PERSPECTIVE: In 2001, Taufik (not his real name) was sentenced to 30 years and three months imprisonment for drug trafficking and consumption. He was 25 years old.
However, he has been granted early release due to his good conduct and behaviour, family support, and his completion of in-care rehabilitation programmes. He will likely be released in November 2021, at 45 years of age.
Speaking to Mothership, Taufik tells us what prison life is like, as well as the internal and external struggles he has had to overcome behind bars.
As told to Syahindah Ishak
What was it like when you first found out you will be going to prison?
I was very lost ah. My mum... she was sad. She was worried that I was going to get hanged because my charge was a capital charge.
Both of us were heartbroken at that time.
I also have two younger brothers and one younger sister. They were very shocked, they didn't know that my offences will lead to a capital charge.
At the time, I was also married and my son... he was only one year old when I was sentenced. My son is 21 this year.
Do you remember your first day in prison? What was that like?
I didn't know the culture inside the prison so I was very lost.
I was also scared of anything that can get me into trouble because I didn't want to make things worse.
I just did what I thought was right and along the way, the other inmates started giving me advice and telling me what I should and shouldn't do.
What does your daily life in prison look like now?
For me, I'm working right now.
Every day, I wake up in the morning and do my morning prayers. Then when the doors open, I go to work.
I'm currently undergoing a work programme at the YR Industries' Bakery, so I help to bake.
What do the inmates do after work?
Actually, not all of us are working. We all go through different programmes, like rehab or studying.
Once we end our programmes, we go back to our respective housing units for recreational activities.
We get to choose whether we want to watch TV, play indoor games, or go out to the yard to do some outdoor activities.
After that, we're back to lock-up in our cell to have dinner and then it's time to sleep.
What type of food do you eat in prison?
There are different dishes. There's chicken, egg, and fish. In one month, the menu varies.
Do you ever get sick of the food?
No. I like anything that comes with chicken. *laughs*
In the housing units, what are some of the TV programmes that are shown and what games are available?
The prison schedules the TV programmes that inmates get to watch. The programmes are pre-recorded, so there are movies and variety shows. We get our news through newspapers.
For games, there are the indoor board games, like chess, and outdoor activities at the yard like sepak takraw and basketball.
Some inmates also spend their time exercising.
What does your prison cell look like?
I'm currently staying in a cell with two other cell mates.
For three people to stay in the cell, I consider the size okay ah. It's not that small, and the cell got nothing much. Most important thing is that I have a place to sleep in.
How's your relationship with your cell mates?
So far so good. We are around the same age. We can share personal stuff with each other sometimes. We can share about something that makes us sad or something that makes us happy.
We are actually quite close ah.
What are some of the rules inside a prison?
We must maintain discipline — no smuggling of items, and no fights.
We must also be respectful towards the officers.
If someone breaks any of the rules, they will get a warning first. If they do it a lot, they can get charged.
Do you often see inmates fight or argue with each other?
There are a few lah. But the last time I saw a fight was a long time ago. Usually, what happens is an exchange of expletives.
Have you had any arguments with other inmates?
During the early stage of my sentence, there was some tension.
When I first entered prison, I was not stable yet. I was more sensitive and I got angry easily. But they were all just tensions, they never escalated to fights.
How do you avoid getting into trouble? What do you do to keep yourself sane each day?
I look out for positive influences, anyone who can encourage me to push through, like my mother, counsellor, and some officers that I can relate to.
My mother always tells me not to miss my prayers, because if I don't miss my prayers, she said that God will take care of me.
I also went to quite a few courses while in prison, courses that taught me social skills and how to change myself. That also taught me how to think positively.
What you feed your mind is important. If you think negatively, then you will only attract negative things.
Do you often think about the offences you committed?
Yeah I do, nearly every day. Every time I think about my offence, I think to myself: "What a big mistake."
And all the lost time I could have had with my family, my son.
I regret what I did.
If you don't mind me asking, why did you commit the drug offences?
It's the friends I had. I was introduced to drugs when I was young. And before I was caught, I was already addicted to heroin.
To feed my habit, I needed a lot of money, and the only way for me to get money is to traffic the drugs.
You were aware that drug trafficking is a capital offence?
Actually before I was caught, I didn't think that hanging was a possible punishment. I only found out after I was caught. But luckily, I didn't get the death penalty.
How did you overcome your drug addiction in prison? That must have been tough.
Ya, in prison, I had no choice but to go cold turkey. It was really difficult at first.
