Indictments from our prison system

Singapore is not uniformly majority Chinese with Indians and Malays as the other two significant minority groups. Depending on where and when you look, you can get a different mix. Most of the time, it is of little significance, but sometimes there is reason to ask if more underlies what we see.

Peter Lloyd made an observation in his book Inside Story, based on his experience spending time in Singapore’s prison system. Three in four inmates, he wrote, were Malays and Indians. Behind bars, the Chinese were a minority. Undeniably, his observation was not broad data-based, but drawn from what he could see around him when he himself was a prisoner. On the other hand, the Singapore public doesn’t get much data either; the Prison Service’s website ( provides no statistics. There is no easy way I can disprove him.

Lloyd, a well-known correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with a track record covering the October 2002 Bali bombing and the attempted assassination of Benazir Bhutto in October 2007, was arrested in Singapore in July 2008 and subsequently sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment for possession (of 0.51 grams) and consumption of methamphetamine (Page 75). With time-off for good behaviour, he served five and a half months in Tanah Merah gaol.

His data sample was not large. At any given time, he mixed around with only a few other inmates. Singapore’s prison system, for example, does not have large mess halls. In the interest of security, prisoners are confined to smallish groups called “landings” — I suppose it means the group of prisoners who share the same cluster of cells and exercise yard. Nonetheless, over the months, as prisoners were released and new ones came in, he might have seen a fair number. Furthermore, he met others when he was (twice) in Queenstown Remand Prison in the initial stages, and for a few weeks at Tanah Merah, he conducted several sessions with inmates from other parts of the prison on anger management.

In his book, this observation is a springboard for some ranting about how the Chinese in Singapore lord over the other races, supported by a few juicy quotes he attributes to non-Chinese prison officers themselves. But this should not distract from the nagging questions his observations pose. Is it true that Malays and Indians are a disproportionate number of inmates in our prison system? Does that indicate bias in sentencing? Alternatively, in the absence of bias, does that indicate that Malays and Indians are becoming a permanent underclass.

Permanent underclasses, handicapped by poor education and burdened by poorer job prospects, end up resorting to crime disproportionately.

I don’t know the answer, but it struck me as I read the book that nobody is asking these questions in Singapore. One suspects that it is too “inconvenient” for most Chinese to ask such questions, too threatening to the government to have to deal with such questions, and too muzzled for anybody else to try. Not good.

* * * * *

Two other observations that Lloyd made are worth reporting. The first was about the diary he kept while in jail. He had been warned that its contents would be reviewed by the prison authorities before he could take it out with him upon release. An example of the things he should not include, it was described to him, would be details of security cameras and gates.

That is obviously understandable, and by all indications he was not the least interested in recording such details. Yet on the day of his release, the authorities seized the diary from him. After some to and fro, he learnt that the reason was connected to the thoughts he had penned about the Lee family.

For example, he had noticed how Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter, Lee Wei Ling, (and sister of current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong) had a regular column in the Sunday Times:

At fifty-four and never married, Wei Ling is a doctor with an important job in pediatric neurology, but she does not feel the need to restrict herself to her area of obvious expertise. Obligingly, the Straits Times newspaper provides her with a weekly column in which she sets the world to rights, like an old-fashioned preacher with a bully pulpit.

Lee’s first contribution of 2009 was a startling assertion that Singaporeans are guilty of becoming too soft and comfortable in their affluence.

— Peter Lloyd, Inside Story, Page 270

The above is what he wrote in the book; there’s no way of knowing the tone of what he wrote in the diary. Nonetheless, it begs the question, how does having an opinion of something totally unconnected with prison security be a reason for seizure of a diary? Why is the Lee family’s private reputation being protected by officers of the state whose salaries are paid from the public purse?

* * * * *

Most prisoners have neither work nor rehabilitative training. They spend their time totally locked up, except for a few hours a day in the yard. What little work there is (and for only a handful) is just that of collecting meals from the kitchens and distributing it to other prisoners in the same landing.

