The British Once Built a Quarantine Island in Singapore for Migrants

With just a short ferry ride, you can visit St. John’s Island to escape the hustle and bustle of Mainland Singapore. Sites of nature, beaches, and a ton of cats are now its main attraction. Book a holiday camp and you can even stay the night.  

Before it became a short getaway, St. John’s Island was where Stamford Raffles anchored his ships in 1819. Though he had wanted a European to stay on the island to inform sailors that Singapore was an open port, it was quickly abandoned in 1834. Four decades later, it would become Singapore’s Quarantine Station, detaining those who wish to set foot on the main island.

Migrants and Cholera

In 1873, an outbreak of Cholera had led to 857 cases among Chinese labourers. Sadly, it eventually claimed 357 of those lives. It was a particularly nasty disease – victims would suffer from extreme diarrhea and vomiting, their bodies shrinking considerably from losing too much fluid. If left untreated, almost 50% of victims would succumb to the disease. It was no wonder that the disease became a large concern for the authorities.

Waves of indentured labour coming on unsanitary ships were blamed for the onslaught of cholera. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, Acting Master Attendant Henry Ellis’ planned to build a facility to quarantine those at risk on St John’s Island. A year later, it was completed to house up to 6270 occupants.

In the same month, the S.S Milton landed on St John’s island with 1300 coolies. As some of them already suffered from cholera, the coming of the ship solidified the island’s status as a quarantine centre.

The island was not meant for medical inspection. It instead provided detention and disinfection of those from infected vessels or ports. Passengers from suspicious ships would be detained, especially if sickness had broken out within its vessels. In such cases, coolies were not the only ones susceptible to the disease. Pilgrims who made their way to Mecca in unsanitary ships were forced to be quarantined as well.

Quarantine wasn’t equal for everyone. Passengers would first be separated by ships, and then by the classes they were from. Those from the first and second classes were able to only present themselves before continuing on their voyage to Mainland Singapore.

Meanwhile, passengers of the lower classes had to be quarantined. Pervasive thought that migrants were dirtier undergirded this unofficial policy,  making most of the island’s occupants Asian. Though some only had to stay for a few days, labourers from China had to remain for at least a week. It was not only a matter of health. Race, nationality, and class matters as well.

A source of pride

The British were indifferent to the different treatments of their colonial subjects. In fact, they were particularly proud of the quarantine station. In 1926, The Singapore Free Press published an article on the island. Strategies in quarantining was “an achievement of which every resident of this country may be proud”. Of course, the migrants were to be blamed for bringing in small pox. Luckily for everyone, dexterous policies by the authorities nevertheless quelled the spread of such diseases.

St John’s Island was also compared to other quarantine stations. The author clearly thought that St John’s was better than Ellis Island, which was a similar facility based in America. He boldly claims that  Singapore would be able to help in “matters of good manners, consideration for strangers, and simple common-sense,” making less-than-subtle snide comments on their American counterpart.

An article from The Straits Times in 1935 lauded even more praise for the quarantine centre, which was also considered “a miniature world of beauty”. Again, the St John’s Island was compared to Ellis Island, with the latter simply being described as “ugly”.

Allegedly, some had wanted to prolong their stay on the island. In describing the facilities available on the island, the author reasoned that the presence of a police centre was “essential” as most occupants were Asians. Other facilities, such as a Sikh temple, were also available thanks to the British investment of “hundreds of thousands of dollars”. With ships bringing over 2000 occupants at a time, it appears to be a worthwhile investment to prevent the spread of cholera.

The many activities of St John’s Island

Devan Nair, Lim Chin Siong, Sydney Woodhull and Fong Swee Suan (L to R) having tea at St. John’s Island during their detention. The photograph was taken by Lee Kuan Yew, their fellow PAP colleague.

Unfortunately, what was reported was too good to be true. Accounts of those who stayed on the island were less rosy. There were complaints of mistreatment by the British, who purposefully dehumanised those who were quarantined by bossing them around like animals.

Those who were quarantined felt as though they were at a camp. Rations were given for them to cook for themselves, but the facilities were bare and dirty. Pests such as centipedes and cockroaches crawled around the cooking area. Despite being called a world of beauty, the quarantine station was actually unhygienic.

Other than remaining a quarantine station, the premises fulfilled other purposes as well. During World War Two, the island was previously used to house Japanese and German civilians. In 1948, three wards in the quarantine station became detention barracks for political prisoners. Detainees were prominently anti-colonial. They included Devan Nair, the 3rd President of Singapore, and unionists Lim Chin Siong and James Puthucheary. As there was not much to do other than reading, Mr Nair dubbed the detention space as “St John’s University”. An Opium Treatment Centre was also later established in 1955. The space was used to  rehabilitate addicts while they were taught carpentry skills for future jobs.  

In 1975, the Opium Treatment Centre officially closed down. Shortly after, the quarantine station followed suit in 1976. As commercial flying became more affordable, having a quarantine station at St John’s was no longer needed.

New and Improved

Holiday camps were quickly built after the closing of the quarantine station. St John’s Island became known for being a getaway destination, its reputation withstanding till today. Visitors would probably be unaware that the idyllic island was used to prevent the spread of diseases in Singapore.

With Covid-19 on the rise in Singapore, it’s important to note how epidemics were treated in the past. Some elements of St John’s history seem uncannily similar to the situation we have today. We can only hope that we learnt from past mistakes in dealing with our situation today.

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All photos were sourced from the National Archives of Singapore.

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