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.