Text by Sheere Ng @ Makansutra
Food and Freedom
Breakfast: Four slices of bread brushed with one “stroke” of jam or kaya, plus half a cup of diluted coffee.
Lunch: Boiled vegetables and tofu/fish with rice.
Dinner: Same as lunch. Except that meat replaces fish.
This was the standard menu in Singapore’s prisons and Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) during the 80s. The absence of flavour, the monotony and the abject lack of variety, according to some ex-convicts, were like extra punishment for their crimes.
So some of them came up with creative solutions for better eating pleasures, but risking an extra sentence to their existing ones.
Yet the risk was part of the fun. In the words of Benny Se Teo, who was once incarcerated for drug offenses, “anything that was illegal was fun”.
‘Masak’ means cooking in Malay, but in the felony vernacular, it means ‘underground cooking’. Ask most ex-convicts jailed before the 90s, what their favourite pastime were behind bars, and you may get an unequivocal ‘masak’.
‘Masak’ required no proper equipment nor conditions, but a cunning strategy and seamless coordination.
Everyday at 7pm, after muster roll (gathering of inmates in their respective cells for inspection), the cells would transform into mini-kitchens. “The guards tend not to open our cells after muster, or they will have to write a long report to their superiors,” explained Benny on their preferred time of “cell crime”.
One of the inmate’s spittoons would be christened a ‘wok’ and it must be kept spanking clean or else… They even coated it with toothpaste to prevent leaving traces of soot as evidence.
Starting A Fire
In the prisons then, smoking was allowed and matchsticks were easily available. Old jailbird wisdom handed down over the generations noted that an almost smokeless fire could be created with a particular type of paper found in tobacco boxes. According to Benny, only four was needed to boil a pot, or rather, a spitton of soup.
Comic books and the prison’s plastic plates were useful too. Josiah Teh, who was in and out of prison from 1978 to 2009, remembered smashing the latter against the edge of a table and used the chips as fuel in cooking.
At DRCs, where tobacco was prohibited, the process of building a fire was much more laborious and sophisticated.
Flint (hidden in toothbrushes) and razor (use commonly for shaving) were used to create a spark which could light up a cotton ball obtained from the prison clinic. They used this to burn a clean, parchment dry piece of cloth (like bits of t-shirt given by family and friends) and carefully preserved its residue as a fire-starter or “tamat”. “We keep them properly as it can last quite a while” recalled Benny, who carefully kept it between the pages of a magazine.
Ingredients were easier to amass. They stashed away items like tofu, rice and orange peel from lunch and dinner and kept them in a plastic bread bag until ‘masak’ time. “We set aside anything that is not nice, and find ways to make them more edible later,” said Josiah.
Coupled with their commissaries like canned meats and fruits, they created strange but what was to them a wonderful meal. “Onions and garlic smuggled from the kitchen, mixed with tofu and noodles from lunch, then add luncheon meat, stew pork and soy sauce. That’s fine dining already!” reminisced Benny.
In certain prisons, there were other means to get fresher ingredients.
At the Selarang Park DRC, with lush surroundings, wild animals that foraged their way into the premise would fall prey to the desperate inmates working in the garden. Jeffery, a former detainee there, had a vivid impression of a particular hunting method. “They stuck long needles into the grass patch, and then scatter bread crumbs over them to lure the pigeons,” he said.
Such ideas and cooking methods were passed down through generations of inmates. They even learnt how to make alcohol from the Malaysian and Indonesians convicts, using antiseptic, pineapple skins and orange juice, “I think that’s how they did it at home,” said Jeffrey.
The bland food behind bars often came lukewarm, if not cold. That left many inmates feeling unsatisfied, which spurred them to create alternatives. Hot food, Benny explained, was desirable because it reminded them of ‘Singapore’, which he meant as life beyond the prison walls.
Others like Jeffery ‘masak’ to kill time. “And the next day we’d boast about our exploits to others,” he added.
They might not have realised but ‘masak’ could also signify a wrestle with control. After forfeiting their right to move freely, the ability to put any food into their mouth was a way of release and the only form of freedom they could possibly have.
According to Jeffery and Josiah, who left the prison in 2009, inmates no longer ‘masak’ since the early 90s, when prisons were consolidated and the cells were installed with surveillance cameras. Benny now runs 18 Chefs, a line of restaurants that hires ex-offenders and offers them a new lease of life.