AUG 16, 2018: “A NEW LIFE” AWAITS
They found her lying in a canal, legs shattered, crystal meth still coursing through her system. “She was lucky to survive,” says Imran, his eyes welling up. “But I should have been there to save her from whatever she was planning ... I’m a failure as a brother.”
Shaken, he hung up the phone in Changi prison, marched up to the nearest officer and declared he wanted to renounce his decade-old gang ties - a moment the five-time offender labels his most crucial turning point towards the desired straight and narrow.
One year later and five days before Imran will be released from his latest jail term, he is seated inside a cell with Channel NewsAsia, sharing other stories which make for equally tough listening.
Even then, the 28-year-old bristles with relentless optimism. “This is the very first time I’m feeling totally different compared to previous sentences,” he says. “I’m looking forward to starting a new life awaiting me out there.”
How different? If Imran’s first-ever night in a lock-up for petty crime 12 years ago was “the worst”, then his third stint onwards - all for drug consumption – carried a vicious déjà vu of hopelessness. And by his fifth incarceration in 2015, the future seemed so bleak that he began to seriously entertain one thought: “What’s the point of living?”
It didn’t help that his family seemed to have given up on him too - or at least his father, who in a fit of anger forbade the rest from visiting him ever again. “I thought, this is the end,” Imran says quietly. “There’s no one there for me.”
But it was family, too, which eventually brought him back from the brink. After months of solitude, his inmate number was called for a tele-visit, and there on the screen stood his parents.
“I was just waiting for my dad to reject me and say I’m on my own now,” says Imran. “But instead he cried - and I’d never seen him cry - and trembled and said he forgave me, that he would support me in any way he could and that he believed I would change someday.”
“That’s when I felt I really, really need to do something about myself,” Imran recalls. “The idea of losing them made me ask myself how I ended up here - what went wrong and how to pick myself up.”
He then came close to devastating loss with the suicide attempt by his 26-year-old sister - who is now incarcerated till 2020 for drug use. “She wrote me, saying she was depressed,” Imran says. “I knew then, it was time for me to step up and be a brother to my siblings, a son to my parents. That’s my main motivation - to be there for my whole family.”
For the past nine months he has been placed in the prison’s Pre-Release Centre, which prepares inmates at high risk of reoffending for reintegration into society. The likes of psychology-based therapy and employment assistance are on offer here, along with a support group for gang members - where Imran has taken the lead in facilitating sharing sessions of the emotionally raw, unfiltered sort.
“Sharing reminds us of how we are done with our past,” says Imran. “I remember one of the ‘pioneer’ inmates coming up to me, and saying: ‘Boy, it takes courage to stand up here and talk to us about your life story. Continue what you’re doing, and don’t come back to prison again - if you can make it, I believe all of us here can’.”
It was in this Gang Alternative Projects programme where he also met counsellor Tan Swee Leng - a woman he credits as helping him find himself.
“Right now, Imran feels he belongs and is accepted by family - that’s one strong factor to stop him from reoffending,” says Tan. “But on top of that, he has to always remember his reasons for change and constantly work on himself, not just in the short-term but the long run too.”
AUG 21, 2018: “NO MORE EXCUSES”
It is the morning of Imran’s release and with an hour to go before a proper reunion, emotions are already running high and tears running freely as his parents look back on their eldest child’s journey.
“It’s been so long, in and out of jail … and considering he was 14 when he went to a boys’ home and now he’s almost 30 - for 15 years, I haven’t had a kid,” says his father Lukman, who starts sobbing.
The 61-year-old and his wife Salimah say that as early as primary school, Imran was “hard to handle”. He refused to listen, and would either skip school, come back late, or stay with his grandparents instead. Imran, meanwhile, says he was scared of home, knowing a beating was in store every time he didn’t do well in school.
Things came to a head when, according to Lukman, he stole S$10,000 from his grandmother. He was packed off to a boys’ home, and Imran says it all went downhill from there.
