Letter from Korea

It had been weeks since I sent that letter to my niece in Malacca, with a  note to David that I hoped she would type and send through by email. It was my second attempt to send it. In December, just a month after I was at Pusat Serenti Gambang, I had asked my counsellor about sending it. Unfortunately, she didn’t know much about using the Internet.

There was something amusing about her remark: “Since I became the counsellor of Cendana, you are the person with the strangest requests… books, Internet, email; but never asking about an early release!” That was quite true, I think – most of the others would seek a meeting to ask these predictable “most favourite requests”:

(1) Balik awal (an early discharge) due to all sorts of illnesses (imagined or exaggerated); which was overwhelmingly the top request/appeal (Not such luck with this particular counsellor. If she had her way, she’d hold everyone at Cendana for the full 24 months. Not because she was mean – she just felt most of us might be better off staying there) (2) Phone-call to family – She’d allow this, if you `had behaved’… meaning, you had attended her counselling sessions when you were supposed to (some people felt watching “Rosalinda” [a popular Mexican soap opera at that time] was more important).

It was only in the middle of February that I made another attempt to contact David. Three months after being at Gambang, I and 18 others were promoted to Phase 2 (of five) (yellow t-shirt) on 15 February 2006, and we were transferred from the Orientasi “B” hostel (“Q” in the map) to where we were to remain until the day of discharge. Which hostel we go to depended on the final digit of our registration number: 0-1 to Meranti; 2-3 Jati; 4-5 Seraya; 6-7 Cendana; 8-9 Damar.

By the way, it wasn’t a simple, straightforward transfer to the new hostel – you had to undergo some pain and go through a gauntlet imposed by the seniors first before you get the privilege of entering your permanent hostel. And it was real pain and suffering – a day that every newbie red-shirted Phase One `botak’ (baldie) dreaded and feared, but knew he had to undergo “when the time comes”. Indeed, some of those who had run away while at the Orientasi hostels did so because they were too scared of this; of seeing how their immediate seniors were treated during the transferring.

I’ll write about this another time. But I’ll give one example of how tough the Cendana hostel was (36 inmates at that time, including four of us newbies): 247/05 Gunalan from Johor Baru had to crawl under the beds that night – and received a hard kick on the back or head from those who felt like doing so. And at 10PM the same night, a senior 196/05 KF Liew @ `Ah Moy’ was beaten up by the deputy head prefect, 106/05 Singh “for putting fellow Cendana brothers in jeopardy” (this Singh knew kickboxing and was respected and feared by everyone in Gambang. BTW he was one of my protectors and among my good friends until he was discharged in early July)

Back to the email intended for David: Two months after I was at Cendana, it was the daily work duty as usual. Every inmate had to register for a “Project” – Agriculture, Workshop, Office, Bush-cutter, Kitchen etc. Now Gambang was a real “bohsia” (a term for wayward, easy-going girls) centre – most people who were there weren’t too keen to do anything. They’d register for some activity or other, but the officers in charge had to plead to get them to do anything (plus bribe/reward with tobacco – in which case the work gets done quickly). That’s how relaxed things were at Gambang.


CAPTION: Click on the map or here to see a satellite image of PS Gambang. There are markings of the buildings and various places there. Use the mouse’s scroll-wheel to enlarge. “L” is where Cendana is – the sharp end is where my bed was. This image was taken before I was there. It was during the dry season too, judging from the water level at the pond.

I had chosen something which surprised many: the fish-breeding pond. There were no fish at that time except for what were already in it. The job to do then was in taking care of the area – and it was a large place. Singh was puzzled – he said he could get me a job at the office. Or why didn’t I enrol for a six-month automotive course at the workshop? “The Kolam Ikan means hard work”, he said.

But I had my own plans, my own programme: I was determined to make the best use of my time at Gambang, enforced though it was. And one of the areas that I needed to improve on was my fitness. Anyway, what’s so tough about working from 9-11AM? Yes, that’s just about it. Remember that this is “Gambang” where “nobody works”, so two hours a day sounded really tough for most people there (After the morning assembly, many would be playing cards, carroms, chess, draughts, watching TV, listening to the radio, gossiping – or going back to sleep!), And I loved that place – of sitting under the trees or at the hut (“S”), boiling hot water to make coffee, gossiping and smoking self-rolled cigarettes. In the meantime, someone would go borrow a friendly officer’s motorcycle (and there were many of them at Gambang, thank goodness) and get some buns at the kitchen.

