“I spent most of my life inside,” says Ken (not his real name). “I was inside since before I was 17.”
He’s now 31 years old, and has spent over almost a decade and a half in Singapore’s Reformative Training Centre (RTC) as a youth, in the army’s Detention Barracks during National Service, and in jail.
“I didn’t want a normal job, I wanted to get rich fast. I want to do everything to beat the law,” says Ken. “I was into money laundering, making fake IC, use of corporate banking accounts, cheating — I was a nice, painted, pawn man for you to make money.”
Ken was released around 2017, and decided to make some changes in his life. “I want to wash hand and relax already lah, stop doing my vices,” he says. He’s remained out of prison since.
Years spent in and out of the system comes from a vicious cycle that feeds on crime and the brokenness of repeat offenders, says Ken, who was himself chased out of home at a young age.
He’d observed a certain mindset in both himself and others, one that led them to commit offences again and again. “I’ve seen the same faces over and over again, with the same school of thought, with the same thought process, and these people didn’t even try to break out of how they are thinking,” he says.
Through conversations with TJC, he shares his experience with incarceration, rehabilitation, punishment cells, caning, isolation, and separation from society.
“They have their own laws inside Changi prison,” Ken says of Singapore’s prison system. “It’s like an island by itself. It’s not Singapore.”
A lack of emotion and empathy is what dehumanises inmates, and leads to severe and long-term psychological effects, Ken says. “When you meet an individual, no matter what race, language or religion, whether he is a criminal or not, you don’t serve the person food from the flap,” he says, referring to meals through a flap at the bottom of the cell door.
“Just by doing this, without realising, there is a very strong psychological effect to an individual, that we are inmate[s] and we take food from below.”
This effect, Ken says, grows within the individual and continues to fester even when reentering the outside world. “Even until today,” he says, “I have friends who are very, very low because they have done so much time. It has been programmed, in a sense.”
Having been in and out of the prison and detention system for most of his adult life thus far, Ken doesn’t hold any illusions on Singapore’s rehabilitative options, or the chances of their success.
“Speaking for myself, having served multiple times, the idea of rehabilitation is crap,” Ken says. “It’s crap because in order for somebody to be better again or to go through rehab, a person is destroyed, is broken. All these people who have been stealing, fighting, drugs — they are broken.”
Seeing the same members of his community coming in and out of the system repeatedly, Ken says the rehabilitation process doesn’t work.
“I’ll be frank with you, most of the people in Singapore who need financial assistance are the Malay community,” he says. “No matter how good the counsellors are, how good they are at listening, all that don’t matter at all in the real world.”
He does, however, point to the need for addressing the issues that underlie incarceration.
“If you don’t touch on these social issues, it can grow into a kind of sickness in the community.”
On segregation and Punishment Cells (PC), the system and caning
In the event of a minor misdemeanor in prison, Ken explains, you can be segregated for one to three months, while major incidents, ranging from gang activity to fighting to tattooing, will result in a one- to six-month punishment.
Despite the isolation, there is also a complete lack of privacy.
“[In PC] they monitor your shower time,” says Ken. “You can’t even masturbate in there, cos the moment you touch yourself only they will announce and all your friends will start laughing.”
When you end up in a Punishment Cell, Ken reveals, you’re near where inmates are caned, which happens twice a week. That’s something he has experienced, too.
“When I was 18 years old, I was caned in RTC,” he says. “It hurt me very, very bad till today.”
“Being in a one-man cell at that age, that only made me a stronger person. What I didn’t choose to accept was after I was caned, they [threw me] in a PC cell. I’m doing time in a PC cell already, one man, one shirt, one religious book, two minutes of shower.”
The punishment isn’t limited to those being caned. The layout of the ward is such that everyone up until the last cell is within hearing distance.
“Even if you are at the last cell, if you cane, you can hear ah. So they purposely put the PC near the caning so you can hear,” says Ken. “There is a lot of psychological deterrence going on.”
While judges can sentence convicted criminals to caning for certain offences, caning can also be meted out as a disciplinary measure within the prison, without having to go through the courts. “There is no justice system,” Ken says. “It’s the superintendent of the prison, ASP, DSP, that’s it.”
When waiting to be caned, inmates are lined up in gowns with straps on the back, exposing the buttocks. “[We queue up] like idiot lah, like want to go voting lah, like queuing babi babi go slaughter house,” Ken recalls.
“I had 5 to 7 strokes,” he says. “Between you and me, I don’t run from anything in life. They tied my hands and tied my legs. On the third stroke, if they didn’t tie, I will run.”
During this process, there are people who sit on a raised platform. “With a shield lah, a window, and they are happily enjoying you getting whacked,” Ken says. “It’s sick.”
“But what is the most sick process of this whole thing, do you know that after you are caned, there’s a panel of people watching you, three people, do you know that after you get caned, it is mandatory for you to look at them, and say thank you?”
Recovery time depends on how well you take care of your wound, and whether you scratch the scabs or not. “On average it takes slightly more than a month for the wounds to recover,” Ken says. “But what is important are the unseen psychological effects, of this is how it degrades a human.”
“I have no education but this is what I believe God let me see. I’m very simple, to be honest. But when I see this kind of thing — you all think it’s not there? It’s there.”
On community, religion and family
Having been in the system for most of his youth and adult life, breaking out and starting over has not been easy. Ken tells TJC that his religion and his family saw him through.
“I broke away from the concept that this system is irrelevant because of religion,” said Ken. “I’m not taking this to the afterlife. The corporate ladder is just temporary, and it’s not life.”
Through everything, Ken’s mother never stopped visiting him, travelling into Singapore from Johor where she was renting a place – to Woodlands, then to Tampines, and to Changi.
“She never once stopped visiting me also, see my fuck face for twenty minutes,” said Ken. “She was there supporting me, always asking me to do normal work, don’t have to be like this.”
For Ken, speaking out and asking for help — and being open to receiving it — is key for starting to heal, and to move forward. But the road ahead, he knows, is tough — to Ken, this requires a new focus on himself and his family.
“In order for us to progress we have to be real first lah, and work on our faults la, so three years ago, I [was released], I found somebody I wanted to settle down with. It didn’t work out, I was with another lady and supposed to get married in January this year, also it didn’t work out,” he said. “I put that on hold first lah — find a new partner and find a new life.”
Ken now sees himself in a position to help others.
“I have some friends who I see are going through what I went through ten years ago,” he says. “And I won’t stop helping them also, as how I was helped last time.”