‘Riot Island’: The brutal arc of Singapore’s prison experiment

Established in the last years of colonial Singapore, Pulau Senang was supposed to be a different, more progressive kind of prison. Six decades after the island collapsed into nightmarish conditions, a recent documentary has pulled its story back into the city-state’s public memory

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July 14, 2023
‘Riot Island’: The brutal arc of Singapore’s prison experiment
Three of the men at the centre of the riot that ended the Pulau Senang experiment. At right is Daniel Stanley Dutton, the overseer of the prison settlement, and at bottom is Tan Kok Hian, a fellow prison officer. Both Dutton and Tan were murdered by prisoners in the riot, along with two other wardens. At left is Tan Kheng Ann, who was Dutton's favourite detainee and was alleged by many witnesses to have led the riot and hacked Dutton to death. Photo illustration by Emilie Languedoc.

On a sluggish, humid day on 12 July 1963, Mohammad Bin Poh overslept. 

The 19-year-old boatman was three weeks into his new job as part of a pioneering new prison project on the Singaporean island Pulau Senang.

Bin Poh had meant to rouse himself in the morning. Instead, he was rattled awake in the heat of an early afternoon by explosions. He rose to the sight of burning buildings and about 30 detainees running toward his sleeping quarters.

He raced to his boat, alerting police from the portable radio used to maintain communication with the mainland. When he returned to the main campus, the first thing he saw were the bodies of his colleagues – hacked brutally by knives, tools and broken bottles. 

“Some of them were hit by the prisoners, some were smashed [up], some were cut, like people cutting fish,” Bin Poh recalled 60 years later from the sofa of his public housing flat, as a family cat wound silently through his legs. “Three [of my coworkers] died on the island. Another died later in hospital.”

The Pulau Senang prison settlement was a bold social experiment, designed from a vision of an open-air penal colony and reform through hard work. The campus housed 320 detainees at its busiest. Many were former gang members, sent to the island without trial as part of the British colonial government’s vision to clamp down on vice and maintain social order. 

A map of Pulau Senang from the National Archives of Singapore. Colour enhanced for emphasis.

Initially heralded as a success of progressive criminal justice, the vision soon faded into a nightmare – the island became known for a spasm of violence that left 29 injured and four prison employees dead, including the project’s leader, British Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton. A subsequent trial, in which the court sentenced 18 of the 59 charged inmates to death, lasted 64 days. It remains Singapore’s longest and largest trial to date. 

After the riots, coverage of the experimental prison faded, eclipsed by Singapore’s full independence two years later. 

But now, 60 years after fires scoured Pulau Senang, the release of a revealing documentary late last year on the country’s “Riot Island” has pulled the story back into public memory. Those linked to the event shared with the Globe their reflections on the rehabilitation settlement gone fatally wrong and shed light on the abuse and bribery that fanned the flames of its inmates’ resentment. 

[There was] concern over organised crime and the idea that there was a sense of lawlessness, or a lack of control with the local authorities.

Donna Maree Brunero, senior lecturer of history at the National University of Singapore

The early 1960’s were a formative era for Singapore, which declared independence from Britain in 1963 – the year of the Pulau Senang riots – to join the Federation of Malaysia, an alliance of Malay Straits settlements including North Borneo and Sarawak.

“[During the 1950’s and 1960’s] Singapore is going through these really profound changes from the colonial to what becomes the post-colonial,” said Donna Maree Brunero, senior lecturer of history at the National University of Singapore. “So there is quite a lot of turmoil.”

The first sparks of the eventual boil-over at Pulau Senang came with the British colonial government’s Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance of 1955. The law was intended to curb communist insurgencies and crack down on Chinese secret societies, which were linked to organised crime in the city-state, and granted authorities sweeping enforcement powers. These included the ability to detain suspected gang members without trial. 

“[There was] concern over organised crime and the idea that there was a sense of lawlessness, or a lack of control with the local authorities,” explained Brunero. 

Within a few years, the existing prisons were overcrowded. In 1960, British and Singaporean politicians formed an ad-hoc committee to brainstorm a solution to the detainees overflowing from Singapore’s cells. 

They decided on Pulau Senang, an uninhabited 81.7 hectare coral island about 13 kilometres off Singapore’s southern coast. The ill-fated Dutton, a former army major, was chosen as superintendent to lead the project, which started in May 1960. 

