Ex-steward recounts horror of 1991 SQ plane hijack

Under our "Inspiring People" monthly column, we highlight the incredible journey of one Singaporean who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams too. This month, we bring to you a man who not only experienced a close brush with death, but who also plunged into debt and climbed back out of it.

The 26th of March is a special day for 44-year-old Ted Ang.

In fact, he jokingly refers to it as his “unofficial birthday”, when every year without fail the interior design consultant brings his friends out for an extravagant dinner.

What he is actually commemorating is the anniversary of the 1991 hijack of Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight SQ117, where he was one of just nine cabin crew.

That night, Ang was one of four stewards who were physically attacked by four Pakistani hijackers. He witnessed two of his colleagues get pushed off the plane, and he almost followed suit mere hours later, when he was dragged at knifepoint to the edge of the plane’s rear exit platform and was about to be pushed off it. Before that could happen, however, a special operations team intervened and rescued the crew and passengers on board the plane.

A lot has happened in Ang’s life in the 21 years that have passed, and even though he himself has long since moved on from the incident, he said he would not be sharing his story if not for his almost miraculous survival.

“It’s the day I was rescued and given the chance to look at life differently again,” he said, sharing how he saw his life flashing before his eyes in the moments of greatest tension from the almost 12-hour ordeal (which he wrote about here) when the four young men besieged the short flight between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

“At that point, it was not the loss of life I feared, but the fear of leaving responsibility behind,” he added, saying that was one of the most important things he realised about himself in the hours he spent on board and held hostage.

Another insight Ang had about himself was how frugal and forward-thinking he was before the incident happened.

As the third of four children in a poor family, his first job was selling newspapers when he was in Primary 6. He ended his education after completing his ‘O’ Levels and clocked in 20-hour days, working at least two jobs at a time — these ranged from washing dishes and taking orders at coffee shops to waiting at banquets and baking pastries, all so that he could contribute to his family’s living.

“One big lesson I took from it (the incident) was that I should reward myself with the little things that make me happy, because you never know how much time you have left to do so, right?” he said, sharing how before the hijack happened, his mother had said she wanted a new refrigerator and washing machine.

“Up till then, I had not bought any of the things my mother asked for, so the very next day (after the hijack) I went and bought them for her,” he added, also taking the opportunity to buy himself a Louis Vuitton bag that he had wanted to own for a long time, which he still maintains today in good condition.

Interestingly, though, despite the horror of that night, Ang says he feels sorry for the three young accomplices who followed the orders from the hijack team’s leader, whose name he remembers vividly as Sahit.

“Sahit was the violent one who issued all the threats and orders to throw my two colleagues off the plane,” he explained. “The other three seemed to be blind followers, who probably did not know what they were getting themselves into.”

Asked if he still harbours anger toward the hijackers, all of whom were shot and killed by the special ops team, he responded, “Why hold on to hatred or anger? What’s done is done. We can only look forward.”

Falling into and climbing out of debt

While the incident taught Ang to live life a little, he took his life lesson a little too far. He started mixing with the wrong company and making casino trips abroad with his friends, spending about $20,000 each time and betting anywhere between $500 to several thousand dollars per hand.

“Money to me was not important anymore; you can say I saw things a lot differently,” said Ang. He spoke with a tinge of sadness in his voice, sharing that he reached a point where he found himself some $400,000 in the red, and made the difficult decision of divorcing his wife, so that she would be able to move on without having to suffer in sharing the weight of his debt — a time he admits was one of the lowest and most painful points in his life, second only to the hijack.

Alone and saddled with a massive amount of debt, Ang took to the extreme what many people fresh out of long-term relationships do — get busy. While still flying with SIA, Ang held three other part-time and freelance jobs: he was a tour guide, a sales promoter (he sold mops and other household items in department stores) and an insurance agent, all during his days off from the many flights he took.

“I was pretty much working 365 days a year during that time,” he said, adding that by the time he left SIA in 1996, he had reduced his debt to below $80,000. At that point, he took on a position at — interestingly — Crown Casino in Melbourne, where he would manage its high rollers.

Ang travelled to Melbourne with just $2,000 in his pocket — an amount he said was sufficient for his first month’s house rental — yet resolving to get himself a driver’s licence, a car and then a house within one and a half years. As things turned out, however, his job at the casino paid him so well that he not only got his licence, bought a car and a house within six months, he also found himself completely debt-free within his first year there.

“Basically, I ate and slept at the casino,” he said, adding that the fact that he worked at Crown meant that he was not allowed to gamble at all. Instead, he watched gamblers play every day, an activity that eventually turned him off from gambling.

“It’s like making a smoker smoke continuously for 12 hours — that would likely convince him he’s had enough,” he said. “You watch people gamble every day, and you just get so sick and tired that you don’t want to think of cards or gambling anymore.”

“That’s why I found (my time in Melbourne) to be a great change, because if I had stayed on (in Singapore), I could still be gambling,” he added.

From service, to gambling, to interior design

After being retrenched from his position at Crown, Ang returned to Singapore, started and sold a caregiver company within four years and conducted sightseeing tours in Japan for another three.

It was only during a spell of a few months’ rest that he had between trips that he decided to take on another job “just to pass time”, through a friend’s referral. This turned out to be a sales position in an interior design firm (the one he works at now), something he had no experience in, yet he reveals that he closed five projects in his first month at The Orange Cube.

“I told myself that even if I couldn’t make it in this industry, I would have gained some personal knowledge, at least,” he said. “But I got stuck (after his surprisingly successful first month), and I couldn’t go back to Japan anymore; there were too many projects going on!”

After three years, Ang switched careers again — but this time, it was Crown Melbourne, with a cushy offer for a similar position he held before, but based in Singapore, with a much more attractive job scope (which involved accompanying high rollers on their golf trips, fancy dinners and day trips to Hong Kong for dim sum) and pay package. Good as it was, he gave it up once again after about two years to return to The Orange Cube.

“There was just no job satisfaction for me, there was no challenge,” he explained. “All my friends still think I’m crazy, but this was what I was looking for. I enjoy seeing a house go from empty to nicely finished,” he added.

He says returning to the company never felt better for him, facing challenges and making decisions on different things every day.

“When you get a floor plan, you might not be able to forsee the actual conditions, so frequently we are challenged to crack our minds to work around problems,” he says, adding that he is now more or less the go-to guy for his younger sales colleagues, who seek his advice on issues ranging from pricing to problem-solving.

Ang says he is happy with his life now, but shares that one day, he would like to take six months to a year off to do farming work, a sentiment he believes other working-class people share.

Understanding how tough it can be to hold a job or even several at the same time, Ang himself tries to give other people a break, and help them wherever he can.

He suspects it was his time in Melbourne that rubbed off on him, but he also occasionally takes it upon himself to offer people he sees might be in need lifts in his car to their destinations.

“People get very surprised, and I guess no one I know does this, which is why I don’t approach everyone, only those whom I see might need it,” he says.

“But at the end of the day I’ve done something nice, and that’s always good.”