Murder in a penal colony in Singapore

Jean Tay weaves Shi Nai An’s The Water Margin and John Milton’s Paradise Lost into her play, Senang. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Jean Tay weaves Shi Nai An’s The Water Margin and John Milton’s Paradise Lost into her play, Senang. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Playing the prisoners in Senang are (clockwise from back row left) Ong Kian Sin, Tay Kong Hui, Rei Poh, Neo Hai Bin, Oliver Chong and Peter Sau. -- PHOTO: TAN NGIAP HENG FOR DRAMA BOX
Playing the prisoners in Senang are (clockwise from back row left) Ong Kian Sin, Tay Kong Hui, Rei Poh, Neo Hai Bin, Oliver Chong and Peter Sau. -- PHOTO: TAN NGIAP HENG FOR DRAMA BOX

Playwright Jean Tay brings to life a little-known tale of Pulau Senang, where brutal prison riots took place in 1963

About 15km south of Singapore, the island of Pulau Senang lies uninhabited and off-limits, used almost solely for military live-firing exercises.

Playwright Jean Tay, 39, stumbled on the island's dark and bloody past as a penal colony quite by accident - and it has since become the subject of her upcoming play, Senang.

Several years ago, she read a book by the late British journalist Alex Josey, titled Cold-Blooded Murders, while researching another play about Singapore's Sisters' Islands.

While the first half of the book detailed the Sunny Ang murder case connected to Sisters' Islands, the second half was dedicated to the shockingly brutal 1963 riots on the former penal colony of Pulau Senang.

Tay tells Life!: "Sometimes, there are these old stories that you hear about from parents or grandparents. This is something I had never heard about before."

Pulau Senang had started out as an experiment in penal reform in 1960. Superintendent Daniel Dutton, an Irishman, believed he could reform criminals through hard labour - without the use of weapons to police them.

But as the hardened men were made to construct their own prison settlement, anger and resentment began to fester.

During the fatal riots, nearly all 316 detainees revolted against Dutton. They killed and mutilated him, then burnt almost everything to the ground.

The play stars an all-male ensemble comprising Oliver Chong, Ong Kian Sin, Tay Kong Hui, Peter Sau, Rei Poh and Neo Hai Bin, all familiar faces in the industry, and Lasalle graduate Chad O'Brien, who will play Dutton.

Directed by Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Drama Box, Senang will run at the School of the Arts Studio Theatre from May 15 to 25. It will be performed in Mandarin, English, Hokkien and Cantonese with English and Chinese surtitles.

Playwright and teacher Cheow Boon Seng helped Tay translate segments of the work from English to Mandarin, with input from Kok and the cast.

Kok, 48, says: "I always get asked this question - Why is it that we've never heard of this dramatic story which is so exciting? It's a good question. It goes to show how we have really not treated part of our history - whether it's good stories or boring stories - we've never really taken them as part of our DNA, in being a nation, of who we are."

Tay, author of much-lauded plays Everything But The Brain (2005) and Boom (2008), was hesitant to tackle the subject at first, even though she was thoroughly hooked by the story.

She says: "I felt I was the last person who could write about a group of male criminals on an island - it was so foreign to me. I was trying to think of ways in which I could unlock this play if I were to write it and I was thinking about these characters who seemed so much larger than life. Not very much was known about most of the detainees, just a line or two about their names and ages."

So she is drawing from two canonical texts in Chinese and English that will be woven into the play: The Water Margin (1589) by Shi Nai An and Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton.

The Water Margin depicts the strong bonds of brotherhood on Mountain Liang, where a band of outlawed criminals finds a sort of refuge, while the epic poem of Paradise Lost traces mankind's fall from grace as Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden.

Tay says: "Paradise Lost was the obvious choice for Daniel Dutton and the idea of building a paradise and then losing the paradise was very strong.

"When I did more research about secret societies, I realised that when they joined a secret society, people sometimes actually invoked Liang Shan (Mount Liang). So with this idea of creating your own rules and living by your own rules and the idea of brotherhood, The Water Margin seemed to be the perfect platform."

Director Kok was also drawn to the rich historical context of the work.

He says: "I think for many years in Singapore, many things were written from personal stories. But I think the consciousness now is that it's not just about personal stories, but we're really in an environment whereby all our personal memories are somehow connected in some way in a larger narrative.

"So when you look for this sort of historical event, you realise that it reflects certain little personal stories, which can be very good mirrors of who we are and what we are now."

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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