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!!)

Memories – David from 10 years ago

There are times over the years when I’d lie down and be amazed by how fortunate I am – that someone like David would still take the trouble to keep in touch with me despite my frequent absences from the online world. And those gifts when I was at Pusat Serenti Gambang – it was because of those material I received, plus the letters to and fro, that kept my English from deteriorating too much during my months there.

I remember Elviza having written something about her son, Luqman – of her wondering “whether she had saved the world in a previous life to have deserved such a child”. It is almost the same with me – what did I do to deserve a friend like David?…because I know and remember very well that during my years of addiction, I had failed so many friends…

 MalPoliticians2_BHe is someone I had first known through a Usenet newsgroup at the end of 1998 (If you are wondering what Usenet is, this piece in Malay Mail might help somewhat: The lost world of Usenet). It was at the alt.journalism newsgroup, if I remember correctly. I had sent in a comment, and David had replied to it – not at the group but by email.

CAPTION: Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol. 2 By Amir Muhammad (Matahari Books) ISBN: 978-983-43596-6-9. This is the second and latest in this series by my most favourite Malaysian writer. Amir has a blog, where this book is mentioned in the post of the same title here. There’s also the Matahari Books – Facebook Group here. “But what has this to do with this post?” Something… And maybe it’ll be in the next post, at the rate that I’m going. But let’s go back to the accounts of 10 years ago first.

I was unemployed then. And my plan to try make a living through speculations in the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE) came to a grinding halt, with losses of almost RM30K due to two things: 1) Despite choosing the right counters most of the time, I still lost because I didn’t have the patience. And I didn’t have the patience because 2) I was heavily addicted to morphine at that time; and it was through intravenous means (IV – injection) since 1996.

BTW scary that it looked, it’s definitely wrong to conclude that “People who inject are in worse condition and are more heavily addicted than those who consume it by smoking”. That is how it seems; but it’s not like that, although it tends to be so. The more important factors are 1) How pure the substance is 2) How much one consumes daily 3) How long one had gone continuously.

But why inject? Because it’s the most efficient way, and there is a lot less wastage – you need just one-third the amount as compared to smoking to get the same effect; all other things being equal. In the late 70’s, I had `only’ smoked heroin – and spiked inside cigarettes too rather than “Chasing the dragon” from an aluminium foil. There were no less than two occasions when I went into detox – and I had felt like I would die from the pain of withdrawal!…from “only smoking” it. It’s exactly the same with morphine. And opium too.

On the other hand, for most of 2000 until Aug 05 when I was detained, despite the IV, my usage was quite light as compared to the previous years. There were withdrawals each time I came off, of course, but they were nowhere near those of pre-2000. However, don’t mistake these as “okay”, for heroin/morphine withdrawals are never that! I’ll say here that I’d never wish an enemy to suffer it. Nor for him or her to ever be an addict, enemy or not…

In October 1998, I had just gotten a computer and a TMnet dialup Internet connection, and was working on an idea and hope – of creating work for myself by writing through the Internet. Yes, I already had this vision 10 years ago, when the Internet was just something vague even in middle-class homes. “Computing and Technology”: Now this was something that I’ve had a very keen interest in since the mid 1980’s – I’d read each and every item in In.Tech and Computimes, the tech pullout of The Star  and New Straits Times respectively… not to mention the occasional PC Magazine and PC World.

“Working from home through the Internet” – that was what I had in mind in 1998 [And 10 years later, beginning from the end of 2008, it’s starting to became a reality!:-) ]

But anyway; We exchanged a few emails after that. And I learned that he was in Korea, had a few degrees in different fields, and was also a published author. Automatically, I had entertained the thought: “An American living overseas… Is he with the CIA?” To my mind, which was one that had an extremely high valuation of the US, it was inconceivable that an American “would want to live elsewhere other than his country”.

Well, I had a lot to learn. David had also sent me a digital version of one of the books he had written – a dead serious book about the social problems in the US… racial issues, illiteracy etc. It was something pre-Sept 11, and David was already aware “of some things there”. BTW this also one of the reasons why I hesitate whenever people suggest I write a book. After seeing how he writes, I’d always feel my writing is inadequate.

All the while I had thought he “would disappear”, as was usually the case with people you’d know through the Internet and whom you never meet with. I was thinking: What was I, as compared to him?… I had nothing to offer, so there was no reason for him to go out of his way to maintain contact with me. I was wrong about that, for David isn’t “the usual person you know online”. Nor offline.

There were a few times that I lost contact with him for various reasons. They included my bouts of depression and extreme melancholy where I’d just shut myself out from anyone and everyone for weeks (I’ve never had these anymore since Aug 2005, although I had neared this zone again towards the end of 2007. Right now it’s difficult to imagine – not with Sherry’s perky SMS at least a few times every day. And Shakirah’s positiveness too, among others. There wasn’t much chance to brood and indulge in self-pity with this kind of people in regular contact).

