Non-student participant from Tanah Merah Prison
My monochromed father cut a dashing figure sitting on the sand. He was looking at ships scattered in the distance over the glittering water with a young me by his side. I have no memory of this day by the beach a lifetime ago, but I can almost smell the bring breeze and hear the lapping waves that linger deep in the recesses of my mind if I really try hard enough. Father’s chiselled features were most uncommon for a vest and he meant the world to me. This was the only photograph I had of the both of us together. It was mottled and frayed at the edges, making it even more precious and treasured. We were estranged and he lived alone. I wondered how he was keeping.
I grew up in the seventies in a single parent family. We lived in a pre-war bungalow in the heart of the city. Father worked in Hilton Hotel along Orchard Road and my paternal grandmother was entrusted with my care. As an only child, I was the apple of her eyes and she spoilt me. I enjoyed much freedom and spent many afternoons running around unsupervised in the neighbourhood and beyond. I explored every nook and got myself into all kinds of unimaginable trouble as naughty and cheeky children are often work to do.
The fashion of the day were tie-dye tees, floral-print shirts, bell-bottom pants and platform shoes. The Hipping culture, although in decline in the West, could still be seen in small pockets here in Singapore. People greeted each other with the “Peace” sign and ‘high-fives’ while free love and flower power were whispered in the wind. Marijuana, or Gargya as we called it, was easily available then and my first puff at fourteen blew me away. The fireworks and euphoric rupture in my head was indescribable.
I was sold from that moment on. However, little did I know that puff would be the catalyst that influenced and modulated the course of my life. I progressed naturally on to heroin and became a hard-core drug addict. In time, my life turned into a jungled nightmare and started to unravel in a downward spiral, often sinking to depth of despair best forgotten but unforgettable. As a matter of course, the long arm of the law caught up with me eventually and I found myself behind bars in my twenties.
I vividly remember the first time father visited me in Queenstown Remand Prison. He strode in on tired legs and sat in a cubicle with only half a centimetre of Plexiglas that separated us. We were so near yet so far. Instead of the harsh rebuke I expected, he gazed at me silently with a disdain and disapproval that spoke more eloquently than any words could have. He continued to visit regularly during that first incarceration but as I subsequently re-offended repeatedly, his visits dwindled until they petered out and stopped altogether. He gave up on me and although not unexpected, the guilt weighed heavily on my conscience.
And so, like shadows of windblown grasses across barren yields the restive years passed swiftly by and decades were lost between getting high, living on the I am and eight incarcerations in all.
During my last sentence, I enrolled in Prison School and got reacquainted with an educational journey I had left thirty years ago. Initially I struggled. Lessons were daunting to an old dog like me. However, I persevered and my diligence ensured I passed all my subjects for ‘N’ even scoring a couple of distinctions along the way. Although pleased with my modest academic achievement, I was happier still to have cultivated a positive attitude and different mindset. I changed and now look at the past as at a valley hit by the sun when it breaks free from the clouds- my arrested development, wanting character and ignorant follies totally apparent.
The imposing gates of Changi prison loomed large as I approached on as all too familiar pathway and passed through them again with blessed freedom once again. I stood outside the prison walls and held my treasured photo of father and I again after so long, and savoured the image with nostalgia. I realised father was getting on in years and wouldn’t he around forever and wanted to make my peace while there was still time. Not wanting to waste another minute, than giving impetus to the task at hand, I placed a call to him from the petrol station across the road. The phone rang or a while before he picked it up and said in a raspy voice,
“Hi dad, it’s me. I’m out, how are you?”
I intimated tentatively. There was no forthcoming reply from him so I went on.
“Father, I’m very sorry for all the grief and pain ‘I’ve caused through the years. Can you please forgive me? I’ll improve.”
The deafening silence stretched over the chasm for what seemed an age as I held in my bated breath. Finally, I heard father let out a sigh before he upleved.
“Come home son. All is forgiven. Just come home.”
The anguish within dissipated and vanished like magic. The relief beyond words. It is said that forgiveness is the best gift to receive and I found this to be indeed true. As I hung up the phone and thought of home my eyes pooled with tears that were dammed for years. The reconciliation had delivered a welcome quiet to my once guilt ridden n tormented soul.
Perhaps there will still be uncertainty and struggles ahead, but every tomorrow brings with it a medium of hope. I believe it is possible to embark on a new path that leads to somewhere better and a life of meaning. I walked to the bus stop with purposeful strides, determined to leave the diminishing facade of China Prison and my dark past behind forever.