Defined Terms


Judicial caning in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei provides a detailed history of caning with the Rattan of male offenders in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, three adjacent and closely linked members of the Commonwealth of Nations in South-East Asia.

Below are extracts:

"Caning in all three countries is administered across the bare seat. Contrary to popular myth, this is always done privately inside the prison. There has never been public JCP these countries.

The prisoner is stripped naked and shackled by strong leather straps to a trestle or A-frame. In Singapore and Brunei he is held down in a bent-over position with his buttocks protruding. In Malaysia he stands upright at the A-frame to which he is tied.

He is then punished by a well-built warder wielding a four-foot long length of flexible rattan which has been soaked in water (to facilitate greater flexibility)."

In Singapore, for adult men it is 1.2 metres (4 feet) long, and 1.3cm (half an inch) in diameter (Prison Regulations 132(2)).

The Malaysian cane is very slightly smaller, at 1.09m long and 1.25cm thick.


These are wide-ranging, particularly in Singapore. There are dozens of offences for which a man might be given the cane -- from serious violent crimes to some non-violent offences that might seem relatively minor in the West but are regarded as serious in Singapore, a highly authoritarian state where the importation and sale of chewing gum is an offence (though not a caneable one) and where people can be fined significant sums for dropping litter, smoking in public places, or failing to flush a public toilet after use.

Malaysia is markedly less authoritarian at that trivial level, but its attitudes towards more serious crime and the use of corporal punishment are very similar. In particular, drugs offences and sexual offences frequently attract very heavy caning sentences in all three countries.


Eyewitnesses and others have reported on the severity of the canings:

"The blows are applied with the full force of the jailer's arm. When the rattan hits the bare buttocks, the skin disintegrates, leaving a white line and then a flow of blood." (Singapore Bar Association report)

"I [...] saw blood at the fourth stroke. The prisoner slumped over in evident terrible pain. The caning stopped" ("Caning -- the most dreaded punishment", Straits Times, 7 September 1974).

"The skin at the point of contact is usually split open and, after three strokes, the buttocks will be covered in blood. " (Singapore Director of Prisons, September 1974)

"The skin did rip open, there was some blood," said Michael Fay of his four-stroke caning, adding "Let's not exaggerate, and let's not say a few drops or that the blood was gushing out. It was in between the two. It's like a bloody nose".

Website provides a webpage Video clips - Malaysia - judicial caning that includes two video clips of separate canings with the Rattan.


It is the clear intention of the authorities that the caning be as painful as possible, and, judging from the descriptions of men who have personally experienced it, this aim is achieved.

Neveille Tan, now a pastor in his sixties, received a total of 30 strokes on three occasions in 1958, 1959 and 1966 in Changi Prison. In his memoirs "Iron Man" he described the excruciating pain of a thick cane landing forcefully on soft flesh:

"I heard the sharp cracking sound like the sound of a small pistol shot as it landed square, right across the tender flesh of my behind. There was no pain at first, just a warm burning sensation but slowly, as feeling returned, the heat became unbearably painful. It felt as if a red-hot poker had been pressed against my backside. I felt my flesh tingling and then came the throbbing pain.

"That was only the first stroke. I gritted my teeth as I heard the voice of the Superintendent calling out the second number in Malay - 'Dua!' as the second stroke landed, I found myself shivering with the pain. Every nerve in my body seemed to be reacting to the sting. The pain was now excruciating.

"'Enam!' (six) came the count. Again, I heard the horrible whizzing sound of the descending cane through the air. My whole backside was now totally swollen. The pain had become extremely excruciating. The officer who was administering the whipping was not supposed to hit me on the same spot twice, but he did. I felt like I was ready to black out, but I forced myself to remain conscious and fought back the engulfing darkness. Even then, barely conscious, my pride was still strong. It would be shameful if I could not take even six strokes of the cane. I was not going to let them see my pain. I gritted my teeth so hard that my jaws felt stiff and ached. Then it was all over. I had received the full six strokes, my first six strokes of the cane. They untied me and as I tried to straighten myself, my legs were so wobbly that they almost buckled. It was over. The male nurse swabbed a dark violet blue lotion over my raw backside and I was ushered out of the room."

