Changi Prison to close doors on history of suffering

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am

IN A few years, bulldozers will begin moving in to carry out the death sentence on Singapore's notorious Changi Prison, putting an end to a harrowing history of incarceration, execution and torture.

Outside its dour, ageing walls, piling has begun on the foundations for a hi-tech complex, covering 47.9 hectares, that will meet all the island's prison and rehabilitation needs. Few will be sad to see the old prison go.

The prison was built by the British during colonial times in 1936 to house up to 650 criminals. Four years later, they found themselves locked inside.

After the fall of Singapore, when allied forces surrendered to the Japanese during World War II in 1942, 3,500 white men, women and children were rounded up and packed into Changi, including Australians, Dutch and Americans.

In the traumatic 3.5 years that followed, tens of thousands of Western prisoners of war passed through its gates, many subjected to starvation and sadistic treatment. An unknown number never came out.

Visitors to Changi Prison's public museum, opened in 1988, can read first-hand accounts by the POWs of being covered in petrol and burned, of being electrocuted, and of being scorched with cigarettes on sensitive parts of their bodies by interrogators. Thousands were shipped out to perform forced labour.

Changi's cells could not accommodate the influx, so POWs built their own makeshift shelters in the courtyards. Prison food was insufficient, so some planted vegetables.

When the Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, 17,000 were in a prison designed for 650.

Changi remains to this day Singapore's foremost maximum security men's prison, housing inmates serving sentences of more than 12 years or those waiting on death row.

Those who have recently been inside say the cells have barely changed since 1936; they are spartan, with no windows, and house three to five inmates each.

The museum, which attracts 11,000 visitors a month, will move to a new site next year a kilometre away, to make way for Changi's replacement, which should be completed in eight to 10 years.

Also on the move will be a replica of the prison chapel the POWs built inside Changi which adjoins the museum - a simple wooden structure with thatched roof and walls covered with emotive notes from survivors and relatives of those who died who have visited the chapel to pay homage.

One recent visitor, Japanese tourist Nick Nishiwaki, wrote in the museum's comment book: 'I didn't know the truth till I came here.'