by Lim, Fiona
Pulau Senang is one of Singapore’s southern islands. Its land area is about 81.7 ha, and it is located 24 km from the mainland. Now a military live-firing zone, Pulau Senang is famous for being a penal settlement from 1960 to 1963. The prison-without-bars experiment ended after some of the inmates started a violent revolt that led to the deaths of the superintendent and two attendants.
The name Pulau Senang is Malay for “isle of ease”,1 but for much of the 19th century it was referred to as Barn Island.2 Barn Island – flanked by Alligator Island (Pulau Pawai) and Rabbit Island (Pulau Biola) – can be found in a Dutch map from as early as 1807.3 From the 1920s onwards, the use of its Malay name became more common in the public sphere.4
The 81.7-hectare Pulau Senang includes 26 ha of mangrove swamp, with a ring of reefs surrounding the island. The retention of such natural habitats contributes to the island’s biodiversity.5
Between the 1830s and 1850s, there were discussions about building a lighthouse on either Barn Island or the nearby Coney Islet (Pulau Satumu). Eventually, what became known as Raffles Lighthouse was erected on Coney Islet.6
Other than mention made of a Eurasian family and a penal settlement, there are few records of a settlement on Pulau Senang before and after the war. According to some, Pulau Senang was used as a labour camp during the Second World War, when hundreds of Javanese were forced to carry out agricultural work on the island. Many died due to malnutrition and overwork, and the corpses were buried in shallow graves on the beach. Since then, human remains have apparently been found buried on the beach, and this grisly history was said to have deterred people from settling there.7 In the 1960 annual report of the Singapore Prisons Department, it was stated that “during the Japanese Occupation there had been some attempt at settlement which had come to nought”.8 There was also folklore explaining the total absence of Malay dwellers on the island: Once, when there was a Malay settlement on the island, an old man appeared and asked for a drink. But because the islanders were experiencing a drought at the time, they denied the old man his request. The man then placed a curse on the islanders. Since then, Malays who had tried to settle on the island would either suffer a terrible illness or die.9
In 1948, a Eurasian family moved to the island. Adolf Monteiro, who had retired as the keeper of Raffles Lighthouse, relocated his family to the uninhabited Pulau Senang. The family constructed their own house on stilts, reared livestock, sold copra, and fished in the sea.10 Two years later, a newspaper reported that three Chinese men had also settled on the island.11
By 1960, however, only Adolf and a son remained on the island; the rest of the Monteiros had moved to Singapore to be closer to work. When the government wanted Pulau Senang to be converted into a penal settlement, the father and son relocated to nearby Pulau Pawai.12
The enactment of the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Ordinance of 1955, aimed at curbing secret societies in Singapore, led to a continued increase in the detention of gangsters. Consequently, Changi Prison became overcrowded. In 1960, an ad-hoc committee – comprising T. H. Elliott, Jek Yeun Thong and S. Woodhull – was tasked to make recommendations to improve the state of detention and rehabilitation of gangsters. They recommended setting up a penal settlement on an offshore island, and thus the Pulau Senang Settlement was established later that year.13
Besides solving the issue of overcrowding in Changi Prison, the settlement also aimed to rehabilitate the detainees so that they could become “useful members” of society instead of using detention as a preventive measure.14 Prisoners who worked hard and behaved well were released back to society after a period of rehabilitation. The Pulau Senang settlement was managed by superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton, with over 20 officers and attendants.15
The first batch of detainees was moved to Pulau Senang from Changi Prison in June 1960.16 By end August that year, the inmate population, which comprised members from different gangs, had more than doubled to 122.17 In December 1960, five detainees were deemed good enough to be released from the island.18
The detainees were responsible for building their dormitories, amenities and infrastructure on the island. These included a hospital, recreation grounds and offices.19 Some cultivated vegetables and reared livestock.20 As a policy, newcomers had to undertake hard manual labour such as forest-clearing and road-building. In 1962, a dining hall, kitchen and bakery were built. The detainees returned to the mainland once a month for visits with their relatives.21
The penal experiment was widely hailed as a success, considering the rate of progress regarding the construction of the settlement as well as the detainees’ rehabilitation.22 By September 1962, about 200 offenders had done well enough to return to society.23
On 12 July 1963, at around 1.15pm, a group of prisoners staged a violent revolt that resulted in three deaths: Superintendent Dutton, and two settlement attendants – Arumugam Veerasingham and Tan Kok Hian. There were over 300 detainees on Pulau Senang on the day of the riot. Buildings were also destroyed and set on fire.24
The trial for those prosecuted in the Pulau Senang riot was the longest one in Singapore at the time, lasting 64 days. 18 men were eventually convicted of murder and hanged on 29 October 1965.25
The Pulau Senang settlement closed after the riot. In 1968, Pulau Senang was handed over from the Prisons Department to the Ministry of Interior and Defence.26
In 1984, Pulau Senang – along with Pulau Salu, Pulau Pawai, Pulau Berkas, Pulau Biola and the western region of Pulau Sudong – formed the New Southern Islands Live Firing Area used by the Singapore military for firing exercises. Entry to the islands, their intertidal zones and surrounding seabeds is prohibited.27
1. Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013). Singapore street names: A study of toponymics. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 320. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SA -[TRA])
2. The Free Press. (1837, February 9). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 2; Raffles Light House [Advertisement column 1]. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Archives of India. (1839, February 6). Military Dept, Cons [Microfilm: NAB 1672]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore.