Later in the book he describes the time when he was awarded 12 strokes for assaulting another inmate:

"(I was sentenced to) solitary confinement for fourteen days and twelve strokes of the cane. Two days later, the prison doctor visited my cell. He was the same, skinny, turbaned Sikh doctor who had attended to me when I was in Changi prison.

"I laid face down on the floor naked from the waist down. I could feel liquid oozing from my wounds but I was too weak to pay any attention to it. That day, I refused to bathe. In the exercise yard, I just leaned against the wall and glared into the sky. I was drained of all emotions. What had I done. How did I get myself into this situation? Had I buried myself in prison for good? The days dragged by very slowly. Finally I counted that there would be only two days left before I would be released from solitary confinement.

"My backside had healed though the scabs were still there. I could wear my shorts now but there was still some bleeding every now and then. My wound was also beginning to itch but I was careful not to itch it."

Further descriptions, from more recent times, are equally graphic:

"I waited for the first blow to land, biting my teeth hard and closing my eyes. I heard the cane crack and felt blood shoot right through my body. The pain was beyond description. If there is a word stronger than excruciating, that should be the word to describe it". (10 strokes)

"Someone said 'count one!' and he took three steps, swinging (the cane) back and forth, before hitting me on the third step. You hear a crack when it hits you. About a second went by and then it just burned all through my body. And it hurts, it does hurt. I felt a deep burning sensation throughout my body, real pain. My flesh was ripped open." (Michael Fay, 4 strokes)

"It sounded like a tree falling onto my buttocks. First, a stinging blow to my buttocks and when the cane was lifted, I could feel blood shooting up from my body. The pain was unbearable. And it got more painful ... my body shook with pain (Sam, 15 strokes)

"The first stroke came... the pain was unbelievable and there were still five to go. There was pain in my whole body. Only my hair didn't feel pain. I thought nothing could be worse than that until the second stroke hit me. Then I really thought I was going to die. By the time the third came, my whole body was just a lump of pain and the other two strokes did not make any difference" (Ah Seng, 5 strokes, interviewed by Baratham, p.111 ff.).

"Every stroke was a stroke of hell, which I will never forget as long as I live."

Malaysian judicial canings have provoked very similar first-person descriptions. Aaron Cohen recalled his caning:

"I got six. It's just incredible pain. More like a burning -- like someone sticking an iron on your bum. That's the sort of feeling. Pain -- just ultimate pain. [...] The strokes came at the rate of one a minute -- but it seemed like a lifetime to me. I waited and waited for the first one and as soon as I let my breath out -- "Baamm." Afterwards my bum looked like a side of beef. There was three lines of raw skin with blood oozing out."

Another lively account of being flogged in a Malaysian prison is to be found in Robert Symes's 1991 article in Penthouse. Symes received six strokes in 1982 for drug-trafficking.


Once the final stroke is delivered, the prisoner is unbuckled from the trestle and given medical treatment:

"The doctor puts that purple medicine (gentian violet) on the wounds and they go back to their cells." "They paint some medicine on the flogged area and send the inmate back to his cell. They get the stuff out of a bucket, and paint it like a man's backside is a wall." "When it is over, the wounds are treated with the antiseptic, gentian violet, and for weeks the prisoner cannot sit down." "After the fifteenth stroke, they untied him and told him to go, after the doctor applied a medicated lotion on his buttocks. He was also given a bottle of lotion." When necessary, dressings are applied to cover the wounds. Michael Fay reported that a doctor changed the dressings on his wounds every day.

"Alex", who received three strokes for vandalism in November 1994, wrote:

"The day I was caned, I weighed about 132 pounds. That was about 40 days after admission. The pain was a bit killing, but I was all right and there was no blood just after caning, so the attendant medic did not apply the blue lotion on my buttock. I have no experience so I sat on the floor to cool the buttock. Then the skin split and blood came out."

