Murder in a penal colony in Singapore

Murder in a penal colony in Singapore
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.

SINGAPORE - 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."

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