To his younger brother, Michael, Dutton was the idolised big brother with the glamorous Malay wife, whose commitment to Pualu Senang was a testament to his determined character and strong sense of moral duty. Michael remembers his brother and sister-in-law’s work in the community, adopting children who didn’t have permanent homes.

“I remember shaking his hand and having a feeling that I was … with not just a relation, but someone out to do something very important in Singapore,” Michael said in the CNA Insiders documentary Riot Island, recalling a visit the elder Dutton and his wife Vicki paid to him on their way to the U.K. city of Southampton to board a plane to Asia.

“That was the last time I saw him.”

The inmate uprising at Pulau Senang caught international attention. Photo supplied.

For Michael Dutton, participating in the documentary, produced by the Singapore-based Peddling Pictures and released in November, gave him a clearer picture of his brother’s character. The process left him convinced the elder Dutton’s stewardship of the island was driven by integrity. 

“He had leadership qualities in him,” he told the Globe from his Bristol home. “He would have done the job that he had to do with absolute determination to put it right.”

For Daniel Dutton, ‘putting it right’ involved rehabilitation through hard labour. Inmates were allowed to roam free, but were responsible for building the settlement. 

Each new arrival was given a manual task and, if Dutton deemed their behaviour satisfactory after six months, they would be reintegrated into mainland society and a government official would help them find employment. 

The initial success of Pulau Senang drew international attention from a range of sociologists, U.N. representatives and human rights organisations. Within the first seven months, five prisoners of the original 50 were deemed worthy of release. By 1963, more than 200 had reintegrated, with the 300 inmates on the island living amongst a self-built dining hall, sports area, kitchen and bakery. 

But behind the amenities, there was a bleaker atmosphere, rife with allegations of abuse. 

“When I was there, the prisoners [were] all very stressed,” Bin Poh recalled. “Because the prison warders tortured them day and night.”

The teenage Bin Poh grew up on the nearby island of Pulau Semakau as part of a fishing family and community. But in June 1963, just a few weeks before the riots, a British officer arrived at his home and offered an alternative career choice

“They always came to our island to collect banana plants. One day they came to our place, say ‘Want to become a boatman?’” he recounted. “As a fisherman, I thought maybe there is no future for me. So I want to work in a government service.”

Besides knowing it was backed by the British government, the teenager didn’t know much about the Pulau Senang project. 

“I didn’t know about what was going on down there. From far away it looked pretty nice,” he said. “When I arrived, I soon wanted to resign. But it was too late.” 

According to Bin Poh, while staff had rotating shifts, some inmates were forced to work continuously from 3-6 a.m., when the tide was lowest, building a makeshift jetty from heavy stone that he would collect from the mainland. They would then return for breakfast and start their “normal duties” lasting until the evening. 

Anyone who complained was put in what Bin Poh described as a “small, dark house [with] no ventilation”.

He also remarked that those “with wealthy parents” were sometimes released before their six month stint. Others, “three or four years and they [are] still not released”.

“He was burned, like a log. He’d been hacked on the forehead. The whole office was like a warzone.” 

Former warden Jimmy Chew

On 12 July, something snapped. 

After explosions shook Bin Poh from sleep, he opened his window to see “that prison is burning … [and] around 20 or 30 prisoners approaching our barracks to find the warder.”

In his short time on the island, Bin Poh had formed bonds with inmates, playing football and sneaking them cigarettes from his trips to the mainland. He believes this spared his life – the prisoners left him to frantically grab the boat key he slept with and sound the alarm. 

In the meantime, inmates armed with machetes and Molotov cocktails ransacked the settlement. They eventually reached the guardhouse and Dutton and set fire to the surroundings before beating him with weapons after he emerged. 

“I was the first to … witness Mr. Dutton’s body,” said former warden Jimmy Chew, who died in 2012 and whose oral records from the National Archives of Singapore were used in the documentary. “He was burned, like a log. He’d been hacked on the forehead. The whole office was like a warzone.” 

They are so utterly at the mercy of every minor official on that island. … They are beyond the pale of the law.

David Marshall, former chief minister of Singapore, speaking of the Pulau Senang prisoners before the riot

The simmering resentments of the inmates became more clear in the inquiry that followed the riot. But warning signs had emerged long before the fires broke out on the island settlement.

