Original film title in Malay: Menyerah
Literal English translation of film title: Surrender
Directed by K. M Basker
Written by Phani Majumdar
Starring: Yusof Latiff, Latifah Omar, Siput Sarawak, S. Kadarisman
Produced by Malay Film Productions (Shaw Bros.)
荣裕当 ‘Chop Wing Joo’ Pawnshop (at No. 103, Tanjong Pagar Road)
Shophouses in Tanjong Pagar/Chinatown
Outram Prison (Pearl’s Hill Prison)
Empress Place, Queen Elizabeth Walk (Esplanade Park)
Paya Lebar Police Station
After directing a series of films about class distinctions and romances that span social divides (Patah Hati, Miskin, Hati Iblis, Ayer Mata; 1952-1953), Malaya-born but India-trained K. M. Basker continued with the making of socio-realist works into the second half of the ‘50s. In 1955, he directed Menyerah, a melodrama film that examines the contradictions of incarcerating a good, filial man who commits manslaughter – in this case an accidental killing of a robber, who had stolen from him the money that is intended to treat his mother’s illness. Written by expatriate Indian film director Phani Majumdar, the movie is set in the urban milieu of 1950s Singapore, where Mustapha (Yusof Latiff) works as a low-paid office clerk. He tries to borrow money from his wealthy boss to treat his ailing mother, but is rebuffed outright upon asking. He resorts to pawning his late father’s inheritance at a Chinese pawnshop at Tanjong Pagar Road, and is robbed of his cash money just as he exits the shop. A chase after the robber follows, until they end up in a cul-de-sac in the back allies of shophouses (presumably in Tanjong Pagar or Chinatown). Mustapha subdues the criminal but kills him by mistake.
Convicted of manslaughter, Mustapha is imprisoned at the Outram Prison or Pearl’s Hill Prison. (The film crew for Menyerah had been allowed access to the interiors of the prison especially for the shoot, thus enabling us audiences of today a fascinating glimpse into parts of the former prison complex at the foot of Pearl’s Hill – the prison cells, common corridors, laundry workshop, warders’ office, prison walls, etc.)
The Outram prison began as a small civil jail constructed in 1847 by Captain C E Faber (Mt. Faber is named after him). It was later expanded in 1882 by Major J F A McNair to accommodate criminal prisons as well, and that was the prison complex that the film Menyerah featured in 1955. The prison was historically significant for having held political prisoners or prisoners of conscience during the Japanese Occupation and during Operation Cold Store in 1963. It was finally demolished in 1968 to make way for a new Housing and Development Board (HDB) public housing project — Outram Park Complex, which in turn was torn down in 2002 for future redevelopment. The site of the former prison grounds and HDB complex is now partly used for the construction of the new MRT line (Thomson Line) and interchange station. What remains of the land plot are unutilized and empty for now.
According to Mr. Terry Foenander, who kindly shared with us the photograph above, his family resided in an apartment flat in a three-storey block at 36B Pearl’s Hill Terrace, the living quarters of the Outram prison officers and their families. He remembers moving to their top-floor flat sometime before 1963. He was still a young boy then and now he recalls many cheerful moments playing (sliding down) the hill behind the flats. With his peers, he would walk to Chinatown to buy lollies, single records or just to pass the time. The prison compounds were out of bounds to him, but he remembers witnessing prison staff on standby outside the prison walls, getting ready to be sent to quell the prison riots at Pulau Senang, which occurred in 1963. The prison officers’ apartments at Pearl’s Hill Terrace where Mr. Terry Foenander’s family had lived were demolished in 1966, presumably making way for the Outram Primary School.