There used to be prison workshops, but these have closed, Lloyd wrote. He was told that it was because of the economic climate — Lloyd’s time in jail was the first half of 2009 when the global financial meltdown punched economies in the solar plexus. He made the astute observation that it could only mean that the chief rationale of prison workshops was to exploit cheap labour, because if their aim was rehabilitation (inculcating good work ethic and self-esteem) then some way would have been found to keep them going.

Indeed, an irrefutable point!

The daily routine of prison life was one of obeying orders. Roll calls came several times a day. Inmates had to snap to attention, saying “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, sir”  that when spoken to by prison officers. Prisoners were never told much in advance, not even about their work assignments or movements for the following day. Information was closely guarded on a “need to know” basis.

This is actually the antithesis of rehabilitation. Inducing a culture of meekly obeying orders and not asking too many questions undercuts the person’s ability to re-adjust to life outside. The outside world is not a regimented one. Since external controls on behaviour are few and far between, successful rehabilitation involves acquiring self-awareness and self-discipline. One has to learn to make good decisions for oneself, and making good decisions requires information and practice at balancing different stimuli and conflicting choices.

Making robots out of prisoners almost ensures a high recidivism rate, when they are so ill-adapted to life outside.

Do we have a high recidivism rate? There are no statistics on the Home Ministry or Prison Service websites either. Like prisoners, the Singaporean outside is not encouraged to be curious. Don’t ask too many questions. Be grateful for the tray of food pushed through your hatchdoor. Accept your fate in life. Don’t forget to say, “Yes, sir”.


Addendum (15 March 2011, 01:35h)

A reader informed me that Non-constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim (Workers’ Party) had in fact asked a question about recidivism rates during the recent budget debate. Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam provided some figures that trended upwards:

2 March 2011
Straits Times

Two-year re-offending rate up

The proportion of former jailbirds who commit new offences within two years of being freed is growing.

The uptrend in the two-year recidivism rate can be seen in the figures given by Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam on Monday.

The rate rose from 25.1 per cent in 2006 to 26.5 per cent the following year and 27.3 per cent in 2008, Mr Shanmugam disclosed in a written reply to Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim.

She wanted to know what the rate of re-offending was for people released from prison, reformative training and juvenile homes from 2003 to 2005.

The picture is similar for those who complete reformative training, with the recidivism rate climbing yearly from 20.1 per cent to 23.1 per cent to 28.4 per cent from 2006 to 2008.

The recidivism rate for those in juvenile homes, which comes under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), is measured differently.

Its rate is the proportion of local and foreign offenders charged with a new offence within three years of their release from an MCYS programme, like probation.

In 2003, the recidivism rate for those in juvenile homes was almost half, at 48.1 per cent. The figure has since fallen slightly. From 2004 to 2006, the rate was 43.6 per cent, 33.6 per cent and 38.8 per cent respectively.

Many thanks to the reader whom I believe wishes to remain anonymous.

21 Responses to “Indictments from our prison system”

  1. 1 Liew Kai Khiun 14 March 2011 at 19:30

    Well reviewed. The government may refute what the author has written, but it is precisely the absence of any serious public discussion that rightly or wrongly, the prison system in sg has been a myth for many. As for ethnic representations, according to the Vietnamese-Aussie inmate who was hung subsequently, he did mention that Hokkien was the lingua franca in prison.

    • 2 yawningbread 15 March 2011 at 01:58

      Hokkien as lingua franca does not necessarily refute observations of high numbers of Indians and Malays. There are a significant number of Indians mixed in with Chinese gangs, and their Hokkien is a million times better than mine 🙂

  2. 3 Leuk75 14 March 2011 at 22:38

    This is truly an interesting personal account by Lloyd which confirms what a lot of colleagues and myself have observed in the public healthcare arena. A disproportionately large number of inpatients (restructured hospitals) tend to be Malays and Indians.

