Remembering Singapore’s Biggest Disasters

We always think Singapore is safe.

And it is. I can leave my house at 3am and take a stroll around my neighbourhood and reach home at 4am – cold and shivering and feeling stupid. But, safe.

With this feeling of security, it is easy to forget that Singapore once suffered its own set of disasters. We just hope that Singaporeans today who never knew about them, don’t take our safety for granted. Let’s stay diligent and ensure these incidents never repeat again.

For history’s sake, here are 15 of most horrifying incidents in Singapore. They won’t want to have this in Singapore’s history books. But we feel there are important lessons here for future generations to learn.

1. Bukit Ho Swee Fire (25 May 1961)


This fire was Singapore’s largest fire in history – taking away four lives, injuring 85 and rendering 16,000 people homeless after 2,200 attap houses were destroyed. Investigations began afterwards to pinpoint the cause of this mega fire.

But yet up to today, no one has found the exact cause of this incident.

2. MacDonald House Bombing (10 March 1965)


This incident resurfaced in the news recently, after Indonesia insensitively renamed a corvette warship “Usman-Harun” – after the two commando bombers.

We really don’t know what prompted Indonesia to make such a decision, and the resulting furore needlessly strained bilateral ties between our countries. Singapore imposed a ban of this ship entering its ports and naval bases.

But what was the incident that happened in the first place?

Believe it or not, Singapore was victim to this bombing due to Indonesia’s unhappiness with the merger of Singapore and Malaysia, which they openly opposed. This was a long time ago, in 1965. And to make their point, they sent two commandos to plant the bomb, which resulted in the death of two bank employees and over 33 injured parties. In total, 29 bombs were set off in Singapore but the MacDonald’s bombing was by far the most serious.

In the end, the two young Indonesia commandos, Harun Said (then 21) and Osman Mohamed Ali (then 23), were caught and hanged in 1968.

3. The Spyros Disaster (12 October 1978)


At about 2pm on this day, a Greek tanker “Spyros” exploded at the Jurong shipyard. It killed 76 people in the immediate vicinity and injured hundreds more, making it Singapore’s worst accident in terms of lives lost.

Many workers who were on their way back to the shipyard were burnt to death while others suffered serious burns and inhalation of toxic gases. This tragic incident led to an immediate increase of safety regulations at the shipyard.

4. The Murder of the Tan children (6 January 1979)


The Geylang Bahru murder case of the Tan children shook Singapore. It was one of the most brutal homicides in Singapore history.

Their parents had left the house at 6:35am for work. The mother phoned home at 7:10am to remind the children to wake up for school to no avail. Upon arriving home at 10am, they found the four children, aged between 5 to 10, cruelly slashed to death and had their bodies piled up in the bathroom.

Police ended up questioning over 100 of the Tan family’s neighbours. But till today, no suspects were identified and no weapons were ever recovered. This has to be the most chilling murders ever, but the murderer did appear to have intimate knowledge of the family.

5. The Adrian Lim murders (January/ February 1981)


In 1981, police investigations into the murder of two young children, Agnes Ng Siew Heok and Ghazali bin Marzuki led to the capture of three murderers: Adrian Lim, wife Catherine Tan Mui Choo and mistress Hoe Kah Hong.

Adrian Lim practised rituals as a phoney religion medium, luring women into having sex with him in exchange for beauty or to ward off evil spirits. He manipulated them with lies and deceit and ill-practice, at one point electrocuting one of them.

He was finally captured when he was found guilty of killing two children just to draw attention away from his impending rape charge. He lured the children to his home and the trio killed them slowly, drinking their blood and drowning them systematically.

The trio tried to plead for insanity but were denied multiple times. They were hanged on 25 November 1988.

6. New World Hotel Disaster (15 March 1986)


The six-storey New World Hotel collapsed on 15 March 1986, claiming 33 lives instantly. Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Civil Defence Force and hundreds of volunteers started the task of saving lives and removing rubble from the scene. Thankfully, 17 people were rescued.

The tragedy made the nation come together as one, with many offering their help with the plight of the victims’ families.

After an inquiry, it was concluded that the original structural engineer miscalculated the building’s structural load. Because the building was unable to support its own weight, it was only a matter of time before it would collapse.

7. Hijack of Singapore Airlines SQ 117 (26 March, 1991)


Singapore Airlines Airbus flight SQ 117 was hijacked by four Pakistanis, who took control of the plane and landed it in Singapore.

The hijackers made their demand. Right before their stipulated deadline, specialist Commandos charged into the plane and killed the hijackers, freeing all 118 passengers and 9 crew.

None of the passengers and crew were hurt. OH YEA, GO SINGAPORE!

8. SilkAir Flight 185 (19 December, 1997)

Image Source: Wikipedia

This did not happen in Singapore, but it resonates extremely strongly with us till today. SilkAir is a wholly owned subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, and before this incident they had a perfect aviation accident record. It is also important to note that later in 2000, Singapore Airlines SQ006 would crash into flames on a closed runway in Taiwan, killing 83 out of the 179 people on board, including 12 Singaporeans.

