “Uncle”, a Malaysian and neighbour 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 in 1979 Tan family Geylang Bahru murder
Granny Yam Yin Tin sitting on her chair at the corridor | Image credits: SPH & Straits Times

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 their youngest child Chin Nee five years ago. It was a well-kept secret that only the relatives and close friends of the Tan’s family knew.

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

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 and traced back to the perpetrator.

The Theories

Over the years, different theories have sprung up with regards to the cause of the murder, all of which Tan and Lee have vehemently 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.
  • The Tan family were involved in an illegal Tontine scheme where individuals would contribute to a common pool of money and receive dividends with the last-surviving member taking up everything. Two ladies supposedly involved in the Tontine scheme were said to have murdered the children for the money.
  • A relative of Lee had asked her to buy lottery tickets which eventually won. The prize money was $45,000, today’s equivalent of $97,000. 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 “Uncle” who had asked Lee to buy the tickets. People in the area (including Tan and Lee) allegedly knew it was “Uncle” who murdered the children but kept quiet as he was part of a street gang. It was also said that Tan and Lee were also involved in drug activities and do not want it to be exposed by “Uncle” as it would lead to a death penalty.

The Burial

The four siblings were hurriedly buried 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 burial spots.

grandmother in 1979 Tan family Geylang Bahru murder
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.

In December 1983, Lee reversed the sterilisation that she had went through and gave birth to a baby boy.

In April 2021, local community group Crime Library Singapore (CLS) revisited the case and unearthed new information:

  • The scene of the crime is at level 5 and not level 4 as reported by the 1979 news articles
  • Lee May Ying true name is Lee MC, and she is not locally born
  • Neighbours of the Tan family held crucial information not revealed to the police.

While the new information provided by CLS could not be verified, it has rekindled hopes of solving the crime 42 years later.

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