    They also tend to occupy more of the C class wards and have a far more complicated range of social problems that impact directly on their ability to manage their underlying chronic disease(s). The number of Malay and Indian patients who require public assistance and medifund for their medical care is also in my observation higher than the Chinese.

    I doubt that anyone in Khaw Boon Wan’s ministry will publish such details publicly. Unfortunately, public hospitals with the type of workload and demand for better, cheaper and faster service can realistically only do that much on empowering patients. E.g. diabetes to a large extent, is dependent on patients’ personal control and knowledge about diet, exercise and the need for insulin dosage adjustments. No prizes for this: the better educated (and economically more well off) are far more likely to achieve good control and have reduced rates of hospitalisations and complications.

    Sadly, I noticed a large portion of our toughest patients with lots of social issues and inability to cope with their own health and finances tend to be the Malays and Indians. Related to socioeconomic and educational levels?

    You bet. And like the prisons described in your article, there is little being done to “rehabilitate” them. Much easier to just dismiss them as being non-compliant and not proactive when the reality is they have bigger worries outside the hospitals than to think of how much carbs and fats they are consuming. A healthcare underclass in the making? Shudder.

  3. 4 Robox 15 March 2011 at 01:24

    This is an issue that I had raised online several years ago, and it was based on:

    1. my observations of brutal police treatment of Indians in public that persists till today, as well as their equally public ill treatment of Malays that seems to have lessened in the laast decade or so;

    2. suspicions voiced by individuals from both ethnic groups seperately that sentencing appears to be harsher for members of the two groups;

    3. my knowledge of empirical studies conducted in Australia with regards to the Aboriginal population, and another from Chicago with regards to the Black population revealing a) higher rates of police harassment of the two poplations; b) higher incarceration rates in the two populations; and, c) harsher sentencing for the same crimes committed by the members of the two populations compared to that for the white population. (Not an exhaustive list of the findings from the two studies.)

    Especially with #3, and my own knowledge of the extent to which racism exists at all levels in Singapore, I asked myself the question: What is so special about Singapore that we would be so different from Australia and Chicago? Indeed, I am tempted to say that in all likelihood, we are probably worse off precisely because of the denial the country is in over these issues.

    However, I might point out that, possibly as a result of my own questioning online, Sylvia Lim did raise precisely the same quesions in Parliament.

    She was sent back to her seat by K Shanmugam with the question: “How do the answers to her questions help us in our understanding of penology?”

    He however, added that the government will give access to anyone who wishes to make an empirical study of the issue. I found it hard to believe that a race-obssessed government that keeps meticulous race-based records and statistics hadn’t already made such a study.

    Or if they had, the revelations would have been too damning.

  4. 5 Robox 15 March 2011 at 04:49

    “Permanent underclasses, handicapped by poor education and burdened by poorer job prospects, end up resorting to crime disproportionately.”

    There is a vicious cycle aspect to this that I find is discussed very little in Singapore.

    Many who resort to crime, are imprisoned, and then released also find that their police records hamper their ability to find the gainful employment that could have prevented them from resorting to crime in the first place, Yellow Ribbon or no.

    Then they are left with no choice, or inclination but to commit crime again.

    I think that the problem lies with rehabilative services, which from your description of it in the article, is truly pathetic.

  5. 6 Klingon 15 March 2011 at 05:45

    Dear Alex…thank you for raising questions and issues which cause discomfort.

    As much as I admire Sylvia, I think she is at times timid in relation to the intent of her assertions and conclusions. Her speeches are dense with quotes and colored with statistics.

    Hence Shanmugam’s very timely question to her. Did she answer him? probably not. Neither did LTK answer LHL when the latter challenged him with the question if he wanted WKS to resign. I know it must be difficult for her but she needs to know how to respond to Shanmugam’s challenge and not back down. Sylvia, “knife” the tiger (the issue at hand) in your speeches

    • 7 yawningbread 15 March 2011 at 12:06

      If you look carefully at the appended Straits Times story, you’d see that Shanmugam’s reply was not delivered orally, but in written form. Thus, Sylvia Lim would not have an opportunity to raise a follow up question.

