In the early morning hours of Mar 2, 1950, an unusual silence fell on Kuching Central Prison. Even the execution chamber was silent. On this day, the prison, built in 1882, was to witness the first execution of a Sarawakian by the British.
The main building of the prison was once used by Rajah James Brooke as his rest house before it was converted into the first hospital in Kuching. The hospital was later move to Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg in 1931. The last time the prison witnessed a death sentence was in 1999 — that of a man who killed a woman in Gedong, Simunjan.
The hanging process is not easy as it involves many procedures. In foreign countries, the death penalty is carried out by various means such as beheading, electrocution, gas poisoning, shooting and fatal injection. Certain prisoners found guilty by the court in countries under the British rule were given the death penalty.
Such a sentence was imposed on Dato Maharajalela, Dato Sagor, Pandak Induk and Seputum on Jan 20, 1877 after they were found guilty of killing Perak Resident, JWW Birch, while Cik Gondoh, Ngah Ahmad Ngah Jabbar, Panjang Nur and Cik Ali were sentenced to life imprisonment. Dato Laksamana, Dato Syahbandar, Ngah Ibrahim and Sultan Abdullah were banished to Seychelles Island in the Indian Ocean.
Rosli, who already knew the fate that would befall him, faced his last moments with ‘taqwa’ (fear of God). At the last moment, those in the prison — wardens, detainees, officers and other staff — seemed to hold their breath. Rosli had been informed that he would be hanged a week earlier. His family has also been informed of the date of the execution.
On the day he was about to be hanged, Rosli was moved from his cell to the final room next to the execution chamber. The building, which led to what is now the Reservoir Park, was painted white. The area was surrounded by a forest.
On Mar 1, the day before his death, Rosli asked for a pen and paper from a warden for him to write to his parents about all his feelings and hopes.
The officer in-charge constantly watched and monitored Rosli’s condition and the wardens often advised him to be patient. When his hour came, he did not care much about his last meal which cost about $1.
During his last day, Rosli used the time to pray and recite the Yaasin. That night, he could not sleep but was calm, unlike some other prisoners who cried, screamed, howled and even talked to themselves.
Rosli did not regret his actions and what befell him. He believed that his actions were a sacrifice in order to free Sarawak from the clutches of the colonialists. He was more than just a candle that burned itself to illuminate others. He was willing to risk his body and soul for the sake of future Sarawakians.
Rosli was finally taken out of the waiting room around 5am with his head covered with a cloth. He thanked the officer in-charge and the warden who accompanied him as he knew that they were just carrying out the tasks entrusted to them.
Preparations to hang him took several hours in order to make sure that everything went smoothly. Prison officers had discussed the execution several times, including choosing the type of rope to be used. At the end of the rope was a ‘killer brass’ that served to break the neck of the person being hanged.
Rosli’s execution was carried out quickly. Nowadays, inmates may have to wait many years until the entire appeal process is completed. Muslims are usually executed on Fridays after Subuh prayer, while non-Muslims are dealt with on other days.
On the day of his death, Rosli wore only ordinary white clothes. His was to be carried out only when all parties including the director, doctor and warden were satisfied that all conditions were met.
It took only about 15 seconds from the time he was taken out of the waiting room to the execution chamber until he was hanged and confirmed dead.
An Englishman called Westin, was specially flown from Singapore Changi Prison to carry out the execution as Sarawak did not have a hangman in 1950.
Similarly, the tool to carry out the hanging was specially imported from Singapore.
Rosli requested to finish reciting the syahadah before his execution was carried out. Prior to that, anesthetic injection was performed on him while his hands and feet were tied to prevent him from thrashing.
The hangman’s job was completed when the sound of the trap door broke the silence that morning. Everything went smoothly. Rosli’s body was left hanging for a while before being taken down and confirmed dead by doctors and magistrates. Also present then was an ustaz.
After being brought down, the cloth that covered his head was immediately removed.
In Kampung Sinjan, across Kuching town, his parents Dhoby and Hamdiah (as well as their other family members) could not sleep well that night. They boarded a ship at their own expense and stayed with their families in the village. They were restless and wanted to know the latest news about their son. Dhoby and his family had tried to find an undertaker to ask about Rosli’s condition but their request was denied. In an era when the colonial power was so strong, the actions of the undertaker were understood.
Rosli and Morshidi were among the first to be hanged on Mar 2, 1950. Then, on Mar 23,
two of their friends were sentenced to death.
Fearing a backlash from locals, especially the Malays in Sibu, the British government did not allow the bodies of Morshidi and Rosli to be taken back to their hometown. Instead, their remains were buried in Kuching Prison area without any tombstones.
The tombstone on Rosli’s grave was built after the formation of Malaysia and Sarawak achieved independence on Sep 16, 1963. It is located near the Sarawak Islamic Museum after his grave was excavated and moved to Sibu in 1996.
The death penalty news against Rosli was also covered by local and foreign newspapers, including the British Colony. Many international journalists camped in Sibu to cover the trial.
The Evening News quoted Reuters news using the Singapore dateline, headlined: Murderers hanged: They killed Governor Singapore.
“Friday – The two Malay youths who murdered Sarawak’s Governor, Duncan Stewart in Sibu last December have been hanged in Kuching, it was announced today.
“They had admitted stabbing Mr Stewart as he inspected a children’s guard of honour on December 3. He died of wound a week later just after his wife, who flew from Britain, arrived at his bed side.
“The youth said they were members of an organisation called ther éssential ingredients formed with the aim of assassinating leading British officials.
“Nine other Malays were found guilty of abetting the assassination and sentenced to deaths. They have appealed to the Supreme Court. Rosli, aged 19, said he had dived at the Governor’s with a knife, but missed him. He had then thrown the knife and did not know whether he hit the Governor or not.
“Morshidi, aged 25, said he had pretended to take a picture while Rosli attacked the Governor. He had then followed and drawn a knife, but was seized by the police.” – Reuters
Only two pairs of Rosli’s shirt were handed over by the Sibu Prison warden to his family in 1949, but other items including shoes, pants, a dagger and a songkok were not returned. The question is where is Rosli’s dagger now?
Rosli’s death left an impression on both his parents because according to them, Rosli’s death was not appropriate. He should not be hanged because he was still under aged.
Upon returning to Sibu, the Dhoby family faces a bitter reality. Neighbours and other villagers began to look askance at the family and as a result they were depressed and sometime did not want to leave their house. The tahlil ceremony held at their house in Kampung Pulo was only attended by immediate family members as the villagers boycotted the ceremony.
Rosli’s family was also labelled a killer’s family. In fact, those close to his siblings and family no longer wanted to visit them. Many wanted to please the British government. When the police raided Dhoby’s house the family was humiliated.
The situation only changed significantly after Rosli’s grave was moved to Sibu in 1996, and there was a school in Sibu named after him as a sign of respect for his sacrifice.
• DR JENIRI AMIR is the author of the Rosli Dhoby: Merdeka Dengan Darah book.