We Need To Talk About Singapore’s Long-Term Drug Imprisonment Regime
Illustrations by Lam Yik Chun

This is a re-telling of real events.

“I’ve started reading about addiction,” Bryan says to me. “My doctor friends recommended a book.”

Bryan’s father has been addicted to heroin for as long as he can remember, and has spent the best part of Bryan’s life in jail. After eighteen months of release, he has just suffered a relapse. Bryan is trying to make sense of it all.

“What have you learned?” I say.

“I think it’s helping me. I’m starting to realise that maybe it’s an illness. There are these studies in the US …”

“You’ve never read up on it before?”

“No. I just, I dunno. I was so angry. But I started to try and understand better because it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. He has a good life at home, you know, a wife and two grown sons with stable jobs. We were happy.

“My secondary school showed us videos of canings, you know, to tell us to stay away from drugs. Those videos were brutal. I remember sitting in the dark. The room was full of kids but I felt scared and alone, like only I had ever experienced this. I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so sure my father was going to die. I didn’t think he could survive that. It doesn’t make sense to choose that over the life he had, right? So I’m starting to think that—maybe he doesn’t have a choice.”

Bryan sends me a family photograph, taken in 2018. He’s with his father and mother. His father’s eyelids droop and his nose has lost its sharpness, but in them I see Bryan’s striking features. They are smiling in a café, like any pair of retirees enjoying quality time with their adult son.

“You gave me hope when you came to see me here,” said his father. “If you don’t want me home, you might as well not come. We can go our separate ways.”

In late 2015, Bryan visited his father at Breakthrough Halfway House. Kok Boon had just been released from a decade in prison, which had come on the heels of many other imprisonments. Bryan’s mother and brother would not come with him; they were too angry, too tired of false hope and lying.

Bryan was angry too. Angry at the man whose prison stints had shaped his entire childhood; the man whose addiction had shrouded Bryan’s life in fear and secrecy and subjected him to the indignity of an annual interrogation by his employers: “Have you touched drugs in the last year?”

“Why would I touch drugs? Just because I have a dad in jail?”

“This is protocol. Maybe you can get addictive personality trait from your father. Is like so-call inherit from him lah. You better not smoke also. Just advising you hor.”

With each round of extra clearance came the office gossip. Why Bryan’s security clearance so long? Ours a few questions then finish already. Every year like that. He confirm something wrong. The questions and whispers deepened Bryan’s hatred of his father every single time.

But Confucian piety and Catholic guilt are a powerful combination, and they drove Bryan to visit his father. His father was hopeful and eager; he was progressing well, said the counsellor. They had been working closely together and were confident that this time would be different, and that Kok Boon would be able to integrate into society.

“I’m sorry,” Kok Boon said to Bryan.

It was his first apology to his son. They had never spoken about his imprisonment before. During Bryan’s prison visits, his father had always spoken in rapid-fire Chinese about his own life: “I have a new job. Not sorting laundry anymore, now I’m sorting electronic parts. It’s hard work but it’s work. It doesn’t pay much, so I save. I’m a good saver. I remembered that you were turning twenty-one, so I saved $50 for you. Happy birthday.”

Don’t forget me, he’d always said without saying. I can be better, I will be better. Don’t forget me.

Now Bryan was twenty-eight, and his father would soon be free. Out of Kok Boon’s earshot, the counsellor asked Bryan if his father would be going home. Probably not, Bryan said.

“Integration is a Three-Prong Approach,” she intoned disapprovingly. “The Prongs are your father, your family, and society. Your father has been progressing well. Why isn’t your family doing its part?”

Bryan snapped. “It’s easy for you to give me textbook answers,” he said, “But not all families are the same. You’ve been working with this man for a couple years. I was born with him as my father. Who are you to tell me and my family what we’re supposed to be feeling toward him?”

The counsellor stopped the three-prong talk. Bryan didn’t bother telling her about his father using him as an unwitting drug mule in his childhood, pedalling mysterious packages to flats all around the neighbourhood together with his little brother. The police had questioned the boys on their role in their father’s crimes. Bile filled Bryan’s stomach when he remembered it.

