Behind ‘Riot Island’: Filmmaker talks Singapore prison documentary

Director Tom St. John Gray sought to explore the historical events of Pulau Senang, a penal experiment gone terribly wrong. In this interview following last week’s feature story on the riot’s anniversary, Gray describes his process and why he thinks the prison-island’s collapse is an almost “Shakespearean” tale

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July 17, 2023
Behind ‘Riot Island’: Filmmaker talks Singapore prison documentary
Filmmaker Tom St. John Gray, producer of "Riot Island", a documentary about Singapore's failed Pulau Senang prison experiment. Photo submitted.

Almost 60 years ago to the day, a Singaporean effort to create a model prison came to a burning halt. 

Once heralded as a potential blueprint for a more humane kind of incarceration, the penal colony on the island of Pulau Senang quickly became synonymous with chaos and bloodshed. In 1963, the detainees held on the island revolted, burning the structures they’d built themselves and murdering British Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton and three other warders. 

Though the riots garnered international coverage, the story quickly became muted, eclipsed in the wake of Singapore’s independence two years later. It was this slipping from collective memory that intrigued British director and producer Tom St John Gray, a long-time resident of the city-state who sought to unearth the story of Pulau Senang for modern audiences. The two-part documentary, Riot Island, devised and produced by award-winning Singapore-based Peddling Pictures, aired in October. It was commissioned by broadcaster CNA and is now available to watch on CNA Insider’s YouTube platform.

“[In the middle of] a well-told Singaporean narrative of  a nation emerging from colonial order was kind of an almost unknown story,” he told the Globe. “As a filmmaker, you’re really drawn to something that’s faded from history.”

In an interview, St John Gray shared more about the process of uncovering history and sharing the story of Pulau Senang with the world. 

What was it that drew you to the Pulau Senang prison island and inspired you to tell this story?
In the 1950s and 1960s, there’s this well-told Singaporean narrative of a nation emerging from colonial order, the end of empire, and Singapore’s road to self-rule and independence. And then, across that sort of decade, there was the merger [with Malaysia], separation, race riots, Konfrontasi, all seismic events. 

[And] the middle of all these, these very well-known events was [an] almost unknown story, very self-contained, happening on an island in Singapore. 

I felt as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, it always felt Shakespearean – this grand tragedy playing out on this sort of mysterious, almost mythical island. It was full of hope and ambition and ended in hubris and death.

When we started to make this documentary, at the beginning, I spoke to lots of people and the majority of people had never heard of it before. And so that’s obviously as a filmmaker, you’re really drawn to something which kind of feels very interesting and intriguing. Why has it faded from history? And it was a major event at the time, which is a curiosity in itself. Why did something which was always in the newspapers, always in the headlines, it was a coffee shop talking point that faded from consciousness.

Did you discover the answer? Why did the story of Pulau Senang fade from public consciousness? 
It kind of got moved out of the hierarchy of trauma, I guess, of  Singapore in the 1960s. But I also do think it’s really telling when you look at the pedigree of the island, in a sense, that it was spearheaded by a number of people, including (future third president of Singapore) Devan Nair. 

And later on, when it came to fruition, this island was visited by the VIPs, the great leaders of the time. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the president, all who at that time [were] young politicians, they’re coming to this full of hope. So I think the unmitigated disaster that erupted just two years later must have been a very deep cut. If you pay so much money and attention towards this project and it fails so cataclysmically it must have been very difficult at the time to reconcile that. It was a terrible disaster that smashed a lot of hopes and dreams. And so, in some sense, there’s an element of historical amnesia – why would you want to remember this story?

Do you think the attack on British Superintendent Dutton can be viewed as a microcosm of wider attitudes and resentment towards British colonial rule?
Dutton was a man of the colonial era of the British Empire, a system that believed in British rule. He’s obviously married to [Malay-Singaporean fashion designer] Vicky Dutton [so] had a connection to this Malay world and he also spoke Hokkien. So that was interesting, in a sense, as to how Dutton is seen. 

Certainly some people we spoke to said Dutton would have been a target because he was symbolised as Britain, British rule. But I think that’s a difficult one to know about ever finding any specific evidence. Very grisly ends were meted out to the other three men who died, so I certainly would advocate that maybe these are just people in positions of power. 