The SilkAir airplane crash was particularly horrifying as it killed all 97 passengers and 7 crew members on board, including 40 Singaporeans – sending our entire nation into shock. The airplane entered a near vertical dive in its last minute, travelling faster than the speed of sound just seconds before hitting the Musi River in Sumatra. Every human was believed to have disintegrated upon impact, and no body part was ever found.

It was suspected that the cause of crash was due to pilot suicide, caused by deliberate action in the cockpit. Captain Tsu Way Ming was found to have just obtained a life insurance policy, accrued a loss of over $1 million in shares and this exact date was the 18th year anniversary of the death of three of his squadron mates during his military flight training.

Although all these strings of evidences sound compelling, ultimately there was insufficient evidence and the jury under the Superior Court in Los Angles concluded it was the result of a defective servo valve which controls the aircraft’s rudder, a similar cause of other 737 crashes. Lawsuits against SilkAir filed by six families were turned down by the Singapore High Court as it could not be proven the crash was intentional.

9. Nicoll Highway Collapse (20 April, 2004)


During construction for the then upcoming SMRT Circle line, a tunnel at Nicoll Highway collapsed when its supporting structure gave way. It led to the largest highway accident in Singapore history.

Rescue searches for the surviving workers lasted 3 days with 4 people dead and 3 injured. The construction was subsequently halted for 8 months, with the project director fined $8,000 for negligence.

10. Murder of Huang Na (10th October, 2004)

Image Source: Wikipedia

Huang Na was the daughter of Chinese Nationals, living in Pasir Panjang. She was reported missing on 10th October, 2004. This resulted in a 3-week nationwide search with over 70,000 leaflets being distributed. At the end, she was found murdered by a vegetable packer at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale centre whom she was friends with. 

The sickest thing was how he had sexually assaulted her then stomped on her to ensure her death. She was only 8 years old. Her murderer, Took Leng How received the death sentence.

11. The Escape of Mas Selamat (27 Feburary 2008)


Oh yea, this was a disaster. A PR disaster that is. For his escape should never have happened.

Mas Selamat Kastari, leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the same organisation who tried to take down Yishun MRT Station and several foreign embassies, escaped Whitley Road Detention Centre. It was a desperate national-wide manhunt for him, as rumours of him plotting bomb targets in Singapore and Malaysia spread rapidly.

He was captured after a year when he was found chilling in a village in Johor, Malaysia. He was handed over to Singapore in September 2010.

12. The “Slayers” suicide pact (23 August 2008)


Ku Witaya woke up one day and found out he was able to perform trances, just as his father and grandmother before. He would perform his spiritual trances and decline cash for his services.

Things took a turn after Witaya said he had a dream that he and his friends had to become slayers and save the world and the only way to do it was to die and be resurrected as one.

He gathered 7 of his friends in a suicide pact and jumped first, holding hands with his best friend of the group. The other 5 backed out when they saw the scene.

13. The Wang Zhi Jian murders (18 September 2008)


Wang Zhi Jian had arrived at Singapore for only 10 days when he committed the horrific Yishun murder. 

He stabbed his girlfriend Zhang Meng multiple times after a quarrel. When her daughter awoke from the commotion, he proceeded to stab her too. Both died from their injuries. Fearing he would be exposed, he then entered a second room to attack another mother-daughter pair. The mother Yang Jie was forced to escape through the kitchen window, falling to her death while her daughter Li Mei Lin was injured badly.

He was sentenced to death after a 4-year trial.

14. The Ferrari road accident (12 May 2012)


On Saturday morning, China national Ma Chi was speeding in his Ferrari and beating a red light at Victoria Street when he crashed, causing a terrible collision with a taxi and motorcycle. Ma Chi, the taxi driver Cheng Teck Hock and his passenger Shigemi Ito died in the crash. Two others were injured.

The footage of the accident uploaded above added to strong anti-foreigner sentiments in Singapore, as we were experiencing a massive foreigner influx in recent years.

15. The Little India riot (8 December 2013)


On 8 December 2013, a riot involving over 400 South Asian foreign workers erupted after a bus knocked down and killed an Indian national at the junction of Race Course Road and Hampshire Road.

An ambulance was set ablaze and rioters hurled whatever they could find around while several police cars were overturned and burnt. This resulted in 18 injuries and over 30 arrests for rioting.

This was Singapore’s first major riot in over 20 years and you can read a summary of the Little India Riots which we curated from social media here.

Remembering Singapore’s past

Note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive. There are many other horrifying cases, especially criminal ones such as the Curry Murder, one-eyed dragon murder and “body parts” murder and you can read more about them in Wikipedia’s list of Singapore crimes.

We just wanted to carry the message that we live in a safe country, but we should never take our nation’s peace for granted. So many events from the past have shown us that these horrifying incidents are not so far away after all.

But we have the capability to come together as one in times of disaster and distress. So why not in happiness and prosperity too? Here’s a goodbye to all the horrifying incidents of the past.

Lets look forward together to Singapore’s successes ahead.

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