The popular Japanese reality TV series Old Enough on Netflix features children as young as 2 taking on tasks such as shopping for groceries and navigating public transport on their own.
A similar 2019 series over CNA On the Red Dot mimicked the Japanese show – this time with children of celebrities doing the same, shopping at the wet market or taking public transport on their own.
In both reality shows, cameras follow the children from a distance while they perform errands and challenges set by their parents and the makers of the show. The errands are carefully planned and sanctioned by their families well in advance.
If anything goes wrong, the camera and safety crews are trained to intervene.
Yet many viewers, especially parents, are concerned about the safety of these children, particularly when the attention of crew members is diverted for that split second. The children could disappear.
This brings to mind a cautionary tale that serves to remind parents to exercise situational awareness when it comes to giving independence to children – the cold case of two schoolboys, who disappeared while on their way to school in 1986. More than 30 years on, the case remains a mystery.
The McDonald’s boys
Known as the McDonald’s boys case after the fast food chain offered a hefty reward to propel investigations, the whereabouts of Toh Hong Huat and Keh Chin Ann remains unknown despite the investigations by the police and media coverage.
Even increasing the reward money for their return proved futile.
Director of the Crime Library Joseph Tan, 56, says the team has been actively looking into the case and that only very little added information has come up since the initial investigations. All other leads have all turned cold.
This case, he says, is unusual as the disappearance of the boys occurred in broad daylight, where there should have been witnesses. The mother of one of the missing boys is still holding out hope for his eventual return.
A recent lead pointed to the fact that it could be the work of a teacher. Chin Ann and Hong Huat were not the only missing pupils from Owen Primary School. In 1975, 11 years before the McDonald boys disappeared, another Owen Primary School pupil Wong Weng Boon disappeared.
It was on 14 May 1986, when Hong Huat and Chin Ann, both Primary 6 students from the now defunct Owen Primary School, mysteriously disappeared while on their way to school, and have not been seen since.
Hong Huat and Chin Ann were both in the afternoon session and failed to show up for their 12.55 pm class. Their teacher told the media that Chin Ann and Hong Huat were close friends who were well-behaved and did not miss classes.
According to media reports then, Chin Ann was last seen in school at around 12.30 pm that fateful day. He left the school grounds to go to some nearby shops and tasked classmate Wang Piwei to take care of his bag while he was away.
Piwei then left Chin Ann’s bag on a bench at the school’s tuckshop and went back to class, assuming that his friend would come back to collect it.
That same day, Hong Huat had asked his mother Tan Geok Guan, to allow him to go to school on his own, saying he was meeting a friend.
Although Madam Tan thought Hong Huat’s request was peculiar as he was usually more timid and preferred his mother’s company, she assumed that he was going to meet Chin Ann and agreed.
That was the last time she saw him.
The futile search
When both boys could not be located, the parents and the school contacted the police that evening.
Following the disappearance, police searched the estates surrounding Owen Primary School for days. They interviewed not only the residents of the area, but also Hong Huat’s and Chin Ann’s friends and classmates. Thousands of posters of the missing boys were distributed island-wide asking for anyone who had information on the whereabouts of the missing boys to contact the police.
Three months after they disappeared, there was a reported sighting of the missing boys on Pulau Ubin, despatching about 100 officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to Pulau Ubin to search with a fine tooth comb. They were divided into 24 sections and smaller teams to search the smaller islands but their search yielded nothing.
On 3 September 1986, Chin Ann’s father Keh Cheng Pan received a disturbing phone call. The stress from what he described as “that nasty phone call” triggered a stroke the following morning. All he remembered then was becoming ”pale, giddy” as his limbs turned weak, and he was admitted to Singapore General Hospital (SGH) for about two weeks. He eventually recovered but was then unable to recollect the call.
Madam Tan told The Straits Times that she received a vulgar phone call on the same night. “The caller was a man who spoke in Hokkien. He said I should not hope for my son’s return,” she said.
In a May 1988 interview with The Straits Times – two years after the boys went missing – Inspector Choo Chin Kiam revealed that the team from CID’s Specialist Crime Division had interviewed over 100 people hoping for a lead.
In its attempt to help with the investigation, The Straits Times enlisted the help of a US-based company in November to recreate a photo of Chin Ann as a 14-year-old using facial recognition technology.