Chew Thiam Huat, also known as “Baby Chye”, was one of Pulau Senang’s detainees. A former national footballer, he was among the 18 men later hanged for murder charges at Changi Prison on 29 October, 1965, the largest number of executions Singapore has ever had in a day. 

His nephew, Brandon Wong, maintains that Dutton’s mistreatment of the inmates pushed them to riot. 

“The prisoners were disturbed by Dutton during family visits,” he told the Globe, recounting memories his surviving uncles shared with him. “Dutton made lewd comments about their family members. They decided to do him in.”

While these claims remain anecdotal, reports of Dutton’s harsh management style emerged in the court trial following the riots. 

Singapore politician and former Chief Minister David Marshall visited the island in April 1963 and was unhappy with the “hot and arduous labour” to which the guards subjected inmates. 

“They are so utterly at the mercy of every minor official on that island,” Marshall said before the riot. “Their release or their continued detention is at the whim of officials and no longer subject to law. They are beyond the pale of the law.”

He described an “aura of fear” on the island and conditions “that bordered on slavery” in a later court statement, reminding those involved in the trial that these were not convicted criminals, but men detained without trial. 

About the same time, reports emerged that Major Peter L. James, director of Singapore sent two directives to Dutton, requesting a scale-down of hours that often saw prisoners working throughout the night. On a Saturday before the riots, 13 men had refused to continue work on the jetty during their rest day after they were denied water. 

Inmate-built structures on Pulau Senang, as seen from the water. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

But others describe a generally fair and benevolent leader, who was able to converse with his charges in their native Hokkien or Malay and who formed close bonds with some of the inmates – including eventual riot ringleader Tan Kheng Ann, alias “Robert Black”. 

Dutton trusted his charges to the extent that none of the staff had weapons on the island. When a detainee warned him of disgruntled residents planning riots, he reportedly laughed it off. 

“He was hardworking, resourceful, a fair man,” said A.N Jenardaran, former police officer at Pulau Senang. “He really believed you could work the evil out of anyone.”

A play put on by prisoners from Changi Prison, Outram Road Prison and Pulau Senang penal island, in aid of the Singapore Aftercare Association. This scene depicts the life of convicts on Pulau Senang. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.

In the end, both Dutton and the failed historical prison experiment have left a blurred legacy, the contours of which vary widely depending on the source. What is clear is that the programme imagined for Pulau Senang bears a sharp contrast to the Lion City’s current incarceration system. 

Today, Singapore is renowned as one of the safest countries in the world – last year, it ranked number one by global analytics firm Gallup’s Law and Order index.

The city-state also holds one of the lowest rates of criminal recidivism within two years, according to a statement by the Ministry of Home Affairs. 

“Singapore’s prison system is arguably one of the most progressive around the world,” said former charity CEO and rehabilitation advocate Timothy Khoo. 

Khoo’s grandfather, Khoo Siaw Hua, was a reverend to the 18 men sentenced to death after the Pulau Senang riot. During the last days of their lives, he provided guidance and counselling to the men regardless of their faith. 

Today, the younger Khoo says the city-state takes a more “progressive approach to incarceration, which is about rehabilitation, reintegration, restoration back to the community.” 

This would reflect Dutton’s own ambitions. But, unlike Pulau Senang’s focus on hard manual labour, the current rehabilitation is split between in-prison and aftercare programmes focused on developing social and employability skills. 

Mohammad Bin Poh, the former boatman for the Pulau Senang settlement, in his Singapore home. Photo by Amanda Oon.

But not all share Khoo’s views of Singapore’s criminal justice system. The country remains one of the 55 countries that still implements the death penalty and has attracted criticism from rights groups for the often-thin body of evidence required to invoke capital punishment.

“Rather than having a unique deterrent effect on crime, these executions only show the utter disregard the Singaporean authorities have for human rights and the right to life,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert with Amnesty international. 

Following the riots, Pulau Senang was closed for almost two years. Bin Poh stayed on the empty settlement and when the prison reopened, he worked there for another four years. The commitment earned him a nautical studies certificate sponsored by the prison department and he remained in the service even after the prison closed for good in 1968. 

“That is the good part,” Bin Poh reflected on a recent afternoon. “The bad part, I already told you.”

The island is now owned by the military, which in 1984 converted it into a live-firing zone. It’s still known by its original Malay name: Pulau Senang, or “Isle of Ease”.

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