In Singapore’s early years, the Indian population grew exponentially after the island became a penal colony
A penal colony is a distant or overseas settlement established for receiving criminals. Criminals are punished through isolation from society and made to do forced labour—a method employed mostly by the English, French, and Russians. Today, this is seldom practiced and most penal colonies have been abolished.
. In 1825, Singapore’s first batch of Indian convicts arrived, having been first transported from Madras to Bencoolen, and then transferred here to serve their sentences.
The colonial government in Singapore favoured the transfer of Indian prisoners, as they saw it as a plentiful influx of cheap labour. Irish architect and Superintendent of Public Works George Dromgold Coleman, for one, made extensive use of convict labour
Convicts were taught skills ranging from carpentry to photography, to maximise their contribution during confinement and enable them to earn an honest living after release. Given the labour shortage, fundamental nation-building projects were completed by the convict population, like the construction of Fort Canning in 1860 and St. Andrew’s Cathedral in 1862. Indian convicts also came to the country’s aid in other ways—extinguishing fires as an ad hoc fire brigade or helping to disperse rioters during the island-wide riots of 1851.
The lack of revenue
Insufficient revenue to employ official guards meant convicts with exemplary behaviour were promoted to a leadership role to supervise other convicts.
for guards, coupled with prison reform and a progressive convict management system, granted the Indian convicts many freedoms in Singapore. They were split into six hierarchical classes
First-class convicts were allowed out the prison and could hold their own jobs. Second-class convicts could work as low-ranking officers, and were employed in hospitals and public offices without shackles. Third-class convicts worked as paid labourers in roads and public works. Fourth-class convicts were usually new arrivals, and needed to serve probation. They were paid for their work in food rations. Fifth-class convicts were demoted from higher classes for troublesome behaviour and required more vigilance to prevent them from escaping. Sixth-class convicts included weak or old convicts, who did light work or no work at all.
which determined their level of freedom, with the highest class of convicts enjoying almost total freedom, having allowance to hold their own jobs and only having to appear for roll call once every 15 days.
Newly-arrived convicts were housed in sheds in town until a proper jail was constructed in 1841. Because of this, there was little to no prisoner control apart from the occasional roll call by a police officer.
Well-behaved prisoners were also given the freedom to go into town for personal purchases. Model convicts could work as hired servants for town residents after their official workday, while others were employed as orderlies and servants by government officials. There was ample demand for these fit convicts, who were paid for their labour. Besides working in public works projects, convict labour also served urgent roles such as firefighters, tiger hunters and riot-control peons.
Having a regular income meant that some convicts could save up to purchase land and live comfortably in Singapore in their later years. This encouraged many convicts to reform and integrate into society. By 1842, Singapore had approximately 1,200 Indian convicts. This number grew to an estimated 2,275 in 1860.
century convict administration in Singapore was considered a progressive model of convict management that emphasised training, reformation and useful employment. The convict administration’s success drew many observers—from Japan to Dutch East Indies—to study its applicability for their own societies.
However, a growing distrust of Indian convicts began to set in following the Indian Mutiny
The British’s business dominance, disrespect of Sepoy soldiers’ religion in work practices and unfair employment conditions fuelled rising tensions between Sepoys and British soldiers. When rumours spread that the new rifle cartridges were greased by pork and beef fat—substances prohibited for consumption by the religions of the Sepoy soldiers—the tension exploded. This eventually triggered backlash from the Sepoys, starting with individual attacks to a mutiny where the Sepoys reclaimed rule in Delhi under a reinstated Mughal emperor named Bahadur Shah II. The uprising contributed to many massacres from Delhi to Kanpur.
of 1857. The colonial government began to perceive the Indian convict population in Singapore as a threat to security. By then, the value of convict labours had also fallen as Chinese labourers began to fill the needs of contractors. The prison became a tourist attraction in the 1860s. While the system of convict labour ended in Singapore in 1873, many ex-convicts who benefitted from the progressive prison system chose to settle down in Singapore permanently.