Menyerah was filmed in Outram Prison when it served as a remand prison (after the establishment of the larger criminal prison complex at Changi in 1936). More notably, Outram Prison was also used to hold political prisoners or prisoners of conscience during different eras in Singapore’s 20th century history. First of all, civilians — many of them Chinese, with communist-related links –were detained or executed in Outram Prison after kangaroo court trials during the Japanese Occupation in 1942-45. Before and after World War Two, the British colonial authorities also imprisoned Malayan nationalists such as members of Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) and members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM, or MCP) in Outram Prison for alleged political subversion. A few years before the prison was demolished, it was used to detain many left-wing political activists in a major detention operation codenamed “Cold Store” — conducted during the dawn of 2 February 1963. The detainees were being held, without trial, under the Preservation of Public Security Ordinance, the predecessor to the draconian Internal Security Act or ISA that is still in use in Singapore today.
One of the Operation Cold Store detainees, Said Zahari, chairman of Partai Rakyat Singapura when he was arrested, wrote about that fateful day in 1963 when he was admitted into Outram Prison in his memoirs ‘The Long Nightmare, My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner’: “I heard more loud sounds of clanging cell doors and shouts of names reverberating through the prison in a space of just a few minutes. The scale of the detention exercise dawned upon me. I looked around my sparse cell and all I saw was a small thin mat, a dark woolen blanket and a tin plate and mug. My intended question for the warden was answered when a sai tong (a dump bin, also made from tin, with a cover and two handles on its side) caught my eye. [‘Sai-tong’ is Hokkien for ‘shit bin’, ie. ‘屎桶’.] I had never in my life ‘conducted my business’ in a sai tong. How would I wash myself? A quick glance and I saw a roll of toilet paper left at the side. I was disgusted at their ignorance for basic human decency.
“Outside my cell, the rambunctious atmosphere emitted anarchic noises like a fish market at Geylang Serai, with prisoners angrily voicing their frustrations at their loudest while some banged their sai tongs on the cement floor, in protest of their unjustified arrests. ‘Ask them to shut up!’ ordered an officer with a loud voice. ‘Hey, shut up, shut up! Don’t make noise,’ a warden screamed. ‘Lu diam! (You shut up!),’ a prisoner retorted. Then, the other prisoners began to mock: “Lu diam… lu diam… lu diam…!’ in unison while banging their sai tongs on the cement floor, louder and louder. The others shook their cell doors and shouted political slogans. […] There was excitement crackling in the air and my heart pumped with adrenaline. No worries, no doubts and no fear. My spirits soared in the middle of this cacophony of insults and political slogans directed at the jailers.”
The political detainees of Outram Prison had no chance of escaping and probably didn’t intend to, in contrast to the desperate Mustapha in Menyerah, who seizes his chance while on a gardening detail and flees through a gap in the prison “fence” so effortlessly that it is beyond belief. He gives the chasing prison warders the slip as he climbs up Pearl’s Hill and down into some dark unused tunnels (of which we have yet to identify the location).
Elsewhere in the film, a former inmate of the prison (S. Kadarisman) and acquaintance of Mustapha, is still unrepentant after his release and deviously hatches a plan to deceive Mustapha’s love interest Rohaya (Latifah Omar) at the Queen Elizabeth Walk. After committing many crimes and misdemeanors under the influence of bad company, the prison escapee Mustapha eventually surrenders himself at the Paya Lebar Police Station (at the junction of Upper Serangoon Road and Upper Paya Lebar Road).
1. Amir Muhammad, 120 Malay Movies (pp. 90-92). Petaling Jaya: Matahari Books, 2010.
2. Pawnbroking in Singapore. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2006.
3. Outram Prison. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2010.
4. Anoma Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes (pp. 188-216). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009.
5. Said Zahari, The Long Nightmare: My 17 Years as a Political Prisoner (pp. 33-37). Kuala Lumpur: Ustusan Publications & Distributors, 2007.
6. The Esplanade. Singapore Infopedia. National Library Board, 2004.
7. ‘Former Paya Lebar Police Station’. remembersingapore.org blog. 2013.
© 1955 Malay Film Productions
© 2004 Music Valley
Digital Map Source:
Great Britain. Royal Air Force, Singapore photomap, National Library of Australia, MAP G8041.A4 s6 1950. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn502375]
© 2013, 2014 Toh Hun Ping
Many thanks to Mr. Terry Foenander.