These are gang members who had their own power on the mainland, and they were taken to his island and were all pretty much rendered powerless. So you would look to those people who are wielding that power, who are calling the shots, and I think whoever would have been in that position would have been hated or reviled by a group within the island.

What do you think it was that ultimately triggered his death?
The fact that he lived on the island in the early days in a tent alongside the men and the fact he seemed to have the respect for the men at the beginning shows that perhaps the problem was the corruption that happened later on, the corruption of the guards, maybe the corruption of his mind as accolades and honours grew up around him. It was already a gold star prison [and] rehabilitation centre, but Dutton was driven to overreach. And I think that’s what triggered his demise.

You spoke to some of the last surviving detainees of Pulau Senang. What did they share and what did you learn from their stories and experiences? 
What’s really fascinating is that when you talk to these people who’ve been there, they are very matter-of-fact, they had witnessed all of this, but it was something that was very much of their experience. But what I also noticed was that the trauma that lingers from this was very much alive. Lots of people we spoke to, who would not talk on camera, [this is] still very heavy for them, this is something that was within them and their families today. 

People felt worried about talking about secret society members or the events that might have happened and no matter if those threats exist now or not, it just shows that they were lingering. There was something that was so seared into their memory, seared into their psyche.

Tell me a little bit about the process of sharing those stories and making the documentary. 
Peddling Pictures wanted to make a series that was research-heavy and rich in historical detail. The team had this whiteboard where we wrote down the names of all 18 men who were executed, but also alongside that other key men who were part of the group – obviously Dutton and some of the officers – and we really put that as a marker of who we could find, who still exists today. So that became our motivation: there must be people around who are willing to talk to us who can give us a new perspective on this.

We set out to track down these people and that took months of everything from going into the traditional routes, like going into libraries, looking at files, reading books, to trawling through social media and genealogy sites. And that’s how we found Michael [Dutton], through a genealogy site, and we found other members of the Dutton family on a Facebook post.

Episode One is more complimentary about Dutton and his achievements and Episode Two shows the darker side emerging. And that was important, layering in historical documents, historical facts and events, kind of getting a sense of the story but also not letting it be bogged down by too much history.

How did you approach the reenactments of the riots? 
Peddling Pictures filmed the drama reenactments in Thailand with a large cast and crew, and with locations, props and wardrobe that needed to look historically accurate. There were many team discussions about how to correctly depict the terrible death and destruction that later ensued. I think what was really important for us was to say this was an island with a name that translates to “Island of Ease”. There was this tranquillity which was then jolted into this absolute carnage, this sort of eruption. People met their end and in a very grisly way. 

But also there were scores and scores of guards and people around who were very badly injured, who survived but had terrible injuries. So I think it was really important for us to show this kind of jolting violence to take the audience into why it was so shocking. And I think if you don’t have those moments of carnage, it’s hard to understand why down the line 58 men would face potential death penalty and why 18 men were sent to the gallows.

The documentary was a three-time winner at the recent New York Festivals TV & Film Awards 2023 in April. How have you felt about the reception of the “Riot Island’ documentary?
What was really heartening was that when you make history documentaries, you try and make it for a broad audience. You don’t just want history buffs, you want to attract people from across the gamut. And I think [it reached] people who weren’t normally interested in 1960s Singapore history, people from across different generations. It felt like a fresh take on the era, something they hadn’t heard before. 

And getting these accolades, it was really heartening to realise that something very local can be recognised on a global level. It showed there are so many interesting facets out there about Singapore that have not been told, it’s a really rich history with lots of themes and stories that need to be shared. It wasn’t just a Singapore story, it was a story relatable to everyone, a story of great promise, great tragedy and with this very bloody retribution at the end. 

What, with decades of hindsight, would you say is the main lesson learnt from the Pulau Senang riot? 
You could learn about law and order, about having the right people in the right job. But for me, the reason it’s so tragic is there’s this question: “What if?”

In the first year, we see there’s a huge success rate, detainees who were rehabilitated. And obviously we now know with hindsight, that that’s not so rosy, because these men were detained without trial and they were essentially used as workhorses. But, with that in mind, what if? What if Dutton hadn’t pushed them too hard? What if he had set in motion this incredible infrastructure, where men could work on the island and be able to really contribute something meaningful to society? And my final feeling is: would the Singapore system be different today because of that? 

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