Aidan’s Story: “The privileged class is very blind to people who’ve been through the system”

Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

“What do you have in your pocket?” they asked.

I said I had my handphone and wallet with me. 

“What else?” 

“You probably already know what else,” I said. “If not, why are you here?” 

They didn’t like that answer. 

I was mainly dealing marijuana at the time. One regular was meant to meet me at Sembawang MRT. Calling is safer than texting but this time, we agreed to meet through text. We’d already met 30 times or more, so I wasn’t suspicious. 

Then it all happened so quickly. At our meeting point, someone called my name and then suddenly — seven people were on top of me. CNB officers. I couldn’t fight back. They pinned me to the floor, turned me around and handcuffed me.

Getting caught 

They made me take everything out of my pockets, and that’s when they found the drugs. At Jurong HQ station, I saw my buyer. I realised they had arrested him, and used his phone to lure me into a trap. 

They put me in a holding cell, then questioned me and took my initial statement. They were rough during the interrogation. I wasn’t welcoming, but I wasn’t fighting back either. 

But one thing stood out: I wasn’t given a chance for a lawyer. They didn’t read out any rights. 

During the statement, I was asked if I’d taken drugs (at this point I’d already taken a urine test) and an officer tried to trick me into admitting that I had.

“Are you sure you didn’t take anything? Your urine test showed that you took ice,” he said. 

I knew he was lying — I’d never taken ice before. 

Prisoner rights

The entire time I was in the holding cell, I wasn’t told anything about the process — like how long I’d be there — and I wasn’t allowed to call my family. 

It was hard to tell how time was passing at Cantonment. It was a basement cell, it was cold, there were no blankets, and the lights were on 24/7. After a day or so, I was called for an interview with the Investigating Officer. The IO treated me like a human being, unlike the arresting officers from Jurong, where they did what they could to make me uncomfortable. 

Still, no rights were read out, and I don’t think you are afforded a lawyer.  

It was at this point, after being informed that I’d be brought into court the next morning for my charges to be read out, that I was told I’d be able to call my parents to inform them only of the time and which courtroom. They had at this point no clue about the true gravity of the trouble I was in, or what charges I might be facing, until the court actually read it out along with the bail amount.

The next day, the charges were read out, and the bail amount announced. My parents, who had no idea about the process, then had to go to the bail office where they were told that a bank bond or letter was required, rushed to the bank to get the document, and rushed back to the court to make sure they could bail me out before the end of the day.

With the proper documentation collected and provided by my parents, I was let out on bail.

This was in February, and I went about regular life, apart from court appearances and lawyer meetings. 

Sometime in July, court proceedings began. I was facing six cannabis related charges: one for possession, five for trafficking. Every different location counted as a separate charge, and I had one at home, one on my person, some in the army camp. 

I had just turned 20 — so no longer eligible to be considered for probation and RTC (Reformative Training Centre). I was put in remand for one month and was sent to Changi Prison with other remandees. 

Entering remand

I was taken straight into remand after court. There were about 20 of us in a tiny truck of sorts — our hands were cuffed, with a chain connected to your legs which were cuffed as well. You couldn’t walk as much as you could shuffle, and in the truck you couldn’t sit up properly either. 

In Changi Prison, I was processed and then sent for medical checks. By then, you would have surrendered all your possessions. They give you prison clothes and your new belongings: a clear rectangular container with basic toiletries, a straw mat, and two blankets. 

The straw mat is meant to be used as a mattress, but it doesn’t add any padding, so we slept directly on the concrete floor instead. The prison cell gets hot, so the concrete floor felt cool at least. Besides, the straw mats were dirty — we used them as brooms to clean the cell floor during our daily cleaning. The two blankets were used as a pillow. 

In the remand block there are four to a cell. There were four walls and a door, and you don’t get to see any sunlight at all, as there’s no window except for a small sliding shutter letter hole at the bottom of the door. A small wall partitions the shower and toilet area. 

With four of us in the cell it was cramped, so we slept in a “mahjong formation”. 

It was hard being trapped inside for 23 hours every day. Popular media portrays prison with a bed (albeit not a fancy bed), or at least a mattress. You’d imagine that your cell is open, and you’d get to roam around your block and have an opportunity for intermingling with block mates.  In general, you get the impression from popular media that there are more opportunities for socialising and to have the freedom to move about. 

