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Inside Story

From Penthouse, c. 1991

In the Malaysian prison system, punishment rarely fits the crime

by Robert Symes with Bob Hart

On December 21, 1976, Robert Symes was travelling by train from Bangkok in Thailand to Butterworth in Malaysia. He didn't make it. In Padang Besar on the Malaysian border, he was arrested during a routine Customs check for possession of 1666 grams of Thai Buddha sticks. Fine grass, according to Symes. The Malaysian authorities exhibited no sense of humor about the incident. One year later, Symes was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and a flogging for drug trafficking. The judge decided against hanging Symes, but admitted that he was sorely tempted.

In fact, this young Australian was a fool, not a criminal. He had no intention of parting with any of his stash in Malaysia. He was happily on his way home to his idyllic Bali beach house which he shared with an Indonesian girlfriend and anybody else who happened along. He had flown to Thailand in search of some cheap shit, and he found it. The offence for which Symes was convicted -- drug trafficking -- was the same one that resulted in two other young men, Kevin Barlow and Geoffrey Chambers, being hanged some eight years later. Symes survived ....


It was a Friday morning in Malaysia's Tai Ping Prison, where I was serving a life sentence. The thing that made this Friday different was that a number of the scumballs with whom I shared this hole were laughing a lot, and people don't usually laugh at all in Tai Ping Prison. On this Friday they were laughing because this was the day when the white guy was going to get his arse lashed. The arse in question was mine.

I cursed my excellent health. Even in the unforgiving world of the Malaysian penal system, where necks are routinely stretched for lesser offences than the one I'd been found guilty of some four and a half years earlier, unhealthy men are not thrashed. Heart problems, high blood pressure or haemorrhoids will get you excused. Not even the highly punitive Malaysians want to be accused of killing some poor sod with a cane. But sadly, I had the heart of a lion, the blood pressure of a baby, and an immaculate back passage. Bugger it.

This was late in 1982 -- just about a year before two guys called Barlow and Chambers would also be arrested and charged with drug trafficking. They were involved with heroin in a big way. I was involved with grass in a dumb way. It made the difference. Back in January, 1978, in a sweaty Kanga courtroom, a Malaysian judge had sentenced me to life imprisonment, and had iced the penal cake with a sentence of six strokes of the rotan. Rotan is Malaysian for cane, but somehow the English word does not begin to describe what an encounter with the rotan is all about. Not by a long chalk.

On this Friday, six of us were dragged off to the hospital compound so that this punishment -- perhaps the most barbaric still routinely administered in the civilised world -- could be performed. We were instructed to strip, and then given small sarongs to wear. One by one, we were led into the doctor's office. One lucky sod scored a spectacular blood pressure reading and his punishment was deferred. How did he do that?

The first prisoner was led out of the doctor's office and into the walled punishment compound behind. Conveniently, the place in which they half kill you is right next door to the place where they patch you up again.

Suddenly there was an incredibly loud swish and a sickening thwack. I mean incredibly loud. Did that hurt, or what? This seemed like a good time to get nervous, so I did. I had a weird feeling in my stomach. This reminded me of something... a long time ago. School. Standing outside a headmaster's office while some kid gets what you are about to get. But that was a cane. This was a cane! The rotan is more than a metre long, and around a centimetre thick. One end is neatly bound in pink string to provide a firm grip for the warder, who will arrive at the punishment block with a bundle of half a dozen or so canes tucked under his arm. The warder will be dressed in khaki trousers but will wear a white T shirt instead of his usual uniform top. Freedom of movement is essential. Before punishment begins, he will loosen up by beating the crap out of a large feather pillow, and making a lot of noise in the process. Just so that everybody knows what to expect.

Swishh THWACK! If this felt like it sounded, this was going to hurt a hell of a lot. Thank god I was second. Sitting through any more of these would have been almost as bad as the punishment itself. Swishhh THWACK! Now that's loud! A pause, and it was my turn. The warden came back into the room, smiled, and signalled that it was time for the white guy to get his.

I was led into the enclosure. It had decaying concrete walls and a scrubbed concrete floor. Nothing but concrete all round, except for the A-frame. This was a strange piece of goods: a heavy looking version of a blackboard easel. Indentations in the dark wood surrounds were reminders that this device had seen many bums in its day, and interestingly enough those days started in the time of British rule. This was no cute item developed for the dispensing of Islamic justice. This little treasure was handed down directly by the British judicial system. It was the first time I had seen it, or anything quite like it. I was told to remove the sarong, which I did. The A-frame and I were about to meet.

