Saturday, February 14, 2009

Senang's dark past

"Over on your right are our three military islands Sudong, Pawai and Senang used for life bombing exercises by the SAF..." thus so recited everytime during our landfill tour while guiding on a typical Semakau intertidal walk. Pulau Senang, despite being called the island of ease or comfort in Malay had a horrifying dark history behind it some 40 years back. I learnt from this first-handed from a group of prison officers that I guided at Semakau last time.






In short, during 1960, Senang was used as an experimental prison facility to rehabilitate secret society members. Unfortunately, this experiment failed drastically and several officers, including the superintendent were killed savagely on the island during an organised riot. I tried searching the internet for more information but there were basically none, except a short extract from wikipedia and the national library. It seems as if this failed and shamed incident had been erased from the world wide web somehow...?

Luckily, there was still a tiny 100 page book in the National Library reference collection, titled "Pulau Senang, the experiment that failed" and I spent about 3 hours half lying on the comfortable sofa reading it. It was an enjoyable read, as the author said, ...almost like a fiction story that became true...

It all started when our first democratic government was formed, by PAP of course, in 1959. At that time, secret societies were rampant with many deaths from the numerous gang fights occuring in Singapore. In order to maintain law and order, hundreds of gangsters were arrested and jailed without trial. At the same time, the prison system was revamped to ensure proper conditions for the convicts to live in. Having such a high influx of people in Changi prison together with other ethics and security reasons, the Pulau Senang Rehabilitation Settlement was concieved.

Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton is the guy who brought this experiment to life. He held an idealistic presumption that "every violent lawless men could find their own way back to decent society given a proper chance and hard work." and he strongly believed that his purpose in life was to make good citizens out of thugs. An irish, he was an imposing figure much feared and respected by the convicts and was described as a natural leader and builder. Leading the first batch of gangsters into the wild Senang, they built everything from scratch; a settlement with roads, water and electricity, workshops, canteens, domitories, cinema and community hall.

Daniel Stanley Dutton
Daniel Stanley Dutton

According to this system, these gangsters were given a chance to return to society. After spending one year in Changi prison, they have the choice to volunteer to Senang whereby they will be taught a trade like plumbing, hair-cutting, farming etc. Their performance and attitude were monitored and eventually if the rehabitation goes well, a recommendation will be given to allow them to return to the society. If they do not volunteer in this programme and stayed in Changi prison, their chance of returning home is virtually zero. Dutton was the one person that determine whether they can leave as a free man.

This experiment was not a total disaster. In fact, in a short span of 3 years, 400 detainees were successfully rehabilitated at Senang. So what went wrong? On 12 July 1963, a massive mutiny occured with the gangsters armed with work parangs and changkols. The settlement was razed to the ground in a mere 40 minutes, with Daniel Dutton being brutally hacked and burnt to death, together with 2 other officers. Major James, his superior in Changi prison testified that the offenders had presumably thought that they will be freed by destroying Senang since there wasn't any space in the other prisons and also with Dutton's death, Senang could not be rebuilt. Several of them tried to escaped by the prison boat but it was rammed and sunk by a Custom boat that gave chased.

The aftermath
The aftermath

The riot was promptly stopped when re-enforcements arrived, with all the rioters surrendering volunteeringly. Some of them testified that this incident started because of the resentment that Dutton sent back a group of carpenter detainees to Changi prison as they refused to work on a jetty during the wee hours. But witnesses testified that the plot to riot hatch a few days even before this incident occurred. Even so, Dutton was complacent after informers told him the news as he felt there will be sufficient support from the other detainees in case anything went wrong. Somemore, firearms were prohibited in the island but this was because the fears of them being acquired by the gangsters since they vastly outnumber the officers.

The jetty in Senanag
The unfinished jetty.

And so 58 people were trialed and 18 were convicted of murder, where they were hanged on the same day. As a result of this riot, the penal experiment came to a halt and the island was out of bounds till 1968 when it was converted to a bombing range for the military.

16 comments:

aki-chan said...

Oh my, i'm stunned! Never knew there was such a history to this island.. Thanks for sharing! What's your take on Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton btw?

Ivan said...

Yikes. Never knew the island had such a bloody past.

Thanks for digging up this piece of information!

Siyang said...

According to the book, Major James, his superior described him as the kindest people he ever met. He took great pride in his work and often helped his detainees in their family woes. But he also said his overconfidence in his charges also lead to his downfall. In fact, one of his most favourite detainee was the mastermind behind the riot.