But in reality, the cell is minimal: just a floor and a toilet. On Sundays, with no yard time,  you would be inside the cell the whole day. You don’t see the sky, and you face boredom and being cooped up in a tiny space.

It would have been unbearable without my cellmates. They were nice, and told me how to get by in prison life. We rotated every week or so, and I went through three different sets of cellmates. My first group of cellmates were much older, and had all been through it before. 

You are allowed books and magazines sent in by your family and friends.  They can send you snacks, too. Within prison, many were quite well-read and devoted to reading a wide range of genres, even though not everyone had much of a formal education. 

It was quite evident I came from a privileged background, and the inmates treated me well and took care of me — probably because I looked quite lost, like a fish out of water. 

I can’t help but wonder about the contrast.  If the roles were reversed, would those from privileged backgrounds extend such courtesy and care to someone who might be quite different from them culturally and socially?

During yard time, we would trade books and magazines, discuss what we’d been reading — Tuesdays with Morrie was popular — and which snacks are best and which weren’t so good, and so on. Just simple things to keep you going. 

There would usually be a basketball match on — there was a big basketball court in the centre, and a sepak takraw court by the side. I’ve heard that RTC has a very different dynamic: more regimented and disciplinary. But in remand, it was all very chill — prison guards were laid back and not abusive; sometimes they even cracked jokes with the inmates. 

I learnt how to make simple gadgets or items out of what we had. For example, using leftover rice to make glue for turning torn out magazine pages into fans, which was helpful in dealing with the heat. 

It was technically an offence to do this, but if the guards found out, they’d just confiscate them. I suppose it depends on how much the guards like you, because it can be used against you. Whenever you’re written up for an offence, you would be asked for a thumbprint. Three thumbprints means punishment. 

I was never punished myself — and I never saw anyone get a thumbprint — but I did once see prison guards break up a fight. The inmate involved received three strokes of the cane on the spot, then isolation for one week. Three weeks later he was my cellmate and he showed me his scars. His wounds were still raw, and since he had been in isolation, no one was able to help him. He couldn’t sit down and had to sleep face down. 

Legal processes

During this month in remand, RTC and a probation officer interviewed me separately to assess my mental condition, and family background. 

In the end, I was sentenced to three years’ probation, with some conditions: 320 hours of community service, six months of electronic tagging, a curfew of 10am–6pm and mandated attendance to drug rehab programmes. 

Rehabilitation and classes 

I was made to go to two or three rehabilitation classes, but personally I didn’t see much educational value in those classes nor experience how they could contribute to my recovery. The drug cycle was not addressed. There are many people who are trying really hard to rehabilitate, but finding it very difficult due to lack of opportunities for meaningful change, and obstacles which make them more likely to fall back into the cycle.  

I think this goes hand in hand with Singapore and the government’s attitude towards crime. Maybe they don’t believe in rehab, and because of that are not making an effort? 

In Singapore, those from the privileged classes are very blind to people who have been incarcerated. This makes rehabilitation hard because there is shame, there is anger and resentment, and people are not given real opportunities to break out of a cycle of addiction.

I come from a privileged background, and my parents could afford a lawyer, and to send me overseas to study in the UK. So for me, it was easy to get out of the cycle, even after incarceration. But many are not as lucky.

What needs to change? 

I think there are changes that need to be made to the system. 

When people are arrested, they should be afforded the chance to recruit a lawyer when giving a statement, and to know their rights.

It is ridiculous that the police can take your statement without having to give you a lawyer — you must have a right to know the due process. This current system heavily favours law enforcement. 

It matters how people are treated. If you treat someone harshly, or overly punish them, this leads to more resentment, more issues, more anger, more destruction. When these inmates are released, they come out angry at society, and fall back into bad habits, or are unable to get their lives together because they are treated so inhumanely. 

I believe that the path towards finding the best way for society is not meant to be easy — it’s just something that we all need to put effort into. 

Correction: In this story, we wrote that Aidan was beyond the age of probation at the time of his sentencing. In fact, while the possibility of probation for multiple drug charges was near impossible, he was at the time under 21 and still within the threshold.

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