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!!)


31 thoughts on “Letter from Korea

  1. Bang Zawi,
    It’s due to your making the move; of you contacting me on that day that had set the stage and opportunity. But I’m not going to say more here – that’s for the next post:-)

    …unless if something else crops up. That’s always a possibility since I’d write based on these two factors: 1) What feels like wanting to come out 2) Time AND inclination.

    With this particular post, it’s fortunate that I had the time and inclination yesterday. And now, it’s back to the working week – trying to get a headstart so that I won’t feel harassed, and having to take into account Tuesday’s appearance in court.

  2. Bang Mad,

    My short conclusion of reading this is that: He is indeed a true friend, one that you can rely on when others failed. Distance doesn’t really matter, but the thoughts (and kindness) that counts. I’m glad that you did not waste your precious time while in PS and he did his part as a friend.

  3. Salam MC,

    yet again, you make me cry with your stories.. i am at the office and my mata is so bengkak… urggghhhh…

    Must go and repair muka kejap..

    p.s. you’re lucky to have David in your life.. thank god i have few davids in my life too… May Allah bless them for their endless kindness and support..

  4. Distractor
    I’m really surprised when I saw this!
    Nor, you are like Sherry Nor-Jannah too – your “hati”, the both of you… I’m touched, that you could feel that way. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t mention “a few things” where *I*, despite my `stone-cold persona’, had cried…

    I had thought this was “a routine, matter-of-fact account”. And I had been extra-cautious, especially with Sherry, knowing how sensitive she is. After sending this post, I had immediately SMS her to warn and to explain a few things… just in case she might somehow be affected. And I was surprised that she still was.

    I’ve seen your comment more than an hour ago and have been thinking about it and Sherry’s comment earlier. It’s that part about David, I think. Yes, I’m happy that I’ve finally managed to express and tell something about what he is and has been for me over the years. And I’m glad that you too have come across “a few davids” in your life – of people who have been selfless and have been a significant factor in making life better for others.

  5. Howdy Matt,

    Good to hear from you again and good friend David.
    Take care of your health, have healthy lifestyle and fresh green vegetables daily plus plenty of fruits too.
    Pls visit my other blog ;http://captslonghouse.blogspot.com/ as to how am learning to start loving my body again ! hahaha!
    Dah tua tua ini Matt,,,,kena jaga badan-lah,,,kita sakit sendiri kena tanggong.
    My best advise is to advise myself-lah.


  6. Capt
    Thanks for visiting, Capt!
    Yes, I’m aware of your blog/s – previously I had thought there was only one, and had mistakenly thought “there were two of you”.

    Thank you, too, for the dietary guide here – I’m extremely interested in one of your posts that mentioned about removing gall stones the natural way. If I had heard it elsewhere, I would have had serious doubts!

    BTW I hope you – and others – do not mistaken the “unsolicited advice” I mentioned in the post above as advice and guidance like this. What I mean here are on things that “I obviously know better” but which some people somehow feel some sort of superiority about themselves and had felt the need to `advice me’… things like drug addiction, aspects of personal matters that include religion etc.

    This had happened when I was outside of Gambang onwards. For instance, MANY ustaz types often have this superiority complex, that “they know everything” – and especially when the listener has a drug record.

    I’ve had three run-ins (two in Kuantan) where I just couldn’t be obligingly meek and quiet; faking a smile and nodding `in agreement’ and avoid a scene. These were times when smug ustazs dished out unsolicited `advice’ onto my face that I felt simply reflected their ignorance and arrogance. I’ll write about these incidents another time – as a lesson that sometimes keeping quiet and to just listen with an open mind is the best way to help an addict – if the intention is REALLY to help that is.

  7. No worries Matt, with regards to religion its best left for the individual and Allah to sort things out !. In fact, after reading the Koran in Arabic/English/Malay many times myself, am not ready to be an ustaz cas. to me religion is something very personal.
    The other subject that am not willing to touch base with is politics,,,,cas. I really don’t trust any politicians for that matter !.
    Guess, the best person to trust is oneself !!!,,,,if one were to lose it, its very very hard to regain oneself but its still possible with true guts n dedication.

    cheers n be cool ! ,,,,Capt.

  8. Salam Mat!!

    I’m back tak tahan to wait for 5 articles…

    Nice guy this David, does he only “do” this with you?

    Other inmates tok baco buku langsung ke?

    takde library ke?

    What if i want to take “remote” studies/exams do they allow?

  9. KijangMas
    Wow! Is this the real KijangMas or is someone pulling a gag here?:-) And one of blogosphere’s hilarious `kaki pukul’, satD was here too! I’d better reply to him *now* despite the backlog of work that I’m chasing: I’d hate to `kena hentam’ by him Heheh!

    After reading your comment, there’s this very strong urge to start writing the final part. In fact that’s what I *want* to do. However, there’s a lot of pressure to do “other writings” right now. But I promise to write it the first chance I get.

    The first part of your question: I don’t know. But from what I had written so far, your guess is as good as mine. Now he’s not of the “riak” (showy) kind, to go around bragging about what he had done for others.

    I had never had him “ungkit” (bringing up) anything that he had done for me in the past, and never dishing out unsolicited advice. There was never something of this kind – like attaching a note to his gifts of “Please stay away from drugs”, or “Drugs will destroy your life if you take them again” etc for instance. Nor ever made it feel that he’s superior to me in anything, in any way – NEVER (BTW his writings, for instance, will leave me dead by comparison).

    And remember that I’ve known him for 10 years – there were a lot of opportunities for him to feel superior to me. That says a lot for the person that he is.

    The next question about inmates and books (the term would interchange with “trainees” [pelatih]. Some officers – and practically all inmates – would use the term “budