Many movie fans are familiar with Chow Yun-Fat’s blockbuster “Prison on Fire”, a 1987 Hong Kong classic that featured inmates rioting against the prison authorities. Few, however, are aware that a similar incident had happened in Singapore in the early sixties.
A Turbulent Period
It was 1963, a year of turbulence and instability in Singapore. In January that year, Indonesia President Sukarno had declared Konfrontasi against the new Federation of Malaysia, in which the Malaya Peninsula was joined by Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. Domestically, some 100 demonstrators marched their way to City Hall in April to protest against the arrests of left-wing activists and trade unionists. In August, a 100,000-strong “blood debt” mass rally took place at the Padang, demanding Japan to pay a $50-million compensation for their war atrocities in Singapore.
The violent Pulau Senang riot on 12th of July added further shocks to an already unstable Singapore society.
Gangsterism and the Isle of Ease
The People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore’s new self-government in 1959, was determined to eradicate gangsterism and secret societies. It was estimated that there were as many as 120 gangs, such as the Ang Hor Tiap, Sio Koon Tong, Tiong Neng Tok, Sri Tong and Loh Kuan, and more than 10,000 active secret society members in Singapore. Rival clashes occurred almost every week, resulting in dozens of deaths. A thousand gangsters were arrested each year.
The outdated prison system soon could not cope with the continuous arrests. Its overcrowding and hygienic issues forced the authority to explore new ideas and solutions. By early 1960, a Pulau Senang Settlement proposal was drawn; its objective was to solve the existing issues and also to help the gangsters work their way back to the society through hardship and sweat.
Pulau Senang, or “Isle of Ease” in Malay, was then an uninhabited coral island that laid 13km away from the mainland of Singapore.
The Island Experiment
It was believed that the hardcore criminals and violent gangsters, with no regards for laws and orders, were forced into the tough circumstances due to lack of jobs and security. Through disciplined means, they could be reformed and would, one day, be accepted into the society again.
At least one person, Irishman Daniel Stanley Dutton, held this belief. A born leader and the superintendent of the Prison Department, Dutton strongly believed that no man was born evil, and a second chance should be given to those who were willingly to change for the better. It was a noble aspiration, but Dutton’s iron-fist rule also meant that his prisoners were subjected to his harsh disciplinary methods, one of the reasons that might have incited the riot.
In May 1960, the penal reform experiment officially started. Dutton and his 50 prisoners landed on Pulau Senang, and began developing the bare island immediately. Other detainees subsequently arrived in batches of 30. Within a short period, the island, no larger than 227-acres big, was turned into a self-sufficient rehabilitation centre with roads, reservoirs, workshops, farms and even a sports ground.
An Initial Success
The Pulau Senang experience was a success at the beginning. In just two years, over 250 prisoners, most of them Chinese secret society members, went through the reform system. After spending a year in Changi prison, the prisoners had the option to redeem themselves at Pulau Senang. They were given various manual tasks upon their arrivals, and each of them was accessed by Dutton himself every month. If the prisoners’ performances were satisfactory after six months or so, they would be released back to the mainland. A government department would help them settle down and find suitable jobs. Dutton, however, would not hesitate to send any rebellious or resentful individual back to jail.
The 40-plus years old Daniel Dutton was a confident man. Nicknamed “The Laughing Tiger”, he was the sole European on the island, and had only three assistants, two Chinese and one Ceylonese, to help him. There were no firearms in the settlement. Dutton even allowed minimum supervision of his prisoners, believing that they would not escape. He also laughed it off when his informers told him that the hardcore gangsters were plotting to kill him.
The Violent Riot
By 1963, the number of detainees on Pulau Senang had ballooned to over 300. The island security, headed by Dutton, was less than fifty. The riot on the fateful day of 12th July was believed to be sparked off by the deportation of 13 detainees who had been working on the construction of a jetty. There was already a growing resentment when the 13 men were ordered to work only during the low tides, regardless of day or night. Their fatigue turned into anger after Dutton demanded nothing but hard work and results.
When the crowds became rowdy in the morning, Dutton refused to call for reinforcement from the mainland police or the coastal guards. He was confident that the majority of the detainees would stand by him against the “few” rebellious ones. By the time Dutton realised he could not control the hostile situation, it was all too late.
The island, which the detainees took three years to build and develop, was practically destroyed in just 40 minutes. Buildings were burnt to the ground. Dutton and three of his assistants were brutally chopped to death by the rioters using axes and changkuls. Most of the rebels made no attempts to escape from the island. After the horrifying murders, they cheered and celebrated as though they were the new conquerors of Pulau Senang.
It was the first time in the legal history of Singapore that so many men were charged and convicted at the same time for capital offence. The case dragged on for two years. In June 1965, the appeal against their death sentences was rejected by the Privy Council. Out of the 58 detainees involved in the rioting, 11 were acquitted and 29 were jailed two to three years. The remaining 18, including the notorious Tan Kheng Ann, nicknamed “Robert Black”, and “Botak” Chia Yeo Fatt, were hanged in October 1965.
Pulau Senang’s penal reform experiment was eventually deemed as a failure. Investigations and studies were carried out to find out the reasons but the real motive of the riot remained inconclusive. After the incident, Pulau Senang was declared out of bounds. It would take many years before the island was converted into a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) live-firing training ground along with Pulau Pawai and Pulau Sudong.
Published: 27 July 2013