Hijacking of Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117: ‘I was there’

Malaysian and former SIA stewardess recounts the details of Singapore Airlines’ first hijacking incident 30 years later

AS we continue to celebrate the female strength in dealing with adversity, it is clear how women have proven their mettle in any given situation.

One event which tends to slip the public’s mind demonstrating such an ordeal is the hijacking of Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight SQ117 that took place back on March 27, 1991 (almost 30 years ago).

The plane – travelling from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore – carried a total of 114 passengers and 11 crew members. Its passengers predominantly included Malaysian citizens with 55 individuals from the total. 

Among others were 21 Singaporeans, 12 Japanese, four British citizens and the remaining from France, Canada and the United States.

Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117 was hijacked on March 26, 1991 shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur. Passengers were predominantly Malaysians. — tnp.sg pic.

The story behind it showcased a tremendous amount of cool-headed composure of one flight attendant onboard despite having to deal with intense pressure.

On duty during that fateful flight was cabin crew Mei Yee, who was relatively young in her career at the time of the incident. Now retired, she details the harrowing affair with The Vibes.

Courage in flying colours 

“It was our last flight for the night. The departure from KL was just after 9pm. These four hijackers (which we later know as Pakistani nationals) who came on the plane looked like normal passengers without any suspicious signs that raised concerns,” shared Yee during a phone interview.

A newspaper cutting on the hijacking of Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117. — tnp.sg pic. March 9, 2021.
A newspaper cutting on the hijacking of Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117. — tnp.sg pic.

“They didn’t look like criminals but they claimed to have explosives. Even though I personally did not see any device of the kind, things nevertheless took a serious turn.

“When they hijacked the plane, of course, they wanted to negotiate with the captain. So they tried to break into the cockpit,” she added. 

According to the former SIA cabin crew, aircraft were differently built where the doors are not necessarily bulletproof as a step to ensure security measures.

There were also not a lot of restrictions when it came to items that can be brought onboard by passengers on the flight, and lesser potentially harmful items were on the banned list.

“People were still able to smoke in-flight, so the possibility of smuggling dangerous goods up was highly likely,” said Yee.

“I did not know what the requests were specifically apart from it being politically linked, but the lot of us [crew and passengers] were trying our best to be compliant, listening to the orders that the hijackers put out not wanting to make the situation worse.

“They did however beat up the guys, but nothing further. Maybe it was because I was young when the incident happened, that I did not really remember being panicked. It was also important that I stayed calm,” she added.

A Singaporean government agency website stated particulars of the incident after the four hijackers took control of the plane’s cabin. The leader of the group shouted to proclaim the hijacking, and instructed passengers to keep calm and remain in their seats. This indication was confirmed by Yee.

It is also reported that the unmasked hijackers were armed with large cylindrical sticks, cigarette lighters and knives. The large cylindrical sticks, which were initially assumed to be lethal explosives, were later identified as sparklers.

The captain of the aircraft communicated closely with the leader of the hijackers who threatened to blow the plane up if he did not comply with their demands that the flight be taken to Sydney. 

The hijackers were demanding the pilot of the flight to reroute their journey to Sydney before agreeing to land in Singapore for refuel. Once in Changi Airport, they requested  for the release of a number of people jailed in Pakistan, including then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's husband. — irememberSG Facebook pic. March 9, 2021.
The hijackers were demanding the pilot of the flight to reroute their journey to Sydney before agreeing to land in Singapore for refuel. Once in Changi Airport, they requested for the release of a number of people jailed in Pakistan, including then Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s husband. — irememberSG Facebook pic.

“However, the captain negotiated with them further to still land in Singapore for refuel and that the flight would not make it to Australia had we ignored it.

“The leader of the hijackers then permitted us to land in Singapore. Once we arrived at Changi Airport, that was when the painstaking negotiations on the ground happened. 

“We landed at half past 10pm and lasted up until around 6.30am the next day – it was (physically and mentally grinding),” shared Yee.