Bryan’s mother, Agatha, still went into panic when she recalled how Kok Boon, eyes glazing from the heroin, used to threaten to kill her if she ever told their boys that he had taken drugs. The terrors were so great that her sons had hired lawyers to prepare the paperwork for divorce. Say the word and it’s done, they had told her. Agatha, a woman of steel and tenderness and Catholic devotion, never did.

Bryan didn’t mention the almost-divorce, but the knowledge weighed on his mind as Kok Boon asked, “What’s the timeline for letting me come home?”

Bryan did not look him in the eye as he said that there was none.

“You gave me hope when you came to see me here,” said his father. “If you don’t want me home, you might as well not come. We can go our separate ways. But if you want to try, we should try a bit more. Not like this.”

Bryan’s mother agreed to give Kok Boon a hundredth chance. He would sleep in a separate room from her. Bryan’s brother, James, thought it was all a big mistake. He hasn’t changed and he never will, he said. You’ll see.

Yet Bryan believed that this time was different. There was an honesty to his father that he had never observed before. Perhaps it was the apology, or perhaps Bryan had mellowed with age. but he was optimistic.

Kok Boon returned home in early 2016. Through his contacts at Breakthrough, he found a job driving with Uber. But his knowledge of Singapore’s roads was stuck in the early 90s, and he often got lost. His first few reviews were poor, and his rating dropped below three stars. Taking Caucasian riders was especially difficult, as he spoke no English. But the Uber community was supportive, and when he submitted a letter of appeal, they agreed to reset his ratings.

It took a few resets, but Kok Boon landed on his feet. He learned to use mobile apps with ease, and was soon consulting the best routes for tips on new roads that hadn’t yet appeared on Google Maps. He hit the road for most of the day and busied his mind by keeping up with the incentives and packages that were being pushed out daily. His hard work paid off, and his rating stabilised at 4.8 stars.

With a bit of hustling, Kok Boon scored a few regulars; kids whom he ferried to school every morning. He made plans to replace them once they graduated from primary school and no longer needed his services. His income was healthy, and he started to save. At family reunions, he recommended the job to relatives and offered to help connect them. His pride and sense of value to society were palpable; everyone marvelled at the change. Kok Boon was at his peak.

Transformation continued at home. Kok Boon and Agatha’s sleeping separately helped to keep communications civil, and gave each of them a refuge to which they could retreat to process their feelings. On the weekends, Bryan took his parents about town—to cat cafés, restaurants, and forest hikes. They went to Japan on their first family holiday.

It was thirty years late, but Bryan’s dream of having a normal family seemed to be coming true.

The only cloud hanging over their collective healing was James. He closed up, refusing to speak to Kok Boon or even acknowledge his paternity. He would not be disappointed again, he said. No-one could blame him.

Kok Boon responded by rising at six thirty each morning to take James to school. James began to say a few sentences to Kok Boon each day, or at least thank him for the ride. His father seemed grateful for these crumbs of progress.

“Your birthday is coming soon too but I can’t be there with you, so I can only say here that I’m sorry, I am truly a failed father.”

In March 2018, new rules for Grab and Uber drivers took effect. By this time, Kok Boon had switched to Grab. To keep driving after June 2018, Kok Boon had to get a Vocational Licence, or PDVL. To get a PDVL, he had to pass an exam: a two-part paper, all questions in English and sometimes of questionable relation to the job: “What is a healthy BMI?” or “What are the three key elements of terrorism?”

Kok Boon immediately signed up for the PDVL course and began to study. But the only English he spoke were the few phrases he’d picked up in prison and in his year with Uber. Reading the questions was practically impossible. The family heard that even university graduates had failed the exam. But Kok Boon tried again and again, and after thirty takes, passed part one of the exam in June.

The family was elated. Kok Boon applied to take paper 2, then waited for the Land Transport Authority (LTA) to give him a date for the exam. And waited. And waited.

Kok Boon called the LTA, but only received standard responses (“thank you for your patience. We will give a response in the next two weeks”).

A month went by. Sharing his anxiety, Bryan accompanied his father to the LTA to find out what the matter was. The officer told Kok Boon that the delay was due to his Medisave account not having been topped up. Bryan’s mother topped it up for him, and the wait continued.