“Inside, I just felt frustrated, abandoned, inferior … a lot of hatred was built up,” he recalls. “I told myself: ‘No one can fend for you. You need to take charge of your own life’.
“The problem is, I started doing so in the wrong way - by being rebellious, picking fights, doing anything I could to survive in there. I couldn’t be weak - if you’re weak, that’s it for you.”
When let out under supervision, he breached a curfew twice and failed to report back - so he was sent in again, and remained in the system till National Service.
“I just got wilder and wilder,” Imran admits. “I got into more fights outside for no particular reason, didn’t go home, surrounded myself with bad company, joined a gang, and it gradually led to drugs.”
His mother blames herself for not being able to communicate with her son when he was younger. “He used to just keep to himself, or sit there seething. It was sad to be his mother and not know how he was feeling,” says the 50-year-old.
“Now I feel there are changes in him - he can express himself better, and it’s a relief.
“Maybe he picked the wrong path, but no matter what happens he’s my son, and good or bad I’ll accept him,” she adds. “The world inside (prison) is different from outside, the circumstances can be hard so I hope he stays strong.”
It is time, and Salimah breaks down when she finally gets to embrace her son, who pulls in his father and younger brother for a family hug.
“I need each and every one of you,” Imran murmurs through tears. “I won’t ever disappoint you again.”
“Do it for yourself, not for us,” his father whispers.
“I will, I will,” Imran sniffles. “Doing the right thing has never been easy for me ... but no more excuses.”
SEP 24, 2018: “ART … CAN SAVE ME”
A month of being almost a free man - he still has to spend every night at a halfway house - does not seem to have done any favours for Imran. The buoyancy from earlier interviews is now sagging, his disposition decidedly less chipper and there is a sense of weariness about him.
He tells of how he lost his grandmother, who he was close to, a few days before - around the same time he lost his full-time job as a cook, which he had secured through the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) ahead of his release from prison.
This was after he didn’t show up for two days - and there are varying accounts of exactly why - but Imran says ultimately, the fault is his: “I didn’t report to work, and just kept quiet, so they decided to terminate me. I understand, they have the right to.”
According to Marc Chong, his job coach from SCORE, the employer had praised Imran’s attitude and the latter had no complaints as well. But part of the issue was Imran wanting a more immediate return in cash. He is now part-timing as a cleaner while looking for regular employment.
Joel Ng, Imran’s correctional rehab specialist, says these challenges are similar to those faced by the majority of ex-offenders in their reintegration efforts. “There’s a need for more time, for things to be worked out better,” Ng adds.
Meanwhile, Imran says he takes comfort from being surrounded by the right people – whether a self-initiated support group with other former gang members he met in jail, or his family’s continued presence and encouragement.
“They keep me going, and help me not to go back to my old ways,” he asserts. “For example, my family wasn’t very supportive of my art in the past, but my dad told me - for the first time - to try and do it full-time because he thinks I have something there.
“They’ve started to see that art is something that can save me.”
The dream is for the former tattooist to become a professional muralist with his own studio. But first he plans to spend a year building his portfolio and then apply for a diploma scholarship under the Singapore Art Museum.
This is no mere fantasy. Imran has been endorsed by Barry Yeow, a former inmate turned art gallery owner, and the two are collaborating on future projects. Even to the untrained eye going over Imran’s paintings from his time at Changi prison’s Visual Arts Hub, the talent is obvious.
Listening to him talk about his art, it is also clear how the medium manifests, internalises and gives direction to his quest for salvation - in sometimes profound ways.
Take one of his early creations, depicting a little girl in a pink rabbit suit and inspired by his younger siblings and cousins, as he explains at our first meeting.
“They taught me a lot - no matter how hard it gets, they always have a very positive energy about them, and it lifts me up. This character, who I named Boo, represents freedom too. Yes, I’m in prison, waiting to be out, but …” Imran pauses.
“To feel down, but still be able to look on the bright side of life. To be in darkness all around, but still find a light - that, to me, is to be truly free.”