Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117 was hijacked on 26 March 1991 shortly after it took off from Kuala Lumpur.1The hijackers were four passengers who claimed to be members of the Pakistan People’s Party.2 The plane landed at Changi Airport at 10.24 pm.3 Commandos of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) mounted a rescue operation at 6.50 am on 27 March 1991, killing all four hijackers and bringing the passengers and crew to safety.4
Flight SQ 117
Singapore Airlines flight SQ 117 on board an Airbus A310 was a 50-minute-long shuttle service between Subang International Airport in Kuala Lumpur and Changi Airport in Singapore.5
The plane was carrying 114 passengers and 11 crew members. Its passengers included 55 Malaysians, 21 Singaporeans, 12 Japanese, four Britons and others from the United States, Canada and France.6 The flight’s pilot was Captain Stanley Lim, while the chief steward was Philip Cheong.7
On 26 March 1991, SQ 117 took off from Subang International Airport in Kuala Lumpur after 9 pm. Some newpaper reports state that the plane took off at 9:15 pm, but subsequent publications suggest that the plane actually took off at 9.38 pm.8 At around 9.50 pm, four hijackers took control of the plane’s cabin.9 Their leader shouted that they were hijacking the plane, and instructed passengers to keep calm and remain in their seats. The unmasked hijackers were armed with large cylindrical sticks, cigarette lighters and knives.10 The large cylindrical sticks, which were initially assumed to be lethal explosives,11 were later identified as sparklers.12
After taking control of the cabin, the leader of the hijackers communicated with the pilot, Captain Lim, and threatened to blow the plane up if it landed in Singapore. He demanded that Lim fly the plane to Sydney. Lim stressed that the plane did not have enough fuel to fly to Sydney, and that it would crash if he did so. The leader then permitted Lim to land the plane in Singapore to refuel before heading to Sydney, and promised to release the passengers at Changi Airport.13
Demands of the hijackers
The plane landed on Runway One of Changi Airport at 10.24 pm.14 The leader ordered Lim to stop the plane on the runway, and ensure that no one approaches it. He also communicated his demands to Lim, who relayed them to the authorities.15
The leader demanded to speak to the Pakistani ambassador to Singapore as well as former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He also demanded the release of a number of people jailed in Pakistan, including Bhutto’s husband, and wanted the plane to be refuelled and flown to Sydney.16
The negotiation process
By 10.30 pm on 26 March, police officers, including crack troopers from the Police Tactical Team, had surrounded the plane. The Singapore government activated a crisis management team called the Executive Group, consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Home Affairs and other related organisations. Hostage negotiators were also alerted.17
Lim relayed messages between the police negotiators, who attempted to persuade the hijackers to release the hostages, and the hijackers with his headset.18
The hijackers forced passengers in the first- and Raffles-class sections of the plane to take seats in the economy-class sections. Their leader moved up and down the aisles, while the other three hijackers took control of the front, middle and tail sections of the plane.19
At 11.20 pm, flight steward Bernard Tan was beaten up by the hijackers and thrown out of the plane, falling 4.5 m onto the tarmac.20 Tan provided the police with information about the hijackers and their weapons,21 and was taken to the Singapore General Hospital.22
At around midnight, the hijackers splashed the cockpit and the control panel of the plane with alcohol seized from the first-class cabin, and then threatened to set the plane on fire.23 The hijackers also physically assaulted Lim and an American passenger.24
At about 2.30 am, the hijackers lit up some newspapers on the cockpit floor, and threatened to set the plane on fire again.25 The hostage negotiators agreed to refuel the plane, and the hijackers put out the fire. At 2.40 am, the plane was moved to the outer tarmac of the airport.26
At 3.25 am, the Singapore government released a detailed statement about the hijackers’ demands. The first load of petrol was delivered at about 3.30 am.27 Around that time, Chief Steward Philip Cheong was beaten up and pushed out of the plane.28 He provided the police with more information about the hijackers.29
Negotiations stopped at 6.45 am when the hijackers informed the negotiating team that they were no longer interested in communicating.30 The hijackers issued a five-minute deadline, threatening to kill one hostage every 10 minutes if their demands were not met.31 The hijackers began a countdown. The negotiating team and the Executive Group then made the decision to mount a rescue operation in order to save the hostages.32
Storming operation and rescue
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.33 At 6.47 am, the commando team received the order to storm the plane.34
At 6.50 am, the 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,35 the commandos shot dead all four hijackers, leaving the hostages unharmed. The entire operation lasted 30 seconds.36
The commandos then instructed the passengers to exit the aircraft through emergency exit chutes.37 After confirming that there were no more hijackers, the passengers were transported to the airport terminal in three buses.38
A press conference was held at 7.50 am to announce the success of the rescue operation.39
The hijackers’ identities
The hijackers were later identified as Shahid Hussain Soomro, Fida Mohammad Khan Jadoon, Javaid Akhter Keyani and Mohammad Yousof Mughal. Shahid Hussain Soomro was the leader, while Fida Mohammad Khan Jadoon was regarded as the most violent hijacker.40 They were all Pakistani nationals, and claimed to be members of the Pakistan People’s Party.41
The hijacking of SQ 117 was the first such incident to involve a Singapore Airlines plane and the first to have taken place in Singapore.42 Singapore received accolades from the international media for its swift handling of the incident.43
Shortly after the hijacking incident, then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ordered security measures at Malaysian airports to be tightened.44 Singapore also requested that airport authorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh conduct more thorough checks on baggage and passengers.45
On 9 April 1991, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong hosted a tea reception for the key people involved in the SQ 117 rescue operation in order to express the government’s appreciation. The guests included SAF personnel, Chief Steward Philip Cheong and Captain Stanley Lim.46
