In Jack Neo’s latest film ‘Take Two’, four ex-convicts leave Changi Prison only to find themselves trapped in a larger cage – Singapore itself.
In the movie, the main character Ah Hu and his three friends are determined to make a fresh start after leaving the prison experience behind. Unfortunately, Singapore does not forgive quite so easily.
Inside, they suffered the rotan. Outside, they face stigma and discrimination from a society unwilling to look beyond their chequered past.
“For two years, we hung onto the script even though the Singapore Prison Service did not allow us to film inside the prison,” producer Jack Neo told The Pride. “Through the movie, we hoped to tell a good story so people can understand the real issues faced by ex-offenders in Singapore.”
Like most Jack Neo comedies, things end well. Our heroes fight their way to a happy ending that seems just a little too sweet to be the hard truth.
So, what is the hard truth for Singapore’s ex-offenders? To find out, The Pride speaks to Eighteen Chefs founder Benny Se Teo and counsellors from the Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS).
In some parts, the movie is spot-on.
This is confirmed by Jensen, a present-day PFS coordinator and ex-offender who has served about a decade in prison for drug-related offences. Yes, many inmates become estranged from their families. Yes, just like the movie, some inmates spend so many years inside that they can’t figure out how to work an iPhone.
“When I came out of prison. I was stunned to see ez-link cards everywhere,” Jensen explained. “When I went in, people were still using farecards.”
Prison is LinkedIn for drug offenders
The details are accurate, but ex-offenders face much more than job discrimination and unfamiliar technology on the outside.
According to the Singapore Prison Service’s 2016 statistics, the recidivism rate for ex-offenders is about 25 per cent in two years. In PFS executive director Andrew Tay’s experience, a far larger number reoffend when you look at a longer time frame of five years.
Reason? Drugs and networking. About 75 per cent of the prison population are drug offenders who are prone to relapse and the friendships they form inside prison often makes relapses easier.
Just ask Pastor Don Wong, who fought a similar battle against drugs for more than 20 years.
The real challenge, as Jensen explains, begins the very moment you leave prison. On the inside, there’s a strict regimen to keep you on the straight and narrow. With the freedom of release, it’s easy to slip back into your old ways.
“Everytime I go in, everytime I come out, I tell myself I want to turn over a new leaf, but it’s nearly impossible to break the bondage,” Jensen said.
When he first underwent rehab at the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) in 1986-1987, Jensen cleaned up within a year. On the outside, he lasted barely two months before he bailed on the urine testing regime.
10 months later, he was back behind bars for the same drug conviction.
Despite his personal desire to start anew, he found it impossible to escape the drug-friendly ecosystem that comes naturally with prison time. Everywhere he turned, from coffeeshop to bus station, he bumped into other ex-offenders and his old friends – cannabis and heroin.
“Before I went to prison, I had only one or two sources to get drugs. After going to prison, I got so many more contacts from inside,” Jensen said.
Even the police station is not a safe haven. Ironically, your average police post is an excellent place to catch up with other ex-offenders because everyone gathers there for the mandatory urine test.
Both Jensen and Benny agree on this. The police post, as Benny claims, is “where you bump into all your old friends again”.
Relapse, arrest and a return to handcuffs. After a few stints in prison, many friends and family abandon their hope for the offender to change. In Benny’s experience, forgiveness is in limited supply.
“If you go inside prison one time? Can, they will forgive you. But two times, three times? Cannot, lah,” Benny said, shaking his head.
Jensen’s brother once said to him: “You come out of prison only to breathe some air and then you go back in again.”
This harshness only makes things worse. As the years go by, the ex-offender’s social circle consists of nothing but others in a similar position. With no family, many are forced to stay in a halfway house or share a rental flat with another ex-offender.
This makes for a dicey situation if one of them relapses, according to Benny. Addiction is contagious and if one flatmate starts using drugs, the other is likely to be affected.