Suddenly, I had another flash. So this is what an execution would feel like. Not the clinical sort of execution routinely carried out in bleak corners of foreign prisons, in gas chambers and the like, but the sort of execution that I remembered from Boys Own stories. Executions in which plucky chaps were stood in front of pocked marked walls and shot. Or occasionally rescued at the very last moment. But not until they had sucked once or twice on a cigarette. That sort of thing.

The prison superintendent stood to my left and slightly behind me, with a doctor on one side of him and a prison officer on the other. Two other prison warders were in the punishment courtyard somewhere behind me, but I could not see them. I would never know which of them inflicted the cruel punishment I was about to be subjected to -- one that would leave deep scars on my backside for as long as I lived. Nor would I care, for that matter. Here was another parallel to the rituals that traditionally accompany executions. Victims seldom know the identity of their executioners, which is quaint. I mean, how mad can they be at them afterwards?

Anyway, there I was. Strapped to the wooden A-frame, my backside surrounded by thoughtfully padded bars that caused it to project in the general direction of the man with the cane, presumably so that he would know which particular piece of me to wallop, just in case anatomy was not his strong subject. It suddenly occurred to me that this could be a very nasty position in which to have found myself at the Cross, and I started to giggle. That must have thrown them. Caning was not intended to be a procedure that amused the victim in any shape or form. I didn't giggle for long.

The details of my punishment were read aloud and the order was given to proceed.

Satu! That means one, and it certainly was! The swish of the cane, and then a heavy thump, not pain. Hey, how about that? It doesn't even hurt. It...

Dua! Oh shit! Now it hurts. Now the pain is cutting in. An excruciating pain. Nothing hurts this much. Nothing...

Tigal! Ah, hey, no! Not funny. Now I know why I am tied to a wooden frame. No man can live with punishment like this. Let me off this thing and I will tear this guy's arms off and ram them up his...

Empat! My God! The pain is worse, and spreading. Like an incredible burn. Like being branded with a red hot iron bar. Do they heat these canes?

Lima! One to go! Thank god I can count in Malay, otherwise I would lose track of how many I have received, and I would never know how many more I have to go, and I might go nuts at this point.

Enam! That's it. The last one. It hurts as much as all the rest, but hey, I almost enjoyed it. It's the last. No more. Not ever. Jesus...

The maximum number of strokes that could be administered at one time was limited to 16 a few months after my encounter with the rotan. One man was crippled for years after having been given 22 strokes. Some men faint after the first couple of strokes, which sounds like an excellent move to me.

The men responsible for administering this punishment know precisely what they are doing. They are pros. People about to be caned are given incredibly through medical checks before the punishment is administered -- far more detailed checks than those given when a prisoner is admitted to a prison. If you die in prison from some ailment or other, too bad. But if you die from having your bum whacked, somebody somewhere is going to look bad.

I was untied, and iodine was applied liberally to my wounds with a cotton swab. It stung like hell, just as I remembered it always had when I was a kid growing up in Brisbane and I fell off my bike and my Mum had put iodine on my knee. Then I was given two panadols to ease the pain, and I was told to lie down and rest for ten minutes in the hospital ward. I lay down on my stomach. I figured I had better get used to lying that way. It was going to be weeks before I could lay on my back, or sit. Ten minutes didn't help. Nor did the two panadols. Giving somebody Panadols to ease the pain of a caning is like putting a band-aid over a bullet hole.

I staggered back to my cell and collapsed face down on my bunk. Minutes later, a Chinese friend arrived bearing gifts. He pressed a small piece of foil into my hand. It contained a few rocks of brown sugar heroin. He half smiled, and then left the cell. I held a match under the foil, inhaled the fumes, and that was that. No pain. No pain at all. Do hospitals know about this stuff? Panadol, schmanadol.

For days, I wore a sarong. It was impossible to wear anything close fitting. Iodine was administered daily. I was instructed to keep the wounds dry until they healed. In the tropics, open wounds can become breeding grounds for all kinds of bacteria very quickly. And prisons are not the most hygienic places on earth. The cane had chewed hungrily through layers of skin and soft tissue, and had left furrows that were weals of bloody pulp. The scars would never heal. Nor can anyone ever know how deep scars from a punishment like that really go.

Oddly enough, my rotan scars provided me with a degree of protection. Unblemished backsides were regarded as highly desirable items in prison. As the owner of a fairly trim and definitely white arse, I was in receipt of some fairly explicit proposals during my visits to the shower in my early months in prison. But once my backside had become as battle-scarred and disreputable as most other backsides on show in the shower-block, the offers came less frequently. For which I was grateful.

Prisoner ready to be caned

Official picture of Malaysian prisoner prepared for caning. Taken from the brochure for the Pudu Prison Exhibition, Kuala Lumpur, 1997.

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