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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Changi Prison: Did it have to go?

Changi Prison: Did it have to go?
By K. C. Vijayan, Law Correspondent
23 Aug 2008

THE recent decision to shelve construction of two new clusters at Changi Prison Complex raises a question: Was the decision to tear down the historic Changi Prison a mistake?
Despite calls four years ago to save it as part of the national heritage, only a 180-metre wall was preserved. The argument then: Land was scarce, more space was needed to meet future needs, so the old girl had to go.

Two weeks ago, the prison authorities sang a different tune: The prison population has dropped to its lowest in 10 years, construction costs have gone up, so the need to finish completing the prison city would be reviewed 'year on year'.

One cluster of prison buildings is up and a second is due to start housing inmates next year. The second sits on land on which Changi Prison once stood.

Two clusters that were to be built on land cleared by demolishing three prisons - Jalan Awan, Medium Security and Moon Crescent - have been shelved. If the land reserved for the third and fourth clusters had been used for the second, the original Changi Prison would still be standing today.

Sceptics may dismiss such talk as so much water under the bridge. It may also be argued that no one could have predicted the fall in the prison population. But the outcome does raise questions as to how decisions on the preservation or demolition of Singapore's heritage are made. Could the move to bring down the Changi Prison have been avoided?

A media report two weeks ago noted that the soon-to-be operational second cluster is expected to absorb inmates from neighbouring Tanah Merah Prison (TMP) as well as from Remand Prison and other prisons elsewhere. Four years ago, The Straits Times published an article suggesting that TMP be demolished instead of Changi Prison.

A comparison of the respective heritage value of the two prisons would have shown which is more valuable. Lamentably, no such comparison was made. As a result, land bigger than the size of the old Changi Prison will remain vacant - and the old girl is gone.

Changi's historic value was self-evident. As Dr Kevin Tan, a member of Singapore's Preservation of Monuments Board and president of the Singapore Heritage Society, once put it, Changi Prison is 'one of the great icons of Singapore that has international recognition'.

But it was unnecessarily and unceremoniously torn down, without so much as giving the public a chance to view what was inside. Compare this with how Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) officials took the trouble last month to organise public tours to view the now former Supreme Court building, including its lock-up cells. The SAL even had its tour guides costumed in the uniforms of the 1960s to add to the authenticity of the experience.

The new Prison Complex bears no resemblance to the old. The old Changi, for instance, had exercise yards on the grounds and inmates got their daily dose of direct light, if not sunlight. The new cluster is all indoors and above ground. What the effect on long-term offenders living in its cells would be is open to question.

It's like demolishing an old school and replacing it with an entire new structure, with hardly any thought given to retrofitting or preserving some structures as a nod to history.

Consider what Malaysia has done in preserving the more than century-old Johor Baru prison or Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur. The latter is vacant but still standing, next to the swanky multiplex called Times Square.

In Singapore, there is the example of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), which has preserved the century-old Hill Street Fire Station. It sits on prime land and still functions as a modern fire station.

One wonders if the planners who decided to demolish the 1936 Changi Prison were aware of its potential heritage or tourist value. Would the result have been different if a better informed public had been able to provide timely feedback?

In this context, one matter that can be improved upon is the publication of prison data. Prisons annual reports offer minimal statistics buried in its last four pages. That's where The Straits Times picked up the drop in numbers, which started a year before Changi's demolition in 2004. It dipped from 16,315 the previous year to 15,774. (The new clusters are designed to house 23,000 beyond 2010.)

Contrast this to 35 years ago when prison annual reports were routinely laid before Parliament, published by the Government Printing Office and picked up for a then princely sum of $1.50.

A typical report would provide information about the age groups of inmates, the nature of offences, lengths of sentences, the number of prisoners who had re-offended after being released and the number of patients treated at the prison hospital. Other details included the number of offences committed while in prison and the number of cane strokes ordered by prison superintendents for serious violations of prison rules, compared to the number of strokes ordered by the courts.

After 1973, such information was no longer presented before Parliament routinely, although it would still have been collected. The current annual prison report has less than 10 per cent of the information that the previous reports contained.

The prison authorities would do well to share information in the same way their Home Team counterparts like the Police and SCDF have done - putting out data at least once if not twice a year.

The latest prisons report has 11 pages of pictures of the top brass and only four devoted to data. The captains of lives - as prison officers call themselves in the latest annual report - may want to consider whether they should start giving information about the lives they have in their charge.

vijayan@sph.com.sg

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