He said that the blood just wet his shorts but there was not excessive bleeding.

"Most of the others caned on that day had blue lotion applied. It took about 2 weeks or longer to heal, because we were not given medicine or lotion. Also when we assembled, we squatted down. This caused the skin scar to part and blood will come out".


After he is unshackled and treated, the prisoner is taken back to his cell to recover.

"Peter" recalled that after 10 strokes, he was unable to walk without help from the warder: "As I was being led out of the caning compound, I caught a glimpse of the used canes. They were split and bloody. They even had pieces of skin stuck on them. Some were probably mine".

Some prisoners in Singapore are taken to the prison hospital after their caning. In Malaysia this appears to be routine for all caned prisoners.


The following picture was on display at the Johor Baru prison exhibition:

This, too, was probably taken relatively shortly after these prisoners were caned. It is interesting to note how different the wounds can be from one case to another, even allowing for different numbers of strokes.

The wounds of caning take some weeks to heal.

Here are some descriptions of the after-effects by men who have been caned.

"My buttocks felt as if they were burning. They swelled to twice their normal size. I could not sit down or lie on my back. I couldn't even walk properly. The skin on (my) buttocks peeled off and (my) backside was completely bruised. It bled on and off for days [...] (I had to) put on an apron for about ten days as I could not wear shorts. (I was) also unable to sit. Immediately after the caning (I had to lie on my) stomach for about four hours. For two hours (I even had) difficulty standing up [...] Going to the toilet was the worst [...] you don't dare to squat because you may tear open the wounds again. So you try to do it half sitting and half squatting" ("Jack" - 20 strokes).

"I stumbled to an adjacent room and plonked myself down. For the next three weeks (I) slept with my face down. (I) could neither eat or sleep properly. For the first week, I couldn't even sleep. The pain was unbearable. It took more than a month for the wounds to dry. My buttocks didn't look normal after that, with the skin drooping and the scars" (Sam - 15 strokes).

"(After the caning) I couldn't sit down or lie on my back for a week. (Going to the toilet) was the worst of all [...] I could not squat or even bend my knees. I got scared every time I got the urge [...] I tried not eating but this did not work. I still had to go and I had to do this standing up, holding my buttocks wide apart. (This lasted) one week then things came back to normal" (Ah Seng - 5 strokes).

"The wounds take between a week and a month to heal. During that time many cannot sit or sleep on their backs and dare not bathe for fear of getting sores. The wounds heal but the marks are indelible. The caners are supposed to be so skilful that they never hit the same spot twice" (Sunday Times, Singapore, 13 July 1986).

"My buttocks swelled a little bit [...] the wounds hurt for about five days after which they itched as they healed. The first couple of days it was very hard to sit. Now [about six weeks after the caning] on one side there are three dark brown scar patches on my right buttock, and four lines each about 1.2cm wide on my left buttock, where the flesh was torn" (Michael Fay - 4 strokes).


Caning as described above will produce permanent scars, according to several reports.

In an NBC documentary shown in 1994, a former prisoner was shown raising his sarong and exposing his bottom to the camera - the scars of his caning were clearly visible.

After the 1974 news conference, one Singapore paper took up the issue of scarring in an editorial, suggesting that "[...] marking a criminal for life -- even on a spot not immediately visible to others -- smacks of barbaric medievalism". The editorial also criticised the whole tone of the Prisons Director's press conference. (Clearly the local newspapers were less rigidly controlled by the regime in 1974 than they are now: even this muted degree of criticism is never found in the Singapore press today.)

However, it is not certain that the marks last forever in cases where relatively few strokes were administered.

