SINGAPORE: Looking back to his life 10 years ago, Andy (not his real name) didn't think he would be where he is now.
The 26-year-old recently graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with an engineering degree, and he is about a month into his first job.
Every weekday, he leaves his home in Tampines at 5.30 in the morning to catch one of the first few trains to his office in Boon Lay. He only gets back at 8.30 in the evening.
But he doesn't mind as it's a decent job, he says, which allows him to work on driverless vehicles and protect their systems from being hacked.
This, however, is a big turnaround from the events of Aug 23, 2008, when Andy was a taxi ride away from what he firmly believes would have been the end of his life.
“If I had sat inside that taxi, I wouldn’t be here talking to you,” he told Channel NewsAsia over lunch at a McDonald’s near his workplace. “Witaya said ‘faster come in, we need to go back and do this'.”
Andy was referring to Ku Witaya, the teenage student who jumped from a ninth-floor window and died in a suicide pact involving seven other friends.
A coroner’s inquiry held a year later revealed that Witaya, 16, had convinced the group that another world war was coming, and their job was to destroy demons and save the world. But to do so, they first had to die and be resurrected as “slayers”.
In the wee hours of that August day, Witaya and his friend Sia Chan Hong, also 16, leapt first. The rest were supposed to follow in two batches of three, but backed out after seeing their friends below.
Andy is adamant that had he followed them in the cab to Witaya's home at Bedok Reservoir, he would have been in the first three to jump. Earlier, the group had been celebrating one of their birthdays at a barbecue at East Coast Park.
“I said no, I want to go back,” he said, adding that Witaya tried convincing him up till they got in the taxi. “Because I thought of my mother.”
SHINING IN SCHOOL
The incident happened as Andy, a struggling Secondary 4 Normal (Academic) student in Tampines Secondary School, was about to take his N-Levels. He had only been narrowly promoted after failing all but two of his subjects in Secondary 3.
Andy was still grieving as he took a Chinese composition paper, so he found himself writing about his friends and repeating the same phrase over and over: “It’s very painful to lose them."
“My teacher singled me out and talked to me,” he said. “She said you really need to move on.”
That was a turning point in his journey towards a brighter future.
Andy’s teachers became his pillar of support. His form teacher Ms Tan Shin Shin, someone he described as very patient and his biggest inspiration, advised him to work hard for his N- and O-Levels.
“You will see the fruit of your labour,” he remembered her saying. “Your parents will get old one day and you will need to support the family.”
Andy gave everything he had in those final few months. He said he’d never studied harder during all his years in the school. It paid off: Andy aced the N-Levels, and continued getting good grades through to his O-Levels.
“Slowly, I shifted focus,” he said. “Instead of focusing on their deaths, I focused on my studies.”
His report card, filled with ‘F’s in Secondary 3, gleamed with ‘A’s a year later. His class position, he recalled with a smile, went from 38/40 to 1/40. Andy also topped his Normal (Academic) cohort for his prelims, then came in second for his O’s.
“From there I saw the success of the work I put in,” he added. “I saw that if I put in this amount of hardship in my studies, I can achieve this. It was quite a good recognition.”
The hard work never stopped while Andy was studying Biomedical Engineering in Temasek Polytechnic, and this eventually earned him a spot in NTU.
Back at McDonald’s, Andy whipped out his phone and proudly showed off his post-convocation photo, which he also sent to Ms Tan in a WhatsApp message thanking her for her support. Ms Tan is still teaching at his old school.
In the picture, Andy is beaming in his graduation gown and standing beside his parents. His mother, donning his mortarboard, is holding his certificate and some flowers.
“My mother cried over the incident,” he said. “It was lucky that I didn’t follow them. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to take this photo with them. That’s why I’m very grateful.”
BROTHERS FOR LIFE
During their days in Tampines Secondary School, many in the group followed and looked up to Witaya, whom Andy described as a natural leader who was fearless and charismatic.
Most of the nine friends met as Secondary 1 classmates, and like many of their peers they bonded over basketball and video games. They also gathered regularly at Witaya’s home.
“He really took care of us,” Andy said, referring to Witaya. “He really did it for you.”
When one of them ran into trouble with bad company, Witaya was the first to stand up to them. When another one ran up huge gambling debts, Witaya was the first to sell his Sony Ericsson phone to help pay it off.
While the group stayed tight-knit throughout the years, school threatened to divide it.
At the end of Secondary 3, some of the members, including Witaya, were retained because they did poorly in their exams. Andy got labelled the smart one because he was promoted. “We are still brothers,” he had insisted.
Andy admitted to drifting slightly apart, but still got invited to that fateful barbecue. It was an ideal occasion to get together like the good old days.
“I hugged Sia Chan Hong, I hugged him for very long,” Andy said, recalling what happened at the barbecue. "He was very sad; he just said goodbye to me.”
The incident dominated the headlines a decade ago. Reporters appeared at the group's homes and spoke to their relatives.
And while many years have passed, the incident is still mentioned by some. For instance, it appears on The Smart Local website in a list of incidents that "shook" Singapore. It is also used as a law case study at a Taiwanese university, Andy said.
LEAVING THE PAST BEHIND
But for the group, Andy said they have moved on and the scars have healed.
The boys still meet once or twice a week, and more frequently during holidays like Christmas and Chinese New Year, though some have drifted a little because of work and family.
Still, Andy is in a WhatsApp group with three of them, who are now an interior designer, wedding photographer and undergraduate also doing engineering at NTU. Two others are helping with a family construction business and the last member is a fitness trainer.
“I pulled him with me and mentored him,” Andy said, referring to the undergraduate who’s also the youngest in the group. “I told him he must really study and shift his focus to the right track.”
“Most of them are okay now, able to survive and find their own livelihood,” he added.
They don't talk about the incident either. Instead, topics involve applying for Build-To-Order flats or their current jobs, which means complaining about difficult design projects or getting lowballed for a wedding shoot.
“It’s been too long already,” Andy said. “Everybody was like okay, life goes on.”
For Andy, what remains of the past are his regular Friday visits to Witaya's home. When he's not too busy with work, he goes there with a few of the group to care for Witaya’s elderly grandmother and help with the housework.
FAMILY AND REGRETS
Nevertheless, details from a decade ago, like their statements to the police and testimony to the coroner, are still easily recalled. “It really hurt you a lot, so you remember,” Andy said.
But when asked if he regrets not doing more to stop the incident, he paused to think.
“If you took my mindset now and looked back, I would have gone and punched Witaya and asked him to stop all this,” he said. “But last time, we were still young and not mature in our thinking.”
That is not the case now, as Andy offered some advice for teens who might be tempted by friends to do something they would later regret.
“Think of your family first,” he added. “Friends come and go, but family is the one that never leaves you.”
Where to get help: Samaritans of Singapore operates a 24-hour hotline at 1800 221 4444, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find a list of international helplines here. If someone you know is at immediate risk, call 24-hour emergency medical services.