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Singapore’s first asylum for the mentally ill is built 1841

In 1841, a simple 30-bed hospital for the mentally ill known as the Insane Hospital was built at the junction of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street. It marked the beginnings of specialised care for people with mental disorders in Singapore.

In the early years of Singapore’s founding, people with mental sickness were incarcerated with convicts in the Convict Gaol in order to save costs and manpower.[1]  Thus, a hospital for these people was deemed unnecessary until October 1840, when the murder of an inmate by another led then Governor of the Straits Settlements Samuel George Bonham to appeal to the government of Bengal to have one built.[2]

William Montgomerie (also spelt as Montgomery), then Senior Surgeon in Singapore, was tasked to report on the status of the mentally ill under his care.[3] In his report, Montgomerie argued against suggestions to deport these people to India, as many were locals who would be better served by their countrymen, in a familiar language and place.[4] With this proposal, Montgomerie drew up a plan for a lunatic asylum building.[5] 

The Insane Hospital, located at the junction of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street, was completed in 1841. As the hospital was still located within the vicinity of the convict jail, warders continued to manage both the mentally ill and the convicts.[6] When William John Butterworth was appointed governor of the Straits Settlements in June 1843, he toured the various institutions in Singapore and was appalled by the deplorable conditions of the patients in the insane hospital – he found one dead in his cell and two others naked and emaciated.[7] Butterworth then ordered that the hospital be placed under the charge of Senior Surgeon Thomas Oxley. Oxley not only improved the health of the patients, but also their mental faculties by introducing occupational therapy such as picking oakum, basket weaving and making gutta-percha (a type of resin with medicinal properties). The income earned helped sustain the hospital and clothe the patients.[8]

Although the hospital was enlarged in 1851,[9] overcrowding remained a problem even though every potential patient had to first be seen and admitted by the senior surgeon.[10] Europeans were not admitted unless they were paupers, hence inmates were primarily Asians.[11] It was only in 1858 when the Indian government passed a legislation relating to lunatic asylums that funding and plans to build a proper facility were made in Singapore.[12] Renamed the Lunatic Asylum, construction work began in 1859 and  was completed in 1861. The asylum, which had a 100-patient capacity, was located at the periphery of the race course near the Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital.[13] The asylum remained there until it relocated to Sepoy Lines in 1887.[14]

1. Lee, Y. K. (1978). The medical history of early Singapore (p. 194). Tokyo: Southeast Asian Medical Information Center. Call no.: RSING 610.95957 LEE.
2. Ng, B. Y. (2001). Till the break of day: A history of mental health services in Singapore, 18411993 (p. 8). Singapore: Singapore University Press. Call no.: RSING 362.2095957 NG; Lee, 1978, p. 196.
3. Ng, 2001, p. 8.
4. Lee, 1978, p. 196; Ng, 2001, p. 9
5. Lee, 1978, p. 196.
6. Ng, 2001, p. 9.
7. Lee, 1978, p. 196; Ng, 2001, p. 9.
8. Lee, 1978, pp. 197–198; Ng, 2001, p. 9.
9. Ng, 2001, p. xix.
10. Lee, 1978, p. 200.
11. Ng, 2001, pp. 12–13.
12. Lee, 1978, p. 201.
13. Lee, 1978, pp. 202–203; Ng, 2001, pp. xix, 13.
14. Ng, 2001, pp. 13, 16.


The information in this article is valid as at 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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