      • 8 Robox 15 March 2011 at 23:10

        Hi YB, just thought I’d mention something about the ST artickle that you appended. (I like it when reader comments prompts responese such as this in the interests of further investigation of the issue.)

        This is newspaper report from the recent Budget debates, but the one I referred to – I did not note the newspaper source – was from at least a year and half ago and and reported Sylvia Lim’s questions to K Shanmugam as well; it was identical, if not wholly at least in part, to the questions that I said I had raised online and corresponding closely to the empirical studies I cited.

        Still, this report might point to Sylvia Lim’s personal interest in the issue (though this time it is not focussed on ethnicity) like issues affecting the disabled clearly are. (I’ll see what i can do about researching the other article.)

      • 9 Robox 15 March 2011 at 23:50

        Found it. And I’m going to quote a few lines from the article I referred to:,11947,


        [K Shamugam] also responded to Non-Constituency MP Sylvia Lim, who said the Government had been reluctant to publish figures on ethnicity and crimes.

        Mr Shanmugam questioned the need to make such information public. ‘How in the world would publishing details on ethnic composition (of prisoners) help in penological research?’ he asked.

        Serious researchers, he said, could always make a formal request to the prison authorities. They would then be able to visit the prisons in person and compile data directly.


  6. 10 Robox 15 March 2011 at 08:06

    I just want to elaborate on my point of “police harassment” that I made above, because from past experience in speaking about it, I have found that many people don’t have an adequate understanding of all that the harassment entails.

    Police harassment – the infamous spot checks that are not as random as they make it out to be but very targetted, and often on the basis of race – frequently does not end with the harassment. Harassment is conducted with the specific intention of increasing the likelihood of arrest leading to conviction.

    While one might argue that there would have been nothing wrong with that harassment if the person who is apprehended did in fact something that was wrong, the converse of that is that the demographic that is not targetted for harassment, ethnic Chinese in this case, would have individuals who may have done wrong but are able to get away with from not being targetted for harassment.

    Additionally, harassment can also end up with arrest and conviction if the person being apprehended had not done anything wrong but had lashed out in anger at the police for experiencing the harassment.

  7. 11 prettyplace 15 March 2011 at 14:20

    Great article Alex.
    The book is a must read.

    More needs to be done on rehabilitation in Singapore.
    The stigma of knowing someone or being incacerated has long held back proper rehabilitation.

    I would not be surprised of the minority numbers equaling the majority Chinese. There is another factor of short sentences and long sentences, which must be noted and the numbers accounted for aas well.

  8. 12 Christopher 15 March 2011 at 15:00

    This has been a largely intriguing read (with reference to both the post and the comments by other readers) on the underlying social fabric of Singapore.

    I agree with Robox’s observations to a large extent. It should come as no surprise if our government routinely conducts race-based statistical analysis to track different demographics’ progression in society over time. The lack of published findings could probably indicate that not everyone is doing as well as what we’d like to believe. Furthermore, no one can disagree (with the politically correct statement) that the publishing of such statistics could be potentially sensitive and damaging to the pride of the minority groups in our nation.

    All that being said, if we are to admit that the minority groups in Singapore are disadvantaged in one way or another, I think it is most important to consider if they are the result of circumstance or policy.

    In terms of policy, I would hardly think that any socio-economic disadvantage faced by our minority groups are the direct result of government policy. On the contrary, I believe that Singapore has good and fair policies in place in regard to race that not only do not discriminate, but they also promote multi-racialism, and serve to improve the social mobility of the minority races. In this regard, the government does subtly admit that there is a socio-economic gap that exists between the race majority and minority.

    (I would just like to disclaim at this point that I am not pro-PAP or anti-PAP, but there are different government policies for which I am for and against.)

