Descent Into Prison Hell – A Former Drug Addict Speaks (Part 1)

by: Bryan Chua (14A01A)
Photos by: Aidan Mock and Mr Harold Tan

In our previous article on “Sense of a Beginning”, we featured a book written by 5 Rafflesians as a means of spreading awareness for the dangers of drug abuse. The team conducted interviews with those whom have suffered from and are recovering from drug abuse, creating original stories based on these transcripts.

During the launch last Wednesday, Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association (SANA) President Mr. Poh Geok Ek invited, Mr. Harold Tan, a former drug addict, to share his experiences with the audience. Mr Tan shocked and moved the audience with his honesty.

With his permission, Raffles Press has the privilege of sharing the tale of his descent into drug abuse, serving as a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are to this danger. In the first of this two part series, we will examine his descent into the world of drug addiction, and the lead-up to Mr. Harold Tan’s arrest.

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Many think of drug addicts as gangsters or low-lifers, people at the bottom of the social structure scouring the dark alleys for a quick hit, people who spend beyond their means and people who are generally labeled as failures in life. We read about drug addicts and drug traffickers in the papers everyday, and we dismiss what happens to them quickly. “It won’t happen to us”, we tell ourselves. “I won’t ever do drugs.”

Yet as Mr Tan recounts, you never know. Sometimes you think, maybe once is okay; “I’ll just try it once, I’ll stop after”. He continued, “I told myself, just once would not hurt. I will try it just once for the fun of it. After that, I will not touch it again.”

He was wrong.

“Not even once!” warns Mr Tan, on hindsight.  “I now know for sure that all drugs are extremely strong chemicals that can get a person hooked without him even knowing that addiction has set in,” he said.

harold tan 1

Mr Tan (above) hardly looks the picture of a man who suffered from drug addiction and was incarcerated. You might be tempted to think – “oh, prison probably changed him, he constructed a new identity and became this person.”

You would be mistaken.

Mr Tan is a former Rafflesian.  In his years at Raffles from 1971 to 1976, he was a scout, a debater, a member of Raffles Players, a prefect and was even teased by his classmates for being a ‘‘teacher’s pet”.

Harold-JLLHe graduated with a PSC Local Merit scholarship and a Jurong Town Corporation Overseas Merit scholarship, and went on to build a reputation for himself as an Associate Professor in Real Estate at NUS, after spending more than 25 years in senior management positions in top organizations.  Beyond his qualifications on paper, his friends saw him as a loyal friend, always willing to help them when they were in need; his family saw him as a caring brother, being the sole breadwinner to support his sister’s university education and a filial son, caring for his mother when she slipped into senile dementia.

Hardly the image of a drug addict.

Yet this is the reality of his situation – behind his successful career and teaching excellence, Mr Tan was tempted to try recreational drugs around 2008.  He was immediately “hooked”.  He then began a “Jekyll and Hyde” existence, leading a secret double life as a drug addict while still performing his role as a professor.

Even more surprising was how he got into drugs in the first place.

“No, not in a back alley like you might see in movies,” he says, but rather via mixing around within his social circle of professional acquaintances.  At parties or clubs, these people who would bring with them recreational drugs – drugs that he believes many of them still use today to lead double lives.  He says he has met corporate executives, engineers, accountants, doctors, lawyers and teachers at these parties and clubs.

Mr Tan first came into contact with drugs at an elegant wine and cheese party. It was a banker who passed a bong around, rather than some shady drug dealer in a dark alley.  The banker said “hey, try this.” Mr Tan thought, “it’s a nice elegant setting with friendly people, so why not?”

Once he started, he couldn’t stop. He was in love with the ‘high’ he got from the drugs, the chemicals providing what he described as euphoria and a sense of extreme alertness or “aliveness”.  The drugs allowed him to hallucinate and experience an “alternate reality” akin to the incredible visual images and sounds that can be see in the movie “Inception” where people can float or fly, and buildings and furniture can morph into different shapes, colours and objects.

“I experienced floating out of my body while lying on a sofa.  Music that I was listening to seemed to burst into a galaxy of colours and patterns floating with me in space like a colourful computer screen saver.  I can imagine and dream whatever I wanted, even though I knew I was semi-awake,” he said.  He remembers entering a fantasy world in hues of blue and green, as if he was in the movie “Avatar”. On another occasion, he recalls floating on a cloud of pastel flowers, or flying like an eagle into a night filled with stars, while he was actually lying motionless in bed.  “The images and feelings were so fantastic and vivid that it was hard to distinguish between what was real and what was not.  Am I dreaming or am I in reality?  I couldn’t tell when I was intoxicated with a cocktail of drugs,” he revealed.

He told us of how various professional people continue to engage in drugs as a method of coping with stress, or situations they find painful.  The drugs quickly became a means of escape, of forgetting or coping with emotional pain or disappointments. He goes on to add, “At every party, I would love to have some (drugs).

“That’s how it starts.  It seemed so harmless.  I thought I was smart enough to be in control of my drug usage. I totally misjudged how potent and addictive they are.”

Mr Tan revealed that he was highly organized in maintaining his professional image while dabbling with enjoying recreational drugs; treating the latter as a “pastime” and an escapade.  When the drugs wore off, he would return to work and could function normally, so no one – not even his family or closest friends – had any inkling that he was abusing drugs. He was truly leading a double-life.

