In short, during 1960, Senang was used as an experimental prison facility to rehabilitate secret society members. Unfortunately, this experiment failed drastically and several officers, including the superintendent were killed savagely on the island during an organised riot. I tried searching the internet for more information but there were basically none, except a short extract from wikipedia and the national library. It seems as if this failed and shamed incident had been erased from the world wide web somehow...?
Luckily, there was still a tiny 100 page book in the National Library reference collection, titled "Pulau Senang, the experiment that failed" and I spent about 3 hours half lying on the comfortable sofa reading it. It was an enjoyable read, as the author said, ...almost like a fiction story that became true...
It all started when our first democratic government was formed, by PAP of course, in 1959. At that time, secret societies were rampant with many deaths from the numerous gang fights occuring in Singapore. In order to maintain law and order, hundreds of gangsters were arrested and jailed without trial. At the same time, the prison system was revamped to ensure proper conditions for the convicts to live in. Having such a high influx of people in Changi prison together with other ethics and security reasons, the Pulau Senang Rehabilitation Settlement was concieved.
Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton is the guy who brought this experiment to life. He held an idealistic presumption that "every violent lawless men could find their own way back to decent society given a proper chance and hard work." and he strongly believed that his purpose in life was to make good citizens out of thugs. An irish, he was an imposing figure much feared and respected by the convicts and was described as a natural leader and builder. Leading the first batch of gangsters into the wild Senang, they built everything from scratch; a settlement with roads, water and electricity, workshops, canteens, domitories, cinema and community hall.
According to this system, these gangsters were given a chance to return to society. After spending one year in Changi prison, they have the choice to volunteer to Senang whereby they will be taught a trade like plumbing, hair-cutting, farming etc. Their performance and attitude were monitored and eventually if the rehabitation goes well, a recommendation will be given to allow them to return to the society. If they do not volunteer in this programme and stayed in Changi prison, their chance of returning home is virtually zero. Dutton was the one person that determine whether they can leave as a free man.
This experiment was not a total disaster. In fact, in a short span of 3 years, 400 detainees were successfully rehabilitated at Senang. So what went wrong? On 12 July 1963, a massive mutiny occured with the gangsters armed with work parangs and changkols. The settlement was razed to the ground in a mere 40 minutes, with Daniel Dutton being brutally hacked and burnt to death, together with 2 other officers. Major James, his superior in Changi prison testified that the offenders had presumably thought that they will be freed by destroying Senang since there wasn't any space in the other prisons and also with Dutton's death, Senang could not be rebuilt. Several of them tried to escaped by the prison boat but it was rammed and sunk by a Custom boat that gave chased.
The riot was promptly stopped when re-enforcements arrived, with all the rioters surrendering volunteeringly. Some of them testified that this incident started because of the resentment that Dutton sent back a group of carpenter detainees to Changi prison as they refused to work on a jetty during the wee hours. But witnesses testified that the plot to riot hatch a few days even before this incident occurred. Even so, Dutton was complacent after informers told him the news as he felt there will be sufficient support from the other detainees in case anything went wrong. Somemore, firearms were prohibited in the island but this was because the fears of them being acquired by the gangsters since they vastly outnumber the officers.
And so 58 people were trialed and 18 were convicted of murder, where they were hanged on the same day. As a result of this riot, the penal experiment came to a halt and the island was out of bounds till 1968 when it was converted to a bombing range for the military.