Hello, It's Me
'N' Level student-inmate from Tanah Merah Prison
My sepia-toned father looked dashing sitting on the sand staring at the boats in the distance with a young me by his side. I had no memory of this day by the beach lifetime ago bit I can almost smell the briny sea breeze and hear the lapping waves that linger somewhere in the recesses of my mind. Father’s chiselled features were uncommon for a Peranakan and he meant the world to me. This was the only photograph I had of the both of us together and its frayed edges only made it more precious and treasured. We were estranged and he lived alone. I wondered how he was.
I grew up during 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 grandma was entrusted with my upbringing. I was the apple of her eye and she spoilt me. She gave me all that I asked for to make up for the lack of a mother’s love. I enjoyed much freedom and spent many hours running wild with the other children from the neighbourhood. We explored every nook and cranny and got into all sorts of unimaginable trouble, as naughty children are won’t to do.
The fashion of the day were flowery prints, bell-bottoms and platform shoes. The psychedelic ‘Hippy’ culture although in decline in the West was still somewhat visible in small pockets here in Singapore. People, especially men, wore their hair long and greeted each other with the ‘Peace’ sign and high-fives while ‘flower power’ and ‘free love’ were whispers in the wind. Ganja was readily available in those days and the first puff I took blew me away. I was only fourteen and curious. Little did I know this act without thought would be the catalyst that influenced and modulated the course of my life. I progressed to tranquillizers and heroin naturally and very soon got into trouble with the law and ended up behind the bars in my early twenties.
Coming from the ‘old school’, father was a man of few words. I vividly remember the first time he visited me in prison. He stepped into a cubicle three feet away and sat down with only a centimetre of Plexiglas separating us – he was so near yet so far. Instead of the harsh rebuke that I expected, he gazed at me with a disdain and disapproval that spoke more eloquently than any words could have. Despite this, he continued to visit regularly throughout this first incarceration but as I subsequently re-offended, his visits dwindled until they petered out and stopped altogether. I guess everyone has a limit to his or her patience and he has simply came to the end of his. The fact that father gave up on me caused me to feel immense shame and guilt, and it weighed on my soul.
Like shadows from windblown grasses on a barren field, the years flitted by swiftly. Decades were lost between getting high, living on the lam and numerous incarcerations. I now look back at the past as at a valley lit up by the sun when it breaks from the cloud – my arrested development, huge ignorance and folly totally apparent.
The imposing gates of Changi Prison loomed large as I approached on the all too familiar path and passes through them into freedom once more. I stood outside the prison walls and held my treasured photo again after so long and savoured the image with keen nostalgia. I realised father was getting on the years and would not be around forever. I knew I had to make my peace before it was too late. Not wanting to waste another minute, I went to the petrol station across the road and placed a call to him. The phone rang for what seemed an eternity before he picked it up.
Without preamble I said, ‘Hello, it’s me, father. I’m sorry for all the grief I’ve caused over the years. Please forgive me.’
A pregnant silence stretched unbearably across the chasm. At last, he uttered, ‘It’s alright son, it’s alright. Come home’.
As I hung up the phone and thought of home my eyes welled up with tears that were in a dam for years. It is said that forgiveness is the best gift to receive – this is true. I was finally free in every sense of the word. The reconciliation with father delivered a never before known quiet to my guilt ridden and once tortured soul.
I made my way to the bus stop with a purposeful stride. I was determined to leave the diminishing façade of Changi Prison behind forever and embark on a new path that led to somewhere better.