A photograph of Mr. Harold Tan working out in the gym; this was taken prior to his arrest
A photograph of Mr. Harold Tan working out in the gym; this was taken prior to his arrest

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His life crashed when he was arrested in a drug dragnet by CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) on 16th Dec 2010 for consumption and possession of drugs, including crystal meth (otherwise known as “ice”), and sentenced to rehabilitation in the DRC (Drug Rehabilitation Centre). The moment the news broke, the shock his friends and relatives received was beyond measure. To make matters worse, he was vilified by the press and was lambasted as a “Black Sheep” in articles and blogs.

An article published online, labelling Mr Tan as a 'black sheep'.
An article published online, labelling Mr Tan as a ‘black sheep’.

“Don’t be naive and think of the DRC as those comfortable-looking centres celebrities like Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan would go to”, he says. His drug rehabilitation centre turned out to be Singapore Changi Prison.

“When I was arrested, I didn’t think I was addicted.”

****

When the news broke in February 2011, Mr Tan had already been imprisoned for a month. As he was being transferred to prison, he was bound at the ankles and at his wrists – as if he was a hardened criminal. Yet only when the prison gates opened did the enormity of his actions hit him.

“A very rough wake-up call,” he called it.

He wasn’t the only one nabbed in the drug bust – yet his story dominated the headlines. He believes that he was singled out by the authorities to serve as a warning to other other professional people to lay off drugs because of Singapore’s “zero tolerance” policy towards drug abuse.

When the arresting officers took his details, he remembers their reaction when they discovered that he was a professor –

“What the hell are you doing using drugs?”

They had never arrested anyone with such high educational qualifications before.

****

He looks back on the experience of being labelled as “Singapore education’s black sheep” as a very hurtful time. It dawned on him then, as a former Rafflesian, he used to make judgments on other people, reading the news of other drug addicts saying, “that will never be me.”

“I was wrong.”

“In fact, sharing the same prison cell with former gangsters, repeat drug addicts and drug traffickers made me realise that I am no better than they are. Many of them led a hard life of poverty, or lacked education.” The drugs provided escape from an intolerably difficult and impoverished life, many suffering from broken families, violence and a sheer need to survive on the streets.

“When I was sharing the same cell with them, they took care of me when I was sick, showed me kindness and encouraged me to serve out my sentence.  I learned that no matter what our education, status or position in life, we all essentially long for love, friendship, comfort, security and shelter.  It was so very wrong of me to look down on drug addicts … I had become one of them.”

He’s walked away from the negative publicity now knowing what it’s like to be under the glare of the media spotlight.  He tells us, “It [the whole experience] humbles you – it makes you realise that you’re no better than anyone else, that you’re wrong when you think can control it (using drugs).”

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Mr Tan tells us how all addictions are the same – cigarettes, computer games, saying that you’re only smoking 5 cigarettes a day, or playing video games for 2 hours every day, or taking just one more drink. Yet it grows: 5 becomes 10, 2 hours becomes 4, one drink soon becomes 10. He says many smoking addicts he has met look at the pictures of cancer on the cigarette packs and say – “that’s them, not me. I go the gym, I exercise.” Yet at the end, Mr Tan reflects, you will face the truth of what addiction does to you – it ruins your life.  Your life becomes “out of control”.

****

Mr Tan remembers that his prison cell was roughly 400 square feet cell (about the size of an average hotel room) – a room which he had to share with 7 other people, and was forced to learn to sleep, eat and use the toilet in the same enclosed space. There were no windows, apart from a small hole in the wall covered over with a perforated grill (to prevent inmates from hanging themselves), covered to the point that very little sunlight – if any at all – would enter the cell.  When the ceiling lights were switched off to conserve electricity in the daytime, it was just dark. Mr Tan calls living in the cell the equivalent of being trapped in a cage; all the heavy steel doors are computerised, and every time the cell door closed, it slammed shut like a heavy vault door closing.

After being incarcerated in prison for 6 months, he was released for good behaviour, but was put on home arrest for another six months.  While at home, he had recurrent nightmares of being trapped in prison, unable to get out and whenever he heard a door slamming, it reminded him of the steel doors in prison. When he consulted a psychiatrist, he was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

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Mr Tan regrets taking drugs beyond just the personal trauma he suffered. He regrets the grief and pain caused to his family, and the shock to his friends and associates as he witnessed the career he built up over the years come crashing down. Despite being released, he found himself being avoided by some people whom he had worked with.  The prison experience left him broken, lacking severely in confidence, which caused him to spiral into a depression. He recalls becoming reclusive, feeling utterly ashamed and humiliated.

He remembers the days in prison where he would think, “After all my achievements as a scholar and a Rafflesian, has my life come to this, spending my senior years in prison? I accept that I have done wrong and should be punished; all I ask is please do not punish me so hard till you break me. For if I am broken, how can I restart my life and be a useful member of society again?”

“Isn’t rehabilitation supposed to help us reintegrate back into society?”

 ****

Mr Tan’s story doesn’t end here – we continue this with Mr Tan recounting more of his prison experiences, and the lessons he learnt from the harrowing ordeal. Do check back for part 2!

3 thoughts on “Descent Into Prison Hell – A Former Drug Addict Speaks (Part 1)”

  1. I really agree with thiss post. It was extremely insightful as well.
    I know there are a few Rafflesians out there who smoke or have underaged sex, and i hope that they really take the time to read this article so that they could be better inspired to stop :)

  2. I feel this entry was extremely insightful and amazing. I know of a few rafflesians who smoke or have sex and I really hope they see this article and be inspired to stop these bad addictions or habits that they have gotten themselves into. Thank you so much for this article.

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