The following photograph of 20-year-old Dickson Tan's bottom was taken just one year after his 8-stroke caning:

cf20330: Dickson Tan on 27.3.08










"Dickson Tan, who was caned for helping an illegal money lender, displays his bruises for the camera in Singapore March 27, 2008. Tan is suing the Singapore government for around S$3 million (USD 2.2 million) in damages for mistakenly caning him three more strokes than he was sentenced to, court documents showed. REUTERS/Vivek Prakash"

Despite what the Reuters caption says, we see no bruises here, only weals. Any bruises had already disappeared. In fact this looks at first glance just like an ordinary schoolboy caning, until we remember that it is 12 months after the event. Even so, it is not obvious that this relatively moderate scarring is going to be there for life.


Judicial caning is clearly intended to be a humiliating experience. Former Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew, founding father of modern Singapore, introducing mandatory caning for vandalism in 1966, told Parliament:

"[...] if (the offender) knows he is going to get three of the best, I think he will lose a great deal of enthusiasm, because there is little glory attached to the rather humiliating experience of having to be caned." (Lee, now Minister Mentor, always seems to refer to the subject in this oddly juvenile vein -- "three of the best", and so on -- as if to suggest, though he surely cannot seriously believe, that the punishments in question are somehow equivalent to the headmaster's canings he received as a schoolboy at Raffles College in the 1930s, which he mentions in his memoirs.)

In fact, the severity and humiliation of the punishment are widely publicised: compulsory prison visits for juvenile delinquents include viewing what newspapers have described as a film of the execution of the punishment (though it is not known whether such a film really exists for Singapore) as well as a real-life demonstration by a warder on a dummy. The films of Malaysian canings were evidently made by the authorities with a similar aim in mind.

One newspaper article stated in 1974: "In the Singapore context, caning is the most dreaded form of punishment. If proof be needed, I need only recall the very many instances when young and middle-aged offenders, under caning orders, begged the Appeal Court in vain to suspend them and give longer prison terms instead. (But) until Parliament changes the law, there is nothing that can be done".

There is, indeed, little sympathy expressed towards those being caned. A writer from the National University of Singapore defended the punishment:

"[...] it is a part of the law that most Singaporeans are glad to give their support [...] the purpose of caning is to inflict pain. For this purpose, the safest place to cane is really the buttock, and none other [...] According to accounts given by people who have been caned, they suffered immense pain during the caning, and would not be able to sit or lie down on their buttocks for many days, even up to two weeks. And the surface of the skin may split open during the caning. That's all! The result of caning is a lasting mark on their buttocks. This serves a lasting educational purpose; they will always be reminded not to commit the offence again!"

Although the extensive use of corporal punishment in Singapore is a policy associated with Lee Kwan Yew and his ruling People's Action Party, it is not a policy on which the PAP has a monopoly. A spokesman for the opposition Singapore Democratic Alliance, Edmund Ng, has said: "For criminals, caning serves as a deterrent [...] I would not change a winning formula" (The New Paper, 13 April 2006).

The other opposition party represented in Parliament, the Workers' PartyEXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window, while hostile to very long terms of imprisonment and mandatory sentences, also does not oppose JCP, at any rate for crimes of violence.

In Malaysia, though, there is more opposition from academics, human rights activists and lawyers. In particular the country's Bar Council, representing lawyers, unanimously passed a resolution in 2007 described whipping as cruel, inhumane and degrading, and called for its abolition, especially for illegal immigrants.

However, there is no sign that the present government shares this view.


Note: when Malaysian newspapers report that someone is to be "whipped three times", it just means three strokes of the cane on a single occasion. In former British times, this would have meant three different caning sessions (in the 19th century, some UK legislation stipulated that an offender might be "once, twice or thrice privately whipped", meaning an unspecified number of strokes on each of up to three separate occasions), but this usage has been lost sight of.

Modus operandi: In Singapore and Brunei the culprit must bend over for his caning, with his feet together. In Malaysia he stands upright at the frame with his legs apart.

Implements: The Malaysian cane is marginally smaller than the Singaporean one. This does not seem to make any discernible difference, if first-person accounts from the two jurisdictions are compared. Also, Malaysia uses a smaller cane for white-collar offenders -- those convicted of non-violent financial crimes such as embezzlement. There are no reports of any such distinction being made in Singapore.