On 24 June 1948, a week following a recent spate of violent and fatal attacks in the Federation of Malaya made by the Communist Party of Malaya (CMP), Singapore declared a state of emergency (The Singapore Free Press, 24 June 1948). With this emergency declared, the colonial government was free to arrest and detain anyone without trial. In anticipation of the large number of detainees, three quarantine wards of St. John’s Island were converted into political detention centre within two weeks after the emergency was declared.
A newspaper announcement to inform the public that St. John’s Island would be a political detention centre was made again on 11 September 1948.
Sure enough, on 20th September 1948, the political detention centre received one of its largest batch of 200 detainees from Malaysia.
Other than members from the CMP, Mayfair Musical and Dramatic Association (MMDA) (The Straits Times, 4 October 1951) and the Muslim League Party led by Abdul Karim Ghani (The Singapore Free Press, 7 August 1951) People’s Association Party (PAP) members were also within premises surrounded by tall barbed wire fencing for anti-colonial acts following the end of the Second World War. These included Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and Devan Nair, who were sent to island in 1953 and released only in 1959 when Singapore was granted self-government by the British and the PAP was returned to power. Devan Nair was to later become Singapore’s 3rd President in 1981.
Devan Nair recalls his stay in St. John’s Island in an interview:
(Abstracted from Oral Interview by Mrs. Audrey Lee-Koh Mei Chen with Devan CV Nair.)
Another famous detainee was People’s Action Party (PAP) co-founder Samad Ismail, who was also assistant editor of Utusan Melayu (Ong, 2017).
In 1975, the detention centre became home for Vietnamese refugees fleeing war in their homeland, and detained while waiting for eventual resettlement in the West. These refugees were to be the last inhabitants of the detention centre on St John’s Island before it was closed down in 1975.
There, amid beautiful old Tembusu trees, stood some government holiday bungalows, and not far away, long rows of barrack-like buildings surrounded by chain-link fences for opium addicts undergoing rehabilitation. One of the bungalows was also ringed with chain-link topped with barbed wire. This housed the political detainees.
Lee Kuan Yew in 1952.
The meeting between Mr. Lee Kwan Yew and Mr Devan Nair led to Nair becoming part of the PAP in 1954.
S’pore now in state of emergency. (1948, June 24). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1
Morning Tribune. July 3, 1948. Microfilm Reel NL2347. P. 1. Accessed on April 10, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/morningtribune19480703-1.2.17
“St. John’s Island a Protected Area”. Malaya Tribune. September 11, 1948. Microfilm Reel NL2147, P. 3. Accessed April 10, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/maltribune19480911-1.2.45
“Detainees Transferred”. Malaya Tribune. September 20, 1948. Microfilm Reel NL2147, P. 7. Accessed April 10, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/maltribune19480920-1.2.23
“Former Mayfair Detainee Ill”. The Straits Times. October 4, 1951. Microfilm Reel NL2626. P. 8. Accessed on April 11, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19511004-1.2.149
“India and Pakistan Must Decide”. The Singapore Free Press. August 7, 1951. Microfilm Reel NL3657. P. 5. Accessed on April 11, 2019. http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/freepress19510807-22.214.171.124
Nair, Chengara Veetil Devan. Interview by Audrey Lee – Koh Mei Chen. Oral History Centre. Accession Number 000049. Recording date May 16, 1981. P. 9-11. Accessed on May 23, 2019. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/Flipviewer/publish/d/df05a827-115d-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad-OHC000049_011/web/html5/index.html?launchlogo=tablet/OralHistoryInterviews_brandingLogo_.png
Ong, Tanya, “Beneath St. John’s Island’s tranquility is a past linked to drugs, diseases, & political detainees”, June 27, 2017, Mothership, Accessed on April 29, 2019. https://mothership.sg/2017/06/beneath-st-johns-islands-tranquility-is-a-past-linked-to-drugs-diseases-political-detainees/
Yew, Lee Kuan. The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Vol. 1. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd, 2012.