July rolled around with its new PDVL rules and still no exam date in sight. Kok Boon was no longer allowed to drive for Grab. He lost his regular customers and income. Another month idled by with its standard responses, and he visited the LTA a second time. This time, they told him that the issue was his previous convictions. Vague on details, they said they had made queries with the prison and were awaiting a response.

By now, Kok Boon had been grounded for two months, without even an exam to prepare for. Once bursting with activity and freedom, his life stretched into one empty day after another. He became a listless presence in the house, but said little to his family.

In September, sick of limbo, Kok Boon got a new job serving tables at the kopitiam downstairs, where his old contacts often gathered. His family was just thankful that he finally had a way to pass the time.

On 14 October 2018, Bryan was about to leave the house on a work trip when his mother came to him. She sounded casual, almost indifferent, but her words were devastating. The death threats had started again. His father was back on heroin.

Bryan and James were at a loss. They called the Breakthrough counsellor, who told them that the only way for Kok Boon to avoid prison was to check himself into the Institute of Mental Health for voluntary rehabilitation.

The brothers weighed the risks and benefits of confronting their father.

“It’s useless,” James insisted. “It’s happening all over again. Go on your trip. Go and do your work. I’m here. I’ll take care of everything.”

Bryan desperately wanted his father to avoid jail, but knew James was right. There was no stopping the cycle once it had been set in motion. That was how it had always been. As he stepped out of the house, James was on the phone with the police.

All the way to the airport, Bryan was in a daze, as if moving through water. Less than two hours before, his family had been happy and whole. Now it was like the rug was pulled from under his feet and he was frozen in that split second of suspension mid-air, about to crash to the ground.

Bryan never got to say goodbye to his father. Too disappointed to attend Kok Boon’s court appearances, the family received word that he had once more been sentenced to prison. For months, Bryan avoided hearing the details of his charge and sentence. He can’t stop thinking about what could have been.

None of Kok Boon’s family has been to visit since he went back in. No-one talks about him at home. They don’t say it, but Kok Boon is old; they are afraid that he will die in prison.

In January 2019, Bryan received a letter from his father, written in Mandarin with a smattering of English:

Dear Bryan,

Hello! I thought for a long time but didn’t know what to say to you. I only wrote this letter after thinking for a long time. I don’t know if you will see it, maybe you will see it, I don’t even know. I know I have let you down, I really regret being back in here, I don’t know what to say to you but all I can do is beg the Lord to protect you. May you live a happy life, and may each day bring you joy.

Tomorrow is already the new year, I hope work and everything goes well for you, your birthday is coming soon too but I can’t be there with you, so I can only say here that I’m sorry, I am truly a failed father. All right, I won’t write anymore, wishing you a smooth year ahead. I Love You Son.

Wishing you peace   

Happy birthday.

Your father
Kok Boon

In one swift stroke, eighteen months of painstaking growth has been severed. Who is responsible for this Sisyphean tragedy?

The LTA is not altogether to blame. When contacted for comment, the LTA would not discuss Kok Boon’s case due to privacy concerns, but referred Rice Media to this exchange in Parliament.

Yet if substance addiction is indeed a disease, as the entry “substance use disorder” in the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders suggests, then perhaps Kok Boon ought not be held entirely responsible for his own relapse. Yet he will be in prison for at least five years. Any person with a certain set of previous convictions of consuming a Class A drug must be sentenced to a minimum of five years’ imprisonment for the next repeat offence, and seven for the next. Kok Boon was such an individual. Had he been below fifty years old, he would also have been caned.

Bryan’s family has never blamed the law for Kok Boon’s lifelong incarceration. They have always viewed Kok Boon’s drug use as a personal choice and laid all responsibility on him. Nonetheless, neither Bryan nor his family members deny how hard Kok Boon worked to deserve his freedom, and how much progress he had made—progress which is now lost.

We as a society owe it to the Kok Boons, Agathas, Bryans, and Jameses around us to examine the law and interrogate its assumptions. Since its creation, Parliament has never discussed its rehabilitative efficacy with any semblance of rigour, though it seems to be slowly changing its policies toward mere consumers. It is time for a conversation around whether our zero-tolerance drug consumption policy is working, and what price we pay for condemning a sixty-plus year old to years of imprisonment for succumbing to his lifelong addiction.

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