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When Cooking Was a Crime: Masak in the Singapore Prisons, 1970s-80s

by In Plain Words

Cooking in prison cells was illegal in Singapore, but that did not stop inmates from inventing ways to do so. This photo-essay offers a glimpse into the flavours of prison life during the 1970s and 1980s based on the memories of former inmates.

When Cooking Was A Crime

Masak means “to cook” in Malay. But to former inmates incarcerated in Singapore’s prisons and drug rehabilitation centres (DRCs) during the 1970s and 1980s, it referred to the riskier illegal cooking that was performed in the cells. After the last muster check in the evenings, chamber pots turned into cooking pots, and blankets became fuel for making suppers.

Prison food was routinely cold and repetitive, so inmates devised their own ways to heat up an endless combination of canned food from the commissaries and ingredients that they set aside from lunch and dinner. Flint, cotton, razor blades, plastic trays and even toilet roll were precious materials for building a fire. These had to be stolen from various parts of the facilities, or smuggled from outside, adding much excitement to good old food-making.

Recently published When Cooking Was A Crime compiles the improvised tools and recipes of eight former inmates. Through photographic recreations and interviews, it explores how food and cooking took on new meanings for those living behind bars.

For instance, masak allowed inmates to recreate the familiar tastes of hawker fare that they no longer had access to. The final product might seem remote from the original, but with a little bit of imagination, it transported them beyond the prison walls. Making food choices also helped restore some dignity to the inmates whose personal preferences didn’t matter in prisons. Being able to choose luncheon meat over ikan bilis for a new recipe gave them a sense of control over their own body.

This photo-essay offers a tidbit of the inmates’ ingenuity showcased in the book, which is available for sale here.

When Cooking Was A Crime

When Cooking was a Crime

In Plain Words

Sheere Ng is a writer and researcher living in Singapore. Her work focuses on the intersections of food, identity and immigration. She is also part of the writing studio In Plain Words.

Don Wong is a former photojournalist who surveys and photographs changes in the built environments. He approaches his subjects with an unsentimental eye, paying closer attention instead to their form, details and presence.

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