Singaporean Lene Wong panicked when she arrived to pick up her daughter Anne from school and received alarmed messages from other parents referring to police alerts about “persons dressed as clowns seen loitering around primary schools,” as one text said.
Wong, a housewife, was running a little late and her 9-year-old daughter Anne was nowhere to be found when her car pulled up at the compound’s gates.
“I was held up due to traffic and my mind started racing when I didn’t see Anne waiting for me,” Wong told VICE World News. She added that she instinctively checked her phone, opened Facebook, and saw a flurry of social media posts circulating in parent groups showing pictures of men dressed up as clowns approaching children in uniform. Some messages alleged that some clowns “paid” children to follow them.
“Clowns are terrifying, even to adults,” Wong said. “This is any parent’s worst fear. What if they turned out to be psychopaths and murderers wanting to harm children?”
“This is any parent’s worst fear.”
The sightings took place on Monday afternoon outside primary schools in the eastern part of the island city-state, prompting a frenzied search for answers in a country with some of the lowest crime rates in the world.
But parents were on edge after a rare violent incident at a school in July in which a 13-year-old was allegedly killed by another student with an ax.
Speaking to the Straits Times, the Singapore Police Force said it had received multiple reports about clown sightings. One screenshot circulating on social media showed a tall man wearing clown make-up and dressed in a plaid shirt, staring down students near a bus stop outside a school.
A private education center named Speech Academy Asia stepped forward to apologize and take responsibility. Its director Kevin Tan told the Straits Times that the clowns were part of a marketing campaign to promote speech and enrichment classes.
“There was no evil intention behind the costumes and we sincerely apologise for it,” Tan said. “We will not do it again.” The group also published a public apology on its Facebook page and clarified that their employees did not offer “any form of monetary rewards for children to follow them” and did not “take any children out of the vicinity.”
“We truly understand your concern for the safety of your children; hence we will be putting an immediate stop to our roadshows.”
But the damage was done.
Singapore minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who serves as a member of parliament for the Marine Parade constituency in the country’s east, called the clown idea “nonsense” in a Facebook post. “It’s not amusing and just plain dangerous,” he wrote.
Wong was eventually reunited with her daughter Anne, who was being held indoors with teachers and several of her peers amid the confusion.
“It was a foolhardy stunt that was done in such bad taste, especially considering that many parents and students in Singapore are grieving the events of the axe killing,” she said.
“Who in the world would think hiring men dressed up as clowns to confront children would be a good idea?”
Follow Heather Chen on Twitter.