Every Friday on Pulau Senang, boatman Mohamed Bin Poh’s task was to fetch the imam to lead the congregational prayer for the Muslim detainees on the island.

On 12 July 1963, he overslept and was awoken by an exploding generator at around 1130am. Such was the scale of the explosion, he believed you could see the smoke from Pulau Sebarok hill.

Better known as Ahmad, he realised something was not right on the Isle of Ease.

That fateful day, a significant number of detainees rioted and killed Superintendent Daniel Stanley Dutton and his three assistants. The island was used as a penal reform experiment – to transform Pulau Senang into a gaol without bars in 1960. The experiment failed, Ahmad said with 18 men found guilty of murder and hanged.

Then 72-year-old remembers that day clearly. There were two hills on the island, one was named the prisons’ hill, where the prisoners stayed, and the other was the quarters’ hill, where the wardens lived.

Encik, you better run. They killed the warden.

Mohamed Bin Poh, boatmen on Pulau Senang in the 1960s

Fight until die or KO.

Mohamed Bin Poh, boatmen on Pulau Senang in the 1960s

He managed to escape by running and jumping to the sea to reach his boat. “I was in my short pants – no shirt, no nothing – until two at night,” he said.

When asked if he felt that he could have been killed that day, he felt the prisoners were his friends. He played football with them everyday – on the valley in between the two hills – even though he only worked for a few months.

His job was simply to ferry prisoners from one point to another, or transporting wood with them as they cut down trees. Ahmad – born and raised on Pulau Semakau – witnessed first-hand the hard labour these prisoners went through.

For example, the old jetty was built with their own hands – freezing at two in the morning when the tide was low enough to cut the reef. There would be almost 200 prisoners – total of 320 in 1963 – working all the way till seven in the morning – and they continued to work throughout the day.

Ahmad did not find the prisoners intimidating but they sure were aggressive. He remembers Saturday morning fights because they were from different gangs. He said: “Fight until die or KO.”

Personally for him, his routine was meant staying on Pulau Senang for two weeks before having three off days, usually returning home to Pulau Semakau. His father was from Sulawesi, and at 15 followed his uncle to the island.

“In the olden days in Singapore, if you come in you do not need a passport,” he said with a smile.

In the olden days in Singapore, if you come in you do not need a passport,” he said with a smile.

Mohamed Bin Poh, boatmen on Pulau Senang in the 1960s

Funnily enough, he remembers Superintendent Dutton visiting Semakau regularly for banana suckers to plant on Pulau Senang – as he was on good terms with the Penghulu (village chief). Ahmad was the secretary at that time for the Penghulu, because he was the only one who could write in English. He was still a fishermen during the early days of the penal reform experiment.

When there was a vacancy to be a boatman on Pulau Senang in 1963, he applied as with many other islanders from Semakau. He served in the Prisons from 21 June 1963 till 30 September 1968, evident from his Certificate of Service and Character. He then worked at Port of Singapore before it changed to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore – and has stayed till today.

The Pulau Semakau native was resettled in 1977 – a moment of sadness he recalls for everyone on the island. Then, they only paid three dollars for house maintenance he said, while collecting fresh water from Pulau Bukom.

Now, living expenses for the house is $1000. “Now Singapore very stress,” he said, “how to find $1000?” As most of his friends remained fishermen, he was one of the lucky ones who went back to school and got the relevant qualifications when he was working.

“If you see now all my friends, they just go to West Coast beach to sleep and makan over there,” Ahmad said. Life was not as free as compared their island, he adds.

Such was the pain of life away from Pulau Semakau, he believes some even died on West Coast beach.

“They passed away in their sleep.”