This updated photo was a composite image based on Chin Ann’s older sister’s photograph from when she was 14 years old and his image at 12 years old, when he disappeared. The photo was published in the newspaper and other media, but the two remained lost.
“Taken and sold overseas”
Believing that her son had been taken and sold abroad, Madam Tan went to Kuala Lumpur in search of him. She reached out to several organisations, including the Malay Mail Afternoon Daily and the Malaysian Chinese Association’s public complaints and services bureau for help.
The Singapore police took their search to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in 1987 but could not find the pupils. The missing boys’ reports have also been sent to Interpol, but no leads have come up since. Both boys would be about 48 years old now if they are still alive.
Rewards offered for information to their whereabouts
Hong Huat’s and Chin Ann’s families initially offered a S$1,000 reward each to anyone who could provide information about their sons’ whereabouts. When no leads were forthcoming, they raised the reward to S$5,000 in July 1986, and then to S$20,000 in September the same year. Their efforts were futile.
During McDonald’s Founder’s Day celebrations that October, Managing Director of McDonald’s Singapore Robert Kwan announced that the company would offer a $100,000 reward for any information on the whereabouts of the two missing boys.
They put up missing posters of the boys and publicised the reward at all the McDonalds’ outlets in Singapore. That resulted in tips coming in from the public.
Tip-offs that came to naught
A police hotline was set up for people to report the sightings of the two boys.
Many people reported seeing them in various places away from Owen Primary School. One caller even said the boys were seen approaching a bus terminal with two Chinese men aged 40. But all these reports were dead ends.
It was only recently that several media outlets revisited the case of the McDonald’s boys. Mediacorp featured the 1986 case in a Toggle series called Missing and discussed various speculations about the case while Mothership.sg posted a video about the unsolved case in September 2020.
Without a trace
Singapore police still finds the disappearance of Hong Huat and Chin Ann “puzzling” and has ruled out public speculations such as drowning and murder.
One theory was that the boys had run away from home but this was disputed by their parents as they were well-behaved and had good relationships with their families.
Another theory speculated that the boys were living in Johor Baru. Hong Huat’s parents were then separated, and it was rumoured that his estranged father took them.
However, this could not explain why he would have taken Chin Ann as well since he was not his biological child. Police investigated this theory but found insufficient evidence to link Hong Huat’s disappearance to his father.
A third theory speculated that the boys had been kidnapped by a human trafficking syndicate and taken to Thailand, where they had their arms and legs amputated and were forced to beg in the streets in Bangkok.
But investigations into these theories turned up empty.
A chilling speculation that the boys were victims of a ritual killing was dealt with the Mediacorp programme Missing, but international investigator Henry Tay said then that if the boys had been victims of such a crime, other victims would have followed and that was not the case.
A possible alternative lead
It turns out that in 1975, a first Owen Primary School pupil Wong Weng Boon disappeared. That was 11 years before Chin Ann and Hong Huat were gone without a trace.
Weng Boon, however, was reduced to just a small report in The New Nation, dated 4 December 1975. He, too, had not been seen since.
During a crime awareness tour in the area where the boys disappeared, The Crime Library says members of the public speculated that the disappearances could be the work of a teacher from Owen Primary School who may have later been transferred to nearby Rangoon Primary School.
The schools are not operating anymore, and checks with both the Ministry of Education and Singapore Police Force have been futile. It remains to be seen if this lead will bring results to both cold cases.
Lost but not forgotten
Hong Huat and Chin Ann were declared legally dead on 14 May 1993.
Chin Ann’s family moved not long after his disappearance, but his mother returned many times to her old home to wait, hopeful that Chin Ann will return one day. The team from Crime Library Singapore visited her during Chinese New Year and assured her that it will never stop helping her seek closure.
Madam Tan is believed to have since moved back to Malaysia.
The disappearances of Weng Boon, Hong Huat and Chin Ann, continue to baffle investigators and the public till today.
Presently, access to social media helps to shed light on cold cases and gives hope to families. Tips are usually received from the public once a case has been shared across social media platforms.
These resources were not readily available in 1986, but flyers, missing posters, and word of mouth continue to distribute the information about the boys’ disappearance.
If you have any information on the whereabouts of Toh Hong Huat and Keh Chin Ann, please call the police or contact the Crime Library Singapore at 6293 5250.