Survivor of nightmare cruise in 1983 now 'social glue' of HDB block

Miss Jenny Toh.

The date was April 3, 1983.

Those on board the 15m-long catamaran sailing out of Changi Sailing Club expected their pleasure cruise to be anything but notable. But by the end of the week, the world would come to know of the Siddhartha and its six passengers and crew.

One of them was Singaporean Jenny Toh Swee Neo, then 35, the co-owner of the yacht.

Now 65, her wrinkled hands hold up a faded brochure with the words "Yacht Siddhartha" while speaking with us. Even though it has been more than 30 years, Miss Toh remembers her days running a private charter service with then-boyfriend, German national Peter Marx like it was yesterday.

The attack on the Siddhartha made headlines then, but this is the first time she is telling her story publicly. Back then, she had left it to Mr Marx to answer the questions.

Slowly, she narrates the entire incident to The New Paper on Sunday over old newspaper cut-outs at her home last week. She hasn't forgotten a single detail. But it is a story that she has shared only with close friends so far, so it takes some persuasion for her to open up .

"It was such a long time ago," says Miss Toh with a wistful smile. On April 3, the couple took on a charter for four German ham radio operators - amateur radio enthusiasts who travel to remote locations to broadcast signals to others around the world.

They had decided on Amboyna Cay, an island in the Spratly Islands group. Claim over it is heavily disputed by Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Philippines.

"We thought it was uninhabited," says Miss Toh.

On April 10, as they circled the island, they discovered they were wrong.

They saw men in military uniforms waving flags at them. Two cannons were pointed in their direction.

"We didn't know if they were asking us to go towards them or go away. So we tried sailing away." Then she heard the frightening sound of artillery fire.

"The first salvo missed us. The second one didn't. The shells kept on striking the ship.

"Peter was struck by shrapnel on his shoulder. One passenger got hit and fell overboard. No one saw him again," says Miss Toh.

Another of their passengers broadcast on their ham radio: "They are shooting at us... The boat is on fire... We are leaving now."

The five remaining passengers who survived the gunfire swam out to their dinghy, which had been freed from its tethers by the explosion.

They huddled together in the dinghy, keeping their heads low to avoid detection and watched as the Siddhartha burned in the distance, broke apart and then sank.

STAYING ALIVE WAS A STRUGGLE

Says Miss Toh: "Peter and I looked back. There was our yacht on fire and there went our livelihood. I had three cats on board too."

Exhausted from their close escape from death, they soon realised that the dinghy was no lifeboat - there was no food, water or means to communicate with the outside world.

It could barely accommodate five people and had a hole in it due to shrapnel damage.

Miss Toh ripped her skirt into two, plugging the hole in the boat with one piece and tending to her boyfriend's wound with the other.

"I just sat there in my panties. We didn't talk much to conserve our energy. All we could do was wait," she says.

Meanwhile, other ham operators around the world heard their distress call and alerted the authorities.

Soon, an international search-and-rescue effort was under way.

But for Miss Toh and the others on the dinghy, staying alive was a struggle.

The days were scorching and the nights were freezing. They waited for rain to alleviate their thirst, but there was nary a drizzle. By the fifth day, everyone was fighting their individual battles against hallucinations and thirst.

Says Miss Toh: "When I pinched myself, the pinch mark didn't disappear. That was how badly dehydrated we were."

She thought about her family back at home and her own mortality.

She says: "If my time is up, then so be it. I did not panic because I became at peace with myself.

"I just looked at the waves in the day and at the stars at night. I was fully prepared to die."

On the eighth day, one of the German passengers, Mr Gero Band, took a desperate gulp of sea water to quench his thirst.

Within hours, he died peacefully. The others rolled his body overboard after saying a short prayer and watched it drift away. "We all thought Peter was next to die because of his wounds. If only Gero had waited one more day."

They were eventually spotted by a passing Japanese container ship, the Linden, the next day. They could barely walk up the gangplank to the ship.

The four survivors arrived in Hong Kong to the cameras of "more than 200 journalists who were waiting for us".

As to why she doesn't talk much about the incident, Miss Toh says: "It was so long ago and no one remembers the incident now. "It was hell. I don't know if anything can be worse than what I went through.

"From that day on, I made it a point to live life to the fullest and devote it to others around me."

Beloved 'Auntie Jenny' of Block 33

The residents of Block 33 in Eunos Crescent have been receiving leaflets inviting them to block parties at the 14th-storey corridor for the past three years.

"Oh, it is from Auntie Jenny," says Mrs Seng, a housewife in her 40s and a mother of three.

"She is always the one who says 'Hi'. I let my kids play at her place and they attend her parties."

Another resident, Madam Lisa Mak, has known Miss Jenny Toh since she moved into the block eight years ago.

"She came over by herself to say hello. She comes to 'makan' (Malay for 'eat') with me and the other neighbours.

"I don't usually like to mix with others but Jenny helped me get to know many people around here," says the housewife in her 50s.

Twice a year, on National Day and on Christmas Day, members of the block congregate at Miss Toh's two-room studio apartment for a potluck party and wine tasting. She also makes balloon sculptures for the kids.

Residents even call her place "Pub 33", exclusive to people from Block 33.

Miss Toh, now retired from her job as a trainer at an indoor play centre, lives alone with her cat.

She knows the rubbish collector, the fishmonger and the "uncle selling newspaper", she says.

"The people in this block have issues with old age, sickness, family, loneliness... I am their listening ear.

"I would like to think that my bubbly personality has rubbed off on them. They are all my friends," she says.

She boasts of the chicken curry she prepared for the Christmas party last month, saying that she uses only the freshest ingredients. She spends about $100 for each party, out of her own pocket.

"Most of it is spent on wine," she admits, adding that a party cannot go on without drinks.

Few know that three decades ago, this gregarious lady almost lost her life at sea.

Those who do, don't ask much about it as Miss Toh will always play it down.

"Well, it was a random event that could happen to anybody," she says. But since the incident, her outlook in life has changed.

Instead of simply settling down with a husband and children like her six siblings, Miss Toh remained single, devoting her life to others instead of herself.

"Nope, I don't feel lonely. I have so many people here. After the incident, there was a time when I thought to myself, 'What now?' Then I decided to enjoy life with the people around me."

She has vision problems as she has cataracts in her eyes.

She also jokes about death freely, as if she was living on borrowed time.

"I have seen death twice and almost died myself. Talking about death is natural for me."

EMERGENCY CORD

An emergency cord dangling from the ceiling of her home - a standard feature in studio apartments - remains tied up and out of reach as she "doesn't want her cat to pull it".

Says Miss Toh, who moved into the apartment in 2006: "I told my contractor to do up my place nicely because I am going to die here. But don't worry about me. If my neighbours don't hear from me in a few days, they'll know I am in trouble."

As she speaks to TNPS, four young children from around the block turn up to greet "Auntie Jenny".

She pulls out a chest of balloons from her days working at the play centre, and begins sculpting balloon animals for them. She obliges every request, from dogs to flowers to fashion accessories.

"They love these," she says, laughing.

Housewife Wong Mei Poh, 52, who frequently visits the block as part of her church's outreach programme, was the one who introduced us to Miss Toh.

Three years ago, she was surprised to find such a tight-knit community on the 14th storey of Block 33.

"This area has many studio apartments meant for old folk and retirees, but I have never encountered someone like Jenny in all my visits," says Ms Poh.

"She is truly a remarkable woman."


This article was first published on Jan 04, 2015.
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