Hen said...

Whoa. It reads like something from out of a movie! Chilling.. Thanks for sharing!

meiyi said...

yup never knew of such a past! its really sad that such a good person end up in this way. thankls for posting!(:

gnohz said...

Thanks for sharing the history! A very interesting but chilling read. Didn't know there was such a dark side to the island's history.

Anonymous said...

Theres certain issue wic is not written in a book....Dutton was brutally killed by e prisoner bcoz he slept wit few prisoners wife.they dig out his eyes and cut off his dick....Dutton convert to muslim n married a malay gal.he was burried in e former Bidadari graveyard.he abused his power till e prisoner cant stand any longer.E 18 prisioner was hanged one after another at one time...whenever they were called up for their time to go for e process of hanging ....e rest applause till e last one....i get to know abt dis story fr e veteran inmates while im in e prison serving my sentence.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your lovely article. I read the book when I was young. You can read more of it in the news paper archives at http://newspapers.nl.sg/

Dr.G.Johnson said...

I read the news of the hanging with the photos of all the 19 hanged on the front page of Straits Times. One of them named Ponnambalam was from my place in Henderson Road. He was known to all tha Tamils in Henderson Road and his funeral along with another two ( names not known )took place from the City Council Quarters.

Linda said...

My dad happen to be a prisoner there at that time, lucky for him, he was not sentences to death. Got to dig out this information from him a few days ago and learn the truth behind all the killing. If you are interested to know more, you can always drop me an e mail.

kamal said...

I read about this story on Thinakural dated 29th December 2013 page S13,very interesting.the other two were mentioned as Somasundram and Somasundraraju in the article.Where to get those images?

Terry Foenander said...

I have a very special interest in the Pulau Senang riot, mainly because my father was a prison officer first at Changi, then at Outram and finally at Queenstown before his retirement in 1973, when we migrated to Australia. Anyway, we were station at Outram at the time of the riot, and I remember, on arriving home from school (in Katong), seeing the prison officers and warders on standby outside the prison gates, waiting to be sent to Senang if required. My father had actually applied to get a posting to Senang, but, thankfully, it was rejected, otherwise he may have become one of the casualties. As for the rumour about Dutton sleeping with a prisoner's wife, this was exactly what it was - nothing more than a rumour. Also, the fact that he had his eyes gouged out was well known, as was the statement that he had his private parts cut off. Many of the prison staff and their families knew of these savage accounts. Dutton's wife was the famous Malay sarong kebaya designer, Vicky dutton. There are many photos at the Singapore
Archives web site, showing Dutton, Mr. Tailford (who was decent to the prisoners, but, on trying to protect Dutton, was hit on his right temple and on his wrist, and suffered amnesia for some time after the riot), and even Vicky Dutton at the burial of her husband. I knew Mr. Tailford well, as I used to play with his son, Derrick, when we were based at Changi, a couple of years or so before the riot.
Anyway, I have collected a massive amount of data on the riot, and am trying to compile a full history of the island and especially the riot. I have a database of the personnel involved, and prison staff. If anyone has anything to add to my history, please contact me (Terry Foenander) at tfoenander@hotmail.com
Thank you for any welcome accounts.

Terry Foenander said...

P.S. I neglected to add that I had often talked to one of the prison warders (Mr. Antonio Rio, who is now deceased) and who had been based at Pulau Senang. It was quite well known that a riot was to take place, and Mr. Rio had been informed by some of the good prisoners, so that, on the day, he took sick leave. Mr. Rio's full account was published in one of the Singapore newspapers many years ago, as well.
Mr. Rio had also told me that Dutton was often very cruel to the prisoners, such as not giving them enough rest, etc. Also, if a prisoner, while working, picked up a fallen mango, the prisoner was severely rebuked by Dutton. Some of the warders were very kind to the prisoners, so that their lives were saved. It should be known that not all the prisoners were involved in the riot, and many tried to help the prison staff. There is a famous photograph of the severely wounded Tailford lying on a stretcher, after their arrival back in Singapore, and standing beside him is Mr. Singh, one of the warders, with his uniform all disheveled.

Anonymous said...

You should ask him to tell you the actual facts and details and you should document it. Might be a very valuable piece of our nation's history

Alvin Leong said...

Interesting.

Alvin Leong said...

Interesting.

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