18 hanged for role in Pulau Senang prison riot

Inmates had set fire to buildings and attacked staff, killing superintendent and two attendants

Eighteen men were hanged before dawn on Oct 29, 1965, for their role in a bloody riot on Pulau Senang, bringing a close to a notorious episode in Singapore history and a trial which was Singapore's longest at that time, at 64 days.

The men, inmates of the penal colony on Pulau Senang, had been convicted of murdering colony superintendent Daniel Dutton and attendants Arumugam Veerasingham and Tan Kok Hian on July 12, 1963.

The penal colony on Pulau Senang, south of Singapore, was started in 1960 as a new way of rehabilitating hardcore gangsters through manual labour in a prison without bars. But it ended in disaster when more than 70 of the inmates on the island rioted in 1963, setting fire to buildings and attacking staff there with knives and bottles.

In November that year, 59 inmates went on trial before a seven-man jury on charges of murder and rioting. Eighteen were sentenced to death, while the others were acquitted or received jail terms for lesser offences.

The 18 men were represented in their appeal against their death sentences by lawyer David Marshall, but lost their cases in April 1965. A day before the hanging, relatives and friends of the condemned men visited them at Changi.

A brother of one of the men, Chew Thiam Huat, or "Baby Chye", said: "My brother was a star footballer. He played for Singapore once. He had a bright future. Then he was arrested and sent to Pulau Senang. Then the riots, and now this."

Madam Lim Ah Mei, 64, mother of another condemned man, Hoe Hock Hai, said between sobs: "My son is only 24."

Pulau Senang, sometimes called the isle of ease, was in the news the same week, as a possible venue where barter trade between Singapore and Indonesia could resume.

There were plans for a business complex to be built on the island to handle the trade.

The island already had two small godowns and a small office on its western end, set up more than a year earlier as the idea of moving the barter centre from Telok Ayer Basin to Pulau Senang was mooted.

But this was dropped after Malaysia later banned boats from Indonesia, because of hostilities between the two countries.

In October 1965, the idea was raised again as it was thought that Malaysia's security would not be risked with the resumption of barter trade, given adequate security measures and the confinement of the trade to Pulau Senang.

Under Singapore's proposal, Indonesian traders can approach Pulau Senang only from the south-west, while Singapore traders will approach it from the north-east, along a controlled corridor.

But the plan was opposed by Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who held an emergency Cabinet meeting on this.

"The benefit which Singapore expects to derive from this is out of all proportion to the threat to the very existence of both Malaysia and Singapore," said the Malaysian Cabinet.

More importantly, it was shot down by Indonesia.

Still, as ties gradually improved, barter trade was resumed between Singapore and Indonesia - Indonesian traders were allowed into Telok Ayer Basin from August 1966. Barter trade between Malaysia and Indonesia resumed four months later.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 18 hanged for role in Pulau Senang prison riot. Subscribe