    Hence we are left with circumstance. Adopting a pragmatic point of view, different races have different cultures and these will inevitably churn out different socio-economic outcomes. Closing the socio-economic gap would require one or more groups of people to adopt a different set of thinking, or adapt their lifestyle accordingly for progress (for the lack of a better term). This is a challenge that any multi-racial nation would face.

    Indeed, the strength of our social fabric is not as strong as we would like it to be. There is more to be done and (here I digress) I personally think that a larger demographic of foreigners or ‘new citizens’ as the government terms it, would serve to move in another direction. Regardless, if circumstances dictate different outcomes for different groups, then I wonder if the current domestic policy instruments are sufficient in compensation.

    In terms of socio-economic termed racial equality, Singapore has a long way to go. Education, good governance and anti-discrimination laws are policies that will be truly effective only in the long run. Along the way, racial tensions exist and we will always be vulnerable to the larger sentiments carried by neighbouring countries, both culturally Islamic-dominant today. In reference to P N Balji’s commentary in Today, I would personally like to see the next generation of national leaders step forward to address these issues openly and frankly. Leaving them underlying everyone serves no good to society, and open discussion on this at the time of election would be crucial to demonstrate a leader’s conviction to serve our nation.

    • 13 Ponder Stibbons 16 March 2011 at 05:55

      I disagree that Singapore’s policies good and fair with respect to race.

      1. SAP schools were set up only for Mandarin speakers. No such equivalent for other languages.

      2. Students are forced to learn their ‘mother tongue’ as their second language, with only a few exceptions made for those who were brought up overseas etc. This means that most Malays are cannot learn Mandarin, the language of the racial majority, as a second language. Instead, they have to learn Malay, which is economically less useful. You see far more jobs asking for Mandarin speakers than jobs asking for Malay speakers. If your parents are Chinese, you get to learn Mandarin as a second language in public schools. If they are not, you have to go and learn it by yourself through other channels. Thus language policy cements the socio-economic dominance of the Chinese by making it harder for non-Chinese students to learn Mandarin.

      Obviously, it’s also an issue for other non-Chinese ethnic groups.

      3. There are many ethnic groups whose mother tongue is none of Mandarin, Malay or Tamil. Some Indians for example speak Hindi instead. “Though the government offers these languages as subjects in the national examinations, it does not fund or provide facilities, teachers, or teacher training for classes in these non-official languages” [source]. Instead, students attend community-run weekend classes to learn these languages. Therefore, if you are an Indian learning a non-Tamil Indian language, you are paying taxes that support second language education for the three ‘official’ second languages but get no support for your second language.

      4. There are all sorts of overt and less overt put-downs of Malays in the national media, and in remarks made by ruling party bigwigs. This has an impact on the Malay community’s morale, and can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

      5. SAF policy. Need I say more? Overt defences of this policy also contribute to point 4. above.

  9. 15 Criticalist 15 March 2011 at 20:17

    “Education… are policies that will be truly effective only in the long run”. One need only visit the NT streams in the neighbourhood schools to see that there is an overrepresentation of the minority races in these classes. Streaming propogates that racial inequality, because it is automatically assumed that the lower streamed students are not capable of academic studies, which are needed for them to climb up the socio-economic ladder. Instead, schools prepare these students for life in the ITE, taking it as a foregone conclusion.

    Yet, streaming is one of the sacred cows in Singapore’s education system (the other being the ‘meritocracy’ construct), and it is very unlikely streaming will be abolished, despite research showing the de-streaming actually helps to promote educational equity.

  10. 16 Prison Volunteer 15 March 2011 at 23:29

    Dear Alex,

    I was a prison volunteer for two years and I can vouch that there is an over-over-over representation of Malays and Indians in prison especially those under 25.

    Among Chinese prisoners, I noticed that many were much older.

    Most were also in for crimes like rioting, petty thefts etc.

    I signed a NDA so I can’t give my name here.