The 1991 National Day Awards list included several key players involved in the storming and rescue of SQ 117. The commando unit received the Medal of Valour, while members of the Police Negotiation Team received the President’s Certificate of Commendation. Both the leader of the Police Negotiation Team, Foo Kia Juah, and the pilot of SQ 117, Stanley Lim, received the Public Service Star. Lim Siong Guan, then acting chairman of the Executive Group, received the Meritorious Service Medal.47 In 1997, the SAF revealed that the commandos involved in the SQ 117 rescue operation were members of the Special Operations Force,48 a secret hostage-rescue and counter-terrorism unit.49
Other hijacking incidents in Singapore
Prior to the SQ 117 hijack, Singapore experienced two earlier hijacking incidents. The first was the Laju incident in 1974, in which four terrorists hijacked the Laju ferry and took the passengers hostage. The hostages were released after a lengthy negotiation process involving both the Singapore and Japanese governments.50
Singapore’s next encounter with hijacking was on 30 October 1977, involving a Vietnam Airline aircraft, which was on a domestic flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Phuquoc Island. The pilot of the aircraft was forced to land in Singapore after a refuelling stopover at U-Tapao Airbase, 130 km southeast of Bangkok, Thailand. The aircraft eventually landed at Seletar Airport, where the hijackers surrendered to the Singapore authorities after negotiation.51 The Laju incident led to the formation of the Executive Group, which later handled the SQ 117 hijacking crisis. The Executive Group has since been renamed Homefront Crisis Executive Group.52
Vina Jie-Min Prasad & Stephanie Ho
1. Bilveer Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117: Causes, Course and Consequences (Singapore: Crescent Design Associates, 1991), 33. (Call no. RSING 364.154095957 BIL)
2. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 38.
3. Sumiko Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day: Pilot,” Straits Times, 31 March 1991, 18; Francis Chan and William Choong, “Remembering Flight SQ117 Nine Hours of Terror,” Straits Times, 26 March 2011, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “Hijacker Tried to Use Woman as Human Shield,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 31; Felix Soh, “Rescue of SQ 117 over in 30 Secs Flat,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 1 (From NewspaperSG); J. Kantyka, “Hijackers in Singapore Began Countdown to Kill Hostages,” Reuters News, 27 March 1991. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
6. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 32; Sumiko Tan, Hijack! SQ 117: The Untold Story (Singapore: Heinemann Asia, 1991), 34. (Call no. RSING 364.154095957 TAN)
7. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day.”
8. “Reporter’s Log: Chronology of Events,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 33; Tan, Untold Story, 37.
9. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 33.
10. “‘Heads Down! Heads Down!’ as Men in Black Rush In,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 4; “Hijackers Armed with Explosive Sticks, Knives,” Straits Times, 29 March 1991, 1. (Fom NewspaperSG)
11. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 34.
12. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
13. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day.”
14. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day”; Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
15. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
16. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror”; Tan, Untold Story, 51.
17. “Chronology of Events”; Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 35.
18. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day”; Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
19. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 35.
20. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
21. K. Loh, “Foiling the Horrifying Hijack on Singapore Airlines Flight 117,” Home Team News, 26 March 2013.
22. Tan, Untold Story, 55; “Chronology of Events.”
23. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 35; Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day.”
24. “Hijack! But Passengers Thought It Was a Joke,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day.”
25. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day.”
26. Tan, “I Live to Fly Another Day”; Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 36; “Chronology of Events.”
27. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 36; Loh, “Foiling the Horrifying Hijack.”
28. “Injured Stewards Doing Fine,” Straits Times, 29 March 1991, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 61; Loh, “Foiling the Horrifying Hijack.”
30. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 48.
31. “Chronology of Events.”
32. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 49.
33. “Woman as Human Shield.”
34. “Chronology of Events.”
35. “Woman as Human Shield”; “Dead on Target,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “Dr Yeo Tells Intrepid Commandos: I Was Very Impressed...,” Straits Times, 29 March 1991, 30. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Woman as Human Shield.”
38. “Chronology of Events”; Soh, “Rescue of SQ 117.”
39. “Chronology of Events.”
40. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 38–40.
41. “Chronology of Events.”
42. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 67.
43. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 72; Tan, Untold Story, 87.
44. Rav Dhaliwal, “Mahathir Tightens Airport Checks,” Straits Times, 29 March 1991, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Rav Dhaliwal, “More Thorough Checks Needed in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh,” Straits Times, 29 March 1991, 31. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “PM Meets Key People in Hijack Drama,” Straits Times, 9 April 1991, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 83.
48. “Meet the Elite Troop from Special Operations,” Straits Times, 21 February 1997, 2; David Boey, “Dare We Let Down Our Guard?” Straits Times, 13 February 2009, 14. (From NewspaperSG)49. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
50. Singh, Skyjacking of SQ 117, 28.
51. K. S. Sidhu et al., “Hijack Plane in Airport Drama,” Straits Times, 30 October 1977, 1; Paul Jansen, K. S. Sidhu and Paul Wee, “Pilot: How 4 Seized Our Plane,” Straits Times, 31 October 1977, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin, eds., The Little Red Dot: Reflections By Singapore’s Diplomats (Singapore: World Scientific, 2005), 212. (Call no. RSING 327.5957 LIT)
52. Chan and Choong, “Nine Hours of Terror.”
“2 Stewards Pushed Out of the Plane,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
“A Denial: 'We Are Not Linked at All with the Hijacking',” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
“Hijacker Took Part in Hijack 10 Years Ago, Say Hostages,” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
“It's All Over!” Straits Times, 28 March 1991, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
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