“The group of hijackers were split – one taking charge of the front of the plane, while the others at the middle and tail end.

“For me, I was focused on ensuring the safety and patience of passengers, making sure that they were comfortable enough to not react,” she added.

During the daunting negotiation process, the Singapore government activated a crisis management team consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs and other related organisations.

Although the plane was already on the runway, the hijackers had demanded that no one approach it. In a demand, the leader wanted authorities to connect them with the Pakistani ambassador to Singapore as well as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. News clippings of the event highlight that it was an attempt to demand the release of several individuals jailed in Pakistan, including Bhutto’s husband.

At 6.50am, the Singapore Armed Forces commandos forced the plane doors open with detonating charges and tossed stun grenades into the plane. 

After shouting for the passengers to get down and identifying themselves as the rescue team, the commandos shot dead all four hijackers, leaving the hostages unharmed. The entire operation lasted 30 seconds.

During the time when negotiations with the hijackers were taking place, a team of SAF commandos was rehearsing a storming operation in a similar Airbus plane. At 6.47 am, the commando team received the order to storm the plane, just minutes before they entered and took down the hijackers reportedly within 30 seconds. —connexionsg Facebook pic. March 9, 2021.
During the time when negotiations with the hijackers were taking place, a team of SAF commandos was rehearsing a storming operation in a similar Airbus plane. At 6.47 am, the commando team received the order to storm the plane, just minutes before they entered and took down the hijackers reportedly within 30 seconds. —connexionsg Facebook pic.

They then instructed the passengers to exit the aircraft through emergency exit chutes. After confirming that there were no more hijackers, the passengers were transported to the airport terminal in three buses.

“When the commandos finally stormed in, the hijackers were killed. Personally, this was not that frightening as I believe the Singaporean government handled the situation professionally well.

“What was scary was when I saw the passports of the hijackers that were soaked in blood when the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was taking statements,” noted Yee, adding that it was when the reality of the incident properly sank.

When asked if she was ever the same after the incident, Yee said: “I only have had one jumpy moment after the whole incident. That’s all.

“I was travelling on an MRT, about to fall asleep and suddenly a Pakistani looking person just walked past me. It startled me that I just woke up.

“The hijacking was definitely the biggest thing that I had ever experienced but it’s not necessarily so life-changing to me,” she added.

“I mean, I was not injured, and I didn’t die, right? I guess looking back, being young during the event had contributed to why I was not afraid. 

“What I know for a fact was that it did not make me become fearful. The only thing different about me, from other people was that I was maybe not so afraid to die. But that is just about it.

“I always think that life is fated – it’s fated. 

“We don’t have a choice in the first place, you know. So, whether I want it or do not want it, it was just part of the nature of my job – it could happen. I do not feel any different, and I do not think that I am very strong having lived through it,” said Yee. 

Noting to try as much as possible at staying calm if anyone ever finds themselves in a similar type of emergency.

“Think about what can happen, and what’s going to happen in a strategic way.  If in a plane, you must know where the emergency exit is, in case there is an evacuation. Things like that. So, if you are not calm, how are you going to think? Also, the one rule is to always save yourself first before you can save other people.

Yee went back into studying after a good number of years continuing to work as a cabin crew post the incident. With two boys of her own now, she also noted that she got married a bit later in life but sees it as no issue at all.

In true commemoration of this year’s International Women’s Day theme, #choosetochallenge, Mei Yee highlights, “Now that I am not working, I do not feel that I’m useless or I’m not contributing to anything in the family.

“If I do not stay home and look after the kids, who is going to do it? So, it does not matter what you do, whether you are a working mother or a homemaker. 

“For as long as you know what you are doing, you are successful already. Realise what is comfortable and what you think is the right thing for you to do – that is key”. – The Vibes, March 9, 2021

*Mei Yee had requested for her photograph to not be shared for the purpose of the article.

By : AMALINA KAMAL – THE VIBES

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