  11. 17 Criticalist 16 March 2011 at 00:15

    Just read your Comments Guidelines, and realised that I should point out that “research showing the de-streaming” should have at least one reference:
    Jeannie Oakes, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, 2nd edition. Yale University Press 2005.
    (Oakes has written extensively on ‘detracking’ or ‘destreaming’ as it would be called here.)
    An alternative, shorter, draft article can be found here and makes for interesting reading for those who have never heard of ‘detracking’ before:

    Click to access Oakes.pdf

    Some kind soul has scanned some introductory chapters from her book here:

    Click to access oakes.pdf

  12. 18 LiveJustOnce 16 March 2011 at 02:15

    Dear all

    After reading the post, and being one who had been been away from lala land and lived in one of these prisons for many year, may you allow me to offer my two and half cents worth.

    I guessed the author of the book, Peter (I have not read the book but only through the post) has missed an important factor. It is the prisons segregation policy of the inmates. Once a convict had been sentenced in court, the prisons bus will come and fetch him to Queentown Remand, a.k.a the Interchange. The prisons will post him to a prison that suits the risk level of the inmate, namely 1) the length of his sentence 2) the nature of his crime (drug vs non-drug related offence, violent vs non-violent and maybe molest/rape vs non-m.v) . Ok, these only applies to men as women goes to the only women prison.

    Tanah Merah Prison is meant for 2 kinds of inmates. Firstly, they are the drug-related convicts, at least during my time there from late 90s till early 00s.(Ok I admit I was a drug-related convict) Thus the question of whether the minority race are over-represented in prison should be rephrased as whether the minority races are over-represented in committing drug-related offences and thus following other questions Peter posed in this sphere of convicts.

    The second kind of inmates, or rather they are not inmates because they are not convicted as they are detained under the ISA without trial and sentence for posing threat to the society for alleged gang-related activities or drug-trafficking activities. However, these detainees are Chinese in majority.

    My account of the representation from late 90s to early 00s of the Malays was maybe abit higher than what I could observe on the street but definitely the chinese are the majority. As to age range, I would second Prison Volunteer.

    Although I did not sign any NDA with the Prisons, I bear the stigma of being an ex-convict and thus will not give my name. =)

    Maybe you guys will know when I write a book myself.

    Peace and Good day.
    Live Just Once

  13. 19 LP89 16 March 2011 at 04:57

    Been there, Done that……….Point of view…….

    As a person who is of the minority race and spend some time incarcerated, i would like to say just a few things……
    Firstly, there is no such thing as Rehabilitations in the Prisons or Drug Rehabilitation Centres…..Secondly, all the workshops in the so called institutions are for cheap labours….Finally, all the colourful Ribbons projects (Yellow Ribbon) are only an Advertisement to the Public and World as a whole……..
    Why, i say so, is that……after having gone thru’ many interviews and seeking help from those Rehabilitative Firms such as SCORE and many more, I was always turned down due to my previous records……Until, one fine day I managed to secure a job thru’ a Private Employment Agency…..I was working at an Aviation Company, till the Sept 11 incident cropped up, but for your info it was a year later, that means in the year 2002. All of the workers with previous records were asked to leave the jobs and thru’ no faults of us……No one helped me secure the job in the first place, but, i had to leave the job thru’ the orders of the Government….I made my own efforts to clear my stand and volunteered to take a Polygraph test……Only, after that i was allowed to go back to work there…..So, is all those so called Ribbons helping us ex-cons? Is there any rehabilitations for us behind bars? What is the Government doing to help us ex-cons? Till, the present day the Authorities can come up to my flat and pick me up, Handcuff me, after all these years under the pretense of Suspect……All readers do give leave your comments……Cause, I would like to know how it feels to hear from the Horse mouth itself………

  14. 20 Robox 16 March 2011 at 23:26

    Alex, may I ask why the comments that I posted more than 8 hours ago have not been published?

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