At around 10AM, Wednesday 19 April, I was at the hut with eight others when the Cendana prefect – 076/05 Hasmadi, a 29-year-old from Maran, Pahang – shouted from the road (in front of the bigger “n” or “u”-shaped building : “Puan (Rosyatini, the counsellor) wants to see you, NOW… No, never mind if you’re sweaty or what; you’re not gonna fondle her are you? Haha! She knows that you’re working but she says IMMEDIATELY, dude. There’s an express letter for you… from Korea!” 

So my email had gone through after all! I later discovered the reason for the delay – my elder sister had gone for an Umrah in Mekah for a month; and she had taken my niece and a nephew along. I was elated to receive that letter from David – it was in a big, white “EMS Korea Post” envelope. I must have read it at least 20 times that day…

The content showed the type of person David was. He had expressed surprise on receiving my niece’s email (I had taken precautions. Fearing that he might think it was spam and just delete it, coming from an unknown name, I had told my niece to write “Message From Ahmad” in the Subject line). For almost eight months, he must have wondered what had become of me when the emails and conventional letters went unanswered. He had feared the worst, and mentioned feeling relieved that I was actually in good physical and mental condition.

Throughout the letter, there was no hint of being patronising. Or in dishing out unsolicited advice – a particular annoyance that I’ve had to live with. Instead, he enquired whether books and magazines were allowed. It was an offer that I simply could not refuse, for I was dying to read things in English. The only English books that I had read were on diabetes, and about the 1993 `Mahathir’ Constitutional Amendments. I sent a reply, asking him to just send “any old magazines that he sees around his office”. I certainly didn’t care about them being current, not the subject – as long as they were in English, then they’re great.

The following month, the counselor called me to the office again – there’s a parcel from Korea this time. The officers who had gone to the post office in Gambang town (a daily routine to send and receive letters) were surprised that it was addressed… to an inmate! That got things buzzing at the centre yet again: “Who is this guy? What’s he doing at the Pusat?” The policeman in charge of security – a corporal – didn’t even dare to open it; and sent it straight to the counselor.

I was expecting “some old magazines”, of which I would have been elated. I was shocked to see all those brand-new books, and magazines still in their vinyl wrappers… The Economist (2 issues), Scientific American (3 issues), PC World, PC Magazine, Linux Journal, JDL Developer (I was into technology stuff before the detention. “Really?! Where?”… Another time, folks).risingsun-cover

And the books… Besides the one by Fydor Dostoevsky mentioned earlier, there was one by Pulitzer Prize winner John Toland – The Rising Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire (1936-1945); The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; Don Quixote and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. There were also more than a dozen International Reply Coupons (for correspondence in place of a stamp). The total cost was more than RM400…

My counselor, Puan Rosyatini was surprised too. Over the following months, she would remark: “You are fortunate to have a friend like David… lesser people would have abandoned you.”

endurance I just didn’t know what to say. I immediately wrote a reply that night to inform him of the parcel’s arrival – and also expressed my concern of him being so extravagant. Either my letter didn’t reach him (which was unlikely) or he just ignored what I had said, for I continued to receive these expensive magazines right until I was discharged in December 2006.

It was amusing to see the response of the AADK officers whenever they see the books and magazines near my bed at the Cendana hostel, and on the day of my being discharged (they filled a whole `Hikers’ bag). They would just shake their heads and grin: “People would think you were sent to Pusat to study…”

David’s extravagance didn’t end when I was discharged – I received yet another consignment of books in 2007 when I was at home. And last year, guess who was responsible for sending a few hundred crisp Euros after learning that I had a new laptop, telling me to get an Internet connection?

And on Saturday January 24, 2009 he was coming here; at this very place where I for years previously could only correspond by letters and email. David, the very person, would grace this place…

(Previous related posts: Memories – David from 10 years ago; After 10 years – David R in person; David R is in Malaysia!!)