Either that, or a fight occurs. In a recent case recounted by Benny, one drug-addled ex-offender stabbed his flatmate to death because he couldn’t stand the constant nagging.
“The government can help by providing housing. Otherwise, no choice but a halfway house.” Benny said.
Hiring an ex-offender: Give chance not enough
Contrary to popular belief, job discrimination is not the only issue. In the pre-yellow ribbon days of the 1990s, discrimination was a major hurdle. Due to present-day restrictions against foreign labour, many employers are now forced to take a chance on ex-offenders.
“Nowadays, there are even prison job fairs! They can pick and choose who they want to work for,” Benny said.
While many employers are prepared to give ex-offenders a chance, a leap of faith is not nearly enough if they’re poorly equipped to handle having them on their staff.
Benny quipped: ‘Very often, I see that the ex-offender is managing the manager.’
This happens because an ex-offender does not share the mentality of your average employee. In Benny’s long experience of managing them, most will not respect a man based on his education or because he’s the boss.
“They measure a man based on the years he has spent in prison,” Benny said. “Only an ex-offender knows how to handle another ex-offender.”
This, of course, creates a paradox if many of them cannot hold on to their jobs in the first place.
Furthermore, few companies have a system in place like Eighteen Chefs, which employs ex-offenders across its service chain and trains its managers to identify, counsel and refer a drug user to rehab.
Without this, the workplace attrition rate is high. If a staff member lapses into old habits and starts taking drugs, a domino effect could cause the rest to follow suit because addiction will spread like smallpox among the staff.
“This is what happened in my first restaurant Goshen, one rotten apple infected all the others,” Benny said.
To contain the spread, an employer needs to look out for signs of relapse and deal with it quickly, but few employers have enough experience with ketamine or cannabis to see the signs until it’s far too late.
And even managers who can sniff out drug usage find it challenging sometimes. Benny admitted that “they cannot be present at all 13 outlets at the same time”.
The art of forgiving
Every year at Christmas, PFS delivers about 1,000 hampers from prison inmates to their families outside. These hampers contain handwritten letters from the inmates pleading for forgiveness and patience.
Of these, some 50 to 60 hampers are returned because the families want nothing to do with the inmates.
This is perhaps the most compelling reason for the need to tackle this issue head-on. This invisible prison not only entraps offenders even before their release, it also unfairly punishes many of the broken families who suffer alongside, outside.
There are no statistics to prove this, but both Andrew and Jensen agree that ex-offenders’ children are far likelier to follow the sins of the parent. During his stints in prison, Jensen recalls seeing a father and son eating side by side. He also knows of a father, 60, and his two sons, both in their 30s, who were imprisoned at the same time. There was a third son outside, also in his 30s, running from the law.
To help inmates and their families, PFS runs a through-care programme that offers holistic assistance. Within the prison, the faith-based non-profit group provides chapel services and intensive Christian counselling to those who seek them out.
Outside the prison, PFS provides one-on-one tuition with the inmates’ children and takes them to arts events during the school holidays. They also offer material assistance in the form of guidance and transport after the inmate’s release.
All this is done in order to break the cycle of addiction and imprisonment.
Jensen, 51, finally broke free of this invisible prison in 2010, thanks to PFS’s Christian Intensive Religious Counselling Programme (CIRCP).
Chef Benny kicked his habit after a near-death experience with intestinal ulcers. The cold water they pumped into his stomach emerged a shocking red colour.
Even so, it’s always an uphill struggle. For every ‘success story’ like Jensen and Benny, there are many more cases of continual struggle. Some ex-offenders escape drugs only to fall victim to alcoholism or gambling addiction. Others are let go from their jobs because they cannot stay clean.
So what can the average Singaporean do to help?
There’s no easy answer. The ex-offender must desire change and we must be ready to embrace them. Reality, however, is much harsher than the movies and success stories like Benny and Jensen are often hard-won.
“We must learn to forgive, but one time two time is not enough. We must forgive three, four, maybe five times.” said Benny.