3. Evans, T. (1807). New survey of the Straits of Singapore from Pulo Pesang to Bintang Hill, with the soundings, rocks, shoals etc. taken in the year 1804 by Liet. Thos Evans of HMS Rufsell [Accession no. HC000335]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
4. An exciting outing. (1922, May 15). Malaya Tribune, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Survey Department. Singapore. (1924). Singapore sheet no. 13. Pulau Satu, Pulau Sudong, Pulau Pawai, Pulau Senang, Pulau Biola, Pulau Satumu, Pulau Sakra and other smaller islands [Map accession no. TM000426]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
5. Yang, S., et al. (2011, October 16). The current status of mangrove forests in Singapore. Proceedings of Nature Society, Singapore’s Conference on ‘Nature Conservation for a Sustainable Singapore’, 99–120, pp. 100. Retrieved from Nature Society, Singapore website: https://www.nss.org.sg/documents/Pages%2099-120.%20Yang%20et%20al.,%202013.%20Singapore%20Mangroves.pdf; Ng, P. K. L., Corlett, R. T., & Tan, H. T. W. (Eds.). (2011). Singapore biodiversity: An encyclopedia of the natural environment and sustainable development. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 67, 86. (Call no.: RSING 333.95095957 SIN)
6. The Free Press. (1837, February 9). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 2; National Archives of India. (1839, February 6). Military Dept, Cons [Microfilm: NAB 1672]; National Archives of India. (1853, April 29). Military Dept, Cons [Microfilm: NAB 1672]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore.
7. Geldard, G. (1948, June 6). Robinson Crusoe family find Isle of Ease. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. James, P. L. (1962). Annual report of the Singapore prisons 1960 [Microfilm: NL9476]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 5.
9. Fang, A. (1960, January 24). Island in the news. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Geldard, G. (1948, June 6). Robinson Crusoe family find Isle of Ease. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11.Sim, S. (1950, July 1). Isle of leisure. The Singapore Free Press, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Fang, A. (1960, January 24). Island in the news. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. James, P. L. (1962). Annual report of the Singapore prisons 1960 [Microfilm: NL9476]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 5; Gang detainees: Probe team calls for most rigorous measures. (1960, April 15). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Penal camp to be on ‘Isle of Ease’. (1960, January 22). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Ong, P. B. (1960, August 3). Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) (Amendment) Bill [Vol. 13, cols. 46–48]. Retrieved from Parliament of Singapore website: http://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topichtmlfilename=025_19600803_S0003_T0004
15. Bartlett, V. (1960, November 19). A new look at life for the layabouts. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. First 51 moved to penal island. (1960, June 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. ‘Exiles Isle’ sets a few records of its own. (1960, August 29). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. James, P. L. (1962). Annual report of the Singapore prisons 1960 [Microfilm: NL9476]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 6.
19. Sam, J. (1960, June 14). Sweat, toil on ‘Isle of Ease’. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Richards, A. (1961, October 23). I spend a day on Pulau Senang. The Singapore Free Press, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. James, P. L. (1964) Annual report of the Singapore prisons 1962 [Microfilm: NL18618]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., pp. 8–9.
22.James, P. L. (1962). Annual report of the Singapore prisons 1960 [Microfilm: NL9476]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 6; Nair, C. V. D. (1962, September 29). Island of more ups than downs… The Straits Times, p. 12; Subhas, G. (1961, June 21). Mr. X. The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Nair, C. V. D. (1962, September 29). Island of more ups than downs… The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. All that havoc in 40 mins: Seow. (1963, November 19). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Pulau Senang 18 to hang on Friday. (1965, October 27). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Singapore Prisons Department. (1969). Annual report of the Prisons Department 1968 [Microfilm: NL18618]. Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., p. 1.
27. Republic of Singapore. (1984, November 16). Protected Area (No. 6) Order 1984. Retrieved from Singapore Statutes Online website: https://sso.agc.gov.sg/SL/PAPPA1959-S301-1984
Chua, C. H. J. (Interviewer). (1995, February 28). Oral history interview with Neivelle Tan (Reverend) [Transcript of recording no. 1600/47/10]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
Josey, A. (1980). Pulau Senang: The experiment that failed. Singapore: Times Books International.(Call no.: RSING 365.95957 JOS)
Ong, P. B. (1960, January 22). Settlement at Pulau Senang. Petir, 3 (7), p. 1. [Microfilm: NL9312]
The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 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.