Roland Tan: From a Singapore kampung to Europe’s underworld
EMBROILED in extortion and fights from an early age, he was wanted in connection with the alleged murder of a rival gang member in 1969.
But before detectives could bring him in, 20-year-old Roland Tan Tong Meng — with the help of the See Tong gang — fled to Amsterdam, then known for its liberal laws. Along with him went several men from his Serangoon kampung, a close-knit community of Hainanese migrants including hardened fugitives and sailors.
Once in Holland, triad legend has it, Mr Tan and his brethren, who had very little money with them, saw how members of Hong Kong’s infamous 14K gang were doing a thriving drug trade in the capital city. They plotted to take it over.
After buying pistols, the 10 or so immigrants from Singapore applied nail polish on their fingertips to avoid leaving prints, then launched their bloody assault. Although outnumbered, according to triad folklore, Mr Tan and his gang violently won control of the Amsterdam underworld.
That was when Mr Tan, or ‘Ah Kong’, went from small-time gangster to the criminal big-time – involved in processing drugs and moneylending under the See Tong flag, in what was then the world’s centre for heroin distribution.
His unsavoury past caught up with him on Monday evening, when the 61-year-old was shot in the restaurant that he owned in Copenhagen, Denmark, allegedly by one of his Vietnamese ‘runners’. He is in stable condition in hospital.
A Singaporean friend who was with him, known only by his nickname ‘Ah M’, was shot in the stomach and remains in critical condition, Copenhagen homicide chief Ove Dahl told Today. Family members from Singapore are in the Danish capital.
Like a well run company
For years, Mr Tan lived the fast and high life of a ‘dragon head’, in triad parlance. Fond of a good steak and blonde women, according to a former associate who spoke to TODAY, Mr Tan moved to Copenhagen in the 1980s, married a Danish woman and took up citizenship.
But he missed his Singapore food. Flight attendants who knew the chief and his men would bring him packets of hawker fare from home. “Char kway teow, yong tau foo, laksa. You name it, they will take it over for him,” said the source, once a member of the Ah Kong gang, which was what See Tong called itself after a name-change in 1989.
Mr Tan’s men, most of whom were Singaporeans, took their mob life seriously.
Recruits – who were typically fugitives from the law or gangsters deemed to be promising – were approached and sent to Bangkok, the gang’s “recruitment centre”, where they underwent a selection process and their loyalty was tested. Those who earned the trust of the elders were sent on to Amsterdam.
“There was a hierarchy in the gang like in any big company,” said the source. “It was very well run. We took care of each other over there.”
In Amsterdam, newbies were sent to work in drug laboratories, where they processed the raw material from Myanmar. The finished products were sold on the streets or trafficked out of the city.
The men were paid a basic monthly salary, and had their lodging and food taken care of. All the men, even the lowest ranking, were paid a yearly bonus from a “profit-sharing scheme” with the money from drug deals and loansharking.
They were also given cars and a petrol allowance – for which they had to produce receipts. “We even had a petty cash system where we took money out to entertain our friends from Singapore,” said the source.
Armani and arms
Each year, the men got about 20,000 guilders as “clothing allowance”. Suits from Hugo Boss and Armani were highly recommended, said the source.
But underneath those suits, everyone was armed. As a rule, the men carried a pistol, passport and plane ticket with them at all times.
The gang’s “commandos” or musclemen patrolled the streets daily. They were particularly wary of immigrant troublemakers, who would harrass shopkeepers or sell drugs on their turf at lower prices. The gang would take care of these intruders by “catching them and beating them up”.
But their guns – usually a snub-nosed .38 Smith and Wesson revolver – were rarely drawn, said the source.
The triad also had legitimate businesses, operating casinos and restaurants. Over the years, however, internal bickering and takeover threats from rivals saw Mr Tan give up control and move to Copenhagen, where he set up his Restaurant Bali in a tourist square.
His operations, which by then involved “over a hundred men” and extended to cities like Madrid, Sydney and Phnom Penh, were handed over to lieutenants – many of them fugitives wanted for crimes like murder and armed robbery in Singapore in the 70s.
A loyal but bad tempered man
A fan of gambling, especially chor dai dee (Big 2) and Russian poker, Mr Tan would often reminisce about past “glory days” and, despite having lived in Europe for four decades, did not forget his roots – he preferred speaking Hokkien to his men.
The source described his former boss as a “kind and loyal man, but with a bad temper”. “If he has only $10 and you needed the money more than him, he would give it to you,” he said.
Since opting for a quieter life in Copenhagen where he ran his restaurant, Mr Tan did not arm himself when going out, thought he kept one or two Vietnamese bodyguards with him.
On Monday, one of his boys – quiet 47-year-old Nguyen Phi Hung – got into an argument and allegedly shot him. He remains on the run.
One Singapore law enforcer who remembers Mr Tan is Mr Lionel De Souza, now a private detective. Then with the Criminal Investigation Department, he was one of three local officers on standby to extradite Mr Tan from Copenhagen in 1973.
But the deal fell through. “Having no grounds to detain Tan Tong Meng further, the Danish police had to release him,” said Mr De Souza, who declined to elaborate.
Asked if Mr Tan could now be extradited to Singapore to help in investigations, a police spokesman told TODAY: “Singapore Police Force have sent out a request to the Danish police seeking more information on the two persons involved.” Roland Tan: From a Singapore kampung to Europe’s underworld