But through rehab and counselling, they taught me how to say no to these negative influences. They also taught me coping mechanisms lah. From there, I slowly overcame my addiction.
What do you miss most about life outside of prison?
I just miss my family ah. My family were very close.
I remember when my father was still around, we used to go for picnics and have a gathering together.
When your father was still around?
He passed away in 2013.
What was that like? How did you deal with it while you were in prison then?
I first found out from my officer that my father was sick and in hospital. At that time, I was granted permission to come out of prison and visit my father in hospital.
That was the first time in 13 years that I left the prison. And it was to visit my father at the hospital.
When I saw him on the hospital bed, I was very very sad.
I lost so much time with him, and the only time I had left with him was in the hospital. Wah... that really made me feel so heartbroken.
At that point, he couldn't speak, so he would just look at me.
When I visited him in the hospital, the doctor predicted that he would only have two weeks to live.
13 days after that, I was told by my officer to go to my brother's place. That's when my father already passed away.
I wasn't really surprised because of what the doctor said. But I was very very sad... I was really sad.
If your father is still alive, what would you want to tell him?
I would make a promise to him that this time is my last time time in prison.
I also want to promise him that I will take care of my mother, my son, and the rest of my family.
Has the situation in prison changed because of the pandemic?
There are some changes lah. We must adhere to the safe distancing measures and wear our masks.
How did you feel when you found out about the current Covid-19 pandemic?
I was very worried, especially for my mother. I read in the papers that older people are more vulnerable to Covid-19.
Each time she visits me, I will ask if she took public transport.
If she did, then I will tell her to take a taxi next time. If she can't get a taxi, I told her that there's no need to come and see me. Her safety is more important.
What do you want to do once you get released?
I want to see my family, and ask for their forgiveness. I want to say sorry for leaving them for so many years.
And I will try my best to make it right this time.
How's your relationship with your son? Does he visit you often?
When I was sentenced, my son was one year old. He is 21 now.
My mother-in-law was taking care of him during my early years in prison. Sometimes, she brought him to visit me, but that's like once in a few years.
In 2019, he moved in with my sister and he visited me a bit more.
The last visit I had from him was last year.
It is actually very awkward. Whenever he visits me, we just don't know what to talk about. Usually, it will be me asking the questions and he would answer with a short reply.
I feel a bit sad lah because I'm not close with him. We're not like any other father and son.
I've actually been trying to find ways to get closer to him. I tried reading some books about icebreakers and how to start a conversation with my son and make him talk.
What about your wife?
My wife has never visited or communicated with me since I got into prison. She applied for divorce two times already.
But both times, they were cancelled because first, she didn't attend court and second, she didn't follow-up.
When I go out, I hope to meet with her and discuss what's best for our relationship.
What are some things you want to say to your son when you see him outside?
I want to say sorry to him and ask for his forgiveness. I've not been taking care of him for so long.
I hope he can give me a chance to be his father again.
I hope I can bond with him, and mend our relationship.
I will also give him advice, tell him not to get involved in the criminal world because you never know, he might get sentenced like me. I don't want that, of course. He is my only son. He's my bloodline.
But I really hope he can accept me as a changed person compared to who I was before I entered prison. People might have told him about my character and who I was in the past. But I hope he will accept me for who I am now.
That is my goal when I'm out— to be a better son to my mother and a better father to my son.
So much has changed over the years since I've been in prison. I don't know what it's going to be like outside. I mean, Singapore is so advanced already right now.
I need to first get some help and advice from my family and my counsellor on how to adapt outside of prison.
But I would like to visit Gardens by the Bay. I saw pictures of it... so beautiful. Jewel also. I will be like a tourist lah. *laughs*
What do you remember about Singapore before you went to prison?
There were no smart phones like now. I remember the Nokia phones just launched FM Radio at the time.
Esplanade was under construction. VivoCity also wasn't around yet.
Even the MRT lines have changed. Back then, Singapore only had the East West Line and the North South line.
Oh yes, when I'm out, I also want to try cycling. I was told that Singapore has a lot of park connectors now. And my brother bought a bicycle for me already, so I want to take up cycling when I'm out.
Are you ever worried about going back to your past life?
I don't have the urge to make the same mistake again.
I will also make sure that I choose my circle of friends carefully.
I won't go back to my life last time.
If you can say anything to your younger self right now, what would you say?
What would I say? *pause*
Life is short, cherish your freedom, and appreciate your family more, because down the road, family will stick with you.
Not your friends. It's your family. Always.
Top image courtesy of Singapore Prison Service. Quotes were edited for clarity.