When I failed to reply to David’s emails, I had figured that he’d just have had it with me; of feeling exasperated with someone “who didn’t seem to care enough to write back”. But David kept on writing, regardless!…sending emails on intervals to enquire how I was. And one thing that I will attest to about him – his consistency… his manner right now is exactly the same as it was from way back in 1998!

From the middle of 2002, my contact with him became less frequent. I didn’t have an Internet connection from home anymore after the landline was disconnected, and I had to depend on the cybercafe in Pasir Mas for access (It was only from July 2008 that I finally have a connection again – six years).

But there was something about David that is not often found in many others – he’d go out of his way to try contact a friend. Occasionally, he would also send me conventional letters by snail-mail – and I would hurry off to the cybercafe the first chance I got to confirm by email that I had received his letters… I would have felt very bad had I not done so, to someone who had taken the trouble to post a letter.  

However, I simply could not do anything from Aug until November 2005 – I was in prison then. And if one knows what the Pengkalan Chepa Prison is and how things are inside it, one definitely would not make a remark like this: “But aren’t you allowed to send letters from prison? I saw on television that…” And even if I could, there’s the problem of address – it’s almost impossible for a non-Korean to be able to memorise the address!

Deep inside, I knew that David must have had sent a conventional letter – he always did that whenever I failed to reply to a few emails after some weeks had passed (I was right, as I discovered later – he did send a couple of letters to this address). In prison, I was feeling bad about it; of not knowing how to contact David to just tell him that I was still alive.

By the way, when he failed to hear anything from me, he had feared the worst. There was one incident in 2002 that I had mentioned to him. I had passed out in the kitchen at around 2am – it was from sheer exhaustion and “the body rebelling”, where I had gone for more than three days without sleep. Why and how? I had some quantity of morphine then, and I just went on and on without sleeping. “Drowsy and drugged” isn’t the same as “Sleep”.

There was something funny about that incident. After I passed out, there was a power failure. When I came to again two hours later, I could not see anything in the dark. I didn’t even remember passing out, so I didn’t know where I was. I remember thinking that “It was either a dream”. Or, “I had died”. I was desperately hoping for the former, of course! Then I groped around and felt metal, cylindrical. I realised that I was in the kitchen, and only after turning on the gas cooker and having some light did I get my bearings again (The automatic fuse box had shut down for some reason).

David remembered this incident, and had thought that I might have suffered the same again – the difference being I didn’t wake up this time.

In Nov 2005, I was sent to Pusat Serenti Gambang. Conditions were great here when compared to prison. For one thing, we were encouraged to write letters. On my first day (after spending two weeks in Detox) at the “Orientasi B” hostel, I had asked the guy in charge of administrative matters there – 266/05 “Jaffar Gemuk”, a 32-year-old former bank teller from Lanchang, Pahang – how often one was allowed to write a letter.

His answer was a cheeky, “Well, would five times a day be okay with you? Heheh! This is Pusat-lah not prison… you can write as often as you want, dude! The problem here is, many don’t write, and the officer is hassling me about it.” 

(I also remember that he then rolled some tobacco with newspaper into a thin cigarette – something that is extremely difficult to get in prison – which we shared with another guy. I knew that I was going to be okay at that place, and I was more than right about that.)

But there was a problem when it came to David concerning the address. There was only one way – by email. It’s quite fortunate that David’s address was easy enough to remember. But there was another problem: Who will send it? Remember that this is Pusat – even handphones aren’t allowed (for inmates, of course). I fixed an appointment with my 25-year-old counsellor – Cik Rosyatini Muda (It became “Puan” a few months later). Unfortunately, she wasn’t familiar with the Internet (at that time).

However, I was determined. Around February, my relationship with my father and sisters – which had become estranged for years – was magically restored… one of the many wonders I had experienced at that blessed place of Pusat Serenti Gambang. I knew that my nieces were quite familiar with the Internet, so it was to be through indirect communication with David.

I wrote a letter to one of them. It was in English – that’s how I had communicated with my nieces since years ago… they had also lived in Liverpool, England for a few years in the late 80’s-early 90’s, and they understand it very well, of course. I also explained who David was, and asked her to type what I had written inside the letter and address the email to David.

A few weeks passed. There was no word from my niece. Or from David. What had happened? These thoughts came to my mind: Did the Pusat fail to send the letter out? Or did it fail to reach my niece? Or… did David receive it but was shocked to discover the place I was at… and had abandoned me too?

(TO BE CONTINUED. Yes, I know a few people here are going to be annoyed by this. And I expect one of them to send a SMS by 9AM at the latest. SORRY. But this post has become too long… And I must do “work” right now.)

* To Mohd Zawi: It’s all right for you to write a post about the meeting with David on 23 Jan… absolutely no problem with me. In fact, I was waiting for you to write it first.

** I was surprised by a comment by o-tai that came in early today, at the “Stargazer” post. This is one of the most well-written and most fascinating comment that I’ve received here.