Toa Payoh and a gunman called Hun Cher

5 07 2014

It probably is hard to imagine Toa Payoh holding a reputation for being a hotbed of criminal activity – so much so that it was labelled as the “Chicago of Singapore” – a reference to the US city’s long-held reputation as the crime capital of the world. While this reputation had its origins in the squatter settlements in pre-public housing estate Toa Payoh when the rural setting made it possible for gangsterism to thrive such that few from the outside dared to venture in; its reputation stuck with its name well into the first decade of its new life as the first Housing and Development Board (HDB) planned satellite town.

While much of Toa Payoh’s reputation did have its roots in the gangland activities that did go on, it wasn’t so much the incidents involving Toa Payoh’s gangsters that were perhaps most visible but those that did involve individuals or small groups of criminals in Toa Payoh. One of the Toa Payoh’s most famous crimes, the ritual murders committed in a Toa Payoh flat by Adrian Lim and his accomplices in 1981, happened well after the satellite town had in fact shed its reputation.

It was well before that incident however that another that had the makings of a Hollywood style shootout, made the headlines in 1970, when Singapore’s second most wanted man, Tan Chiang Lai, found himself cornered in a flat in Lorong 5. Tan, who was also known by a nickname “Hun Cher”, was being hunted down by police after he had shot and killed a watch dealer and proprietor of Thim Lock Watchmakers, Mr Fong Tian Lock  in an attempt to rob Mr Fong’s North Bridge Road shop for which Tan and his five accomplices made away with just seven watches.

The robbery on 17 July 1970, was one of a series of armed robberies over a period of two months that Tan had been involved in, starting with a robbery of a shopkeeper of $4200 at Chulia Street on 6 June 1970. The list of robberies also involved a provision shop in Tanjong Pagar, gamblers in a house at 9th Mile Changi Road, the Golden Ringo Nightclub at Outram, and a gambling den in Lorong K Telok Kurau. Constantly on the move to avoid being caught, the Police finally caught up with him and an accomplice Sim Thiam Huat on 27 July, when in a desperate search for accommodation they fell for a trap that was laid by the police when they moved into a police detective’s flat in Block 64 Toa Payoh.

Having cleared the flats around the fourth storey unit of their occupants, the police had the flat surrounded late in the night and with the help of teargas grenades, they attempted to flush the two out just past midnight. Sim surrendered after being bundled out by Tan from the flat’s balcony at its rear. Tan himself chose not to surrender, shooting and killing himself, bringing to an end to his short but violent career in armed robbery. Sim, who was also Tan’s best friend, was sentenced to six years in jail and six strokes of the rotan in August 1970 for the role he played in the Outram Park robbery and a concurrent sentence of five years in jail for the Tanjong Pagar robbery.

There were to be several more incidents involving gunmen, including one the culminated in a showdown at a cemetery in Jalan Kubor in December 1972 and another involving the most wanted man, Lim Ban Lim, who was shot dead in a shootout at Margaret Drive in November 1972, having been on the run for nine years. The spate of violent robberies in the early 1970s led to the harsher penalties being introduced for gun offences. The new laws, introduced in 1973, stipulates a mandatory death penalty for anyone using or attempting to use a firearm to cause injury – this did seem to work and by the time Toa Payoh had shed its long time crime tainted image as the 1970s drew to a close, gun related offences did also appear to be on the wane.

One of these units at Block 64 was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.

One of these units at Block 64 in Toa Payoh was where Hun Cher took his life early one July morning in 1970.

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When gunmen roamed the streets of Singapore: A showdown at Jalan Kubor

23 01 2010

Having mentioned in my post on the old Protestant Cemetery in Penang that I wasn’t particularly fond of wandering around cemeteries, I found myself drawn to another cemetery while passing through the part of Victoria Street near Kampong Glam one day. As I looked out at Jalan Kubor from the safety of the car, I remembered an incident that happened at the cemetery there when I was a boy of eight,  that had somehow left a lasting impression on me. In the incident, the final scene of what was a real-life drama had been played out at the Madrasah Aljunied Cemetery at Jalan Kubor. This involved two of Singapore’s most dangerous criminals, Abdul Wahab and Mustapha, the Hassan brothers on a December’s evening in 1972. Cornered at their hideout at the cemetery and desperate and outnumbered during what was to be a final confrontation with the police on the 16 December 1972, Wahab shot his younger brother and turned the gun on himself, bringing an end to a one and a half month long reign of terror which had begun with Wahab’s escape from Changi Prison where he was being held for armed robbery.

Jalan Kubor which literally means “Grave Road” in Malay.

The Hassan brothers were behind a gun smuggling syndicate set up together with a few others in October of 1972 and along with several accomplices, staged a series of daring armed robberies at several petrol stations in the Bukit Timah area as well as at a goldsmith’s shop in Geylang. In the period that followed leading up to their last stand at Jalan Kubor, the two had several encounters with the police, including a shootout at Labrador Park during which a policeman and Mustapha himself were shot, and a successful rescue attempt staged by Wahab to free Mustapha from police custody while he was being treated at Outram Hospital just a few days prior to the brothers deaths. The latter incident also involved the abduction of a taxi driver and a policeman.

The Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah Cemetery off Jalan Kubor and Victoria Street was where two gunmen met their deaths in 1972.

The early 1970s seemed to have had more than a fair share of gunmen. Many of these gunmen, as with the Hassan brothers, did not have second thoughts when it came to pulling the trigger. Shootouts between the gunmen and the police were all too frequent. One that involved another gunman on the run, Ng Ah Bai, in April 1973, saw a police detective killed. Closer to home in July 1970, a gunman Tan Chian Lai also known as Hun Cher, shot himself, after being cornered in a flat in Block 64 Toa Payoh. A massive manhunt had been launched for the reportedly trigger happy Tan, who had killed a watch dealer in a robbery at a shop in North Bridge Road. Just a few weeks before the showdown at Jalan Kubor, another notorious gunman, Lim Ban Lim, had been shot dead by police in a gun battle in Margaret Drive after being on the run for nine years, getting away with $2.5 million during that time. The alarming rise in such incidents led to the introduction of harsh penalties for gun offences – new laws were passed in 1973 stipulating a mandatory death penalty for anyone using or attempting to use a firearm to cause injury.

While trying to find out a bit more about the cemetery, I also stumbled upon an article relating to the exhumation of the grave of a certain Ngah Ibrahim, which reportedly was located in the cemetery. Ngah Ibrahim, originally from Perak, was notable for a fortune made from the tin mines of Perak and as the headman of Larut. He was apparently implicated in the assassination of the first British resident to Perak, James Birch and sent by the British into exile in the Seychelles, before ending up in Singapore, where he died in 1895.

in April 1973