There are three of us: Syed, Sharmila and I. Syed was a playful and innovative child. Growing up, he’d come up with ideas for outdoor games with the neighbour kids. He was the first person who taught me how to ride a bicycle. Both of us liked Star Wars, and he was very proud of his collection of toys. We’d play board games like Cluedo and Monopoly together, as a family.
Syed and Sharmila share a special bond. She was born exactly nine years after Syed; they share the same birthday. I’m two years older than Syed, and was more of a loner, a bookworm. But Syed and Sharmila had that connection.
Whenever Syed and Sharmila hung out, he’d always tease her. It was so funny to watch. Even though Sharmila was the youngest, she’d always been the glue that kept the family together. Even though we share a mother but have different fathers, we never looked at her differently. Our bond was deep, whether we were together or separated. Our love went beyond our different DNA.
Syed’s in some of my strongest childhood memories. He used to make me switch off the lights in his bedroom once he was nicely snuggled under his blanket. He would shout, “Sis! Switch off the light for me.” Even though my room was downstairs, I’d always oblige.
My favourite memory of Syed was when we were in primary school. I was crying about something. To cheer me up, Syed told me a story about a princess that he’d made up all on his own.
I remember, in secondary school, when our mum visited the school for parent-teacher meetings, she’d shout our names from across the canteen. Syed and I were embarrassed by that, but we’d laugh about it after. Syed was always much more intelligent; he made it to the Express stream while I remained in the Normal stream.
Another wonderful memory I will always cherish is when we were teenagers and going to tea dance together. We asked our mother for money to go. I remember that day being so fun and full of laughter, dancing with all our friends from school. I remember feeling young, free and invincible.
Our mother passed away when Syed was 16. I believe the loss of our mother caused us to break down. Syed lost sight of family and began getting more involved with his friends. I was more interested in searching for a partner. Our mother was the disciplinarian at home; without her, Syed and I developed our own coping mechanisms, without thinking about Sharmila and our stepfather, who were also dealing with the same pain, loss and despair. I believe it was the trauma of losing our mother, and the influence of peers, that pushed Syed to start using drugs.
He was only 16. I was lucky to have had my mother’s presence until I was 18. I’d spent time with her, learnt her strength, and felt her encouragement. I had also experienced being disciplined by her.
All of us have our own skeletons in the closet. Our own silent addictions, coping mechanisms. For me, it was the temporary escape of clubbing, drinking, and finding love. For Syed, he sought to numb his heart and mind. I regret never asking him why he did the things he did. I was so caught up in my own pain that I neglected him. When our father passed away in Malaysia years later, Syed could not attend his funeral. On top of that, our father’s siblings were also fighting for a share of the family land in Malaysia. That probably fuelled his need for escape even more.
You know how you always tell yourself, “Oh I can quit smoking anytime, I just need it temporarily until I’m less stressed”? We continue feeding our habits even if it’s bad for our health. If cigarettes ever became illegal one day, I’d be one of the many people in jail.
Syed’s journey of using drugs is a blur; I can’t pinpoint when his drug habit got worse. Perhaps the failure of finding a better job after his release from the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) contributed to his addiction. He worked as an outdoor salesman, selling children books at offices around Singapore.
In his own way, Syed tried his hardest to kick the habit. He was private and secretive about his addiction. It was something we never discussed openly as siblings. Perhaps we should have; it could have saved him from going further down the rabbit hole.
I think Syed was going through his own battle. For him to repeatedly turn to drugs, he must have had an ongoing inner struggle and desperation to kick the habit. An addiction controls the mind in all of its choices. Why do I still smoke? Why do some people need alcohol daily? Why do people still gamble even when they are in debt? The problem here is that people don’t see drugs as something that affects the mind; they look at drug offenders and see a criminal. Drug addiction should fall under the same umbrella as mental and emotional challenges.
Syed was convicted of drug trafficking, but I believe otherwise. His drug use has grown over the years, and therefore he needs more just to keep it in stock. It’s the same as marketing. A housewife doesn’t just buy two onions; she buys a bundle to keep for later. If Syed is considered a trafficker, then where is all his money? Would he not have a fat bank account, or even a Swiss bank account?
I believe the Singaporean society and system has failed Syed. It failed Syed and all the drug offenders serving time or a death sentence, when the whole world knows that drug abusers need proper rehabilitation.
The law looks at what a person has done, and issues a sentence without considering why they did what they did, and how this act could have been prevented. We need transparency and greater public awareness. How can the DRC improve their rehabilitation methods? How can society help?
Of course we all want to live in a drug-free world, a smoke-free world, a vice-free world. But we also want to live in a fair world. A just world with a sound judicial system. I think it’s about time that we, the Singaporean people, are given that.
Sharifah is Syed’s older sister. We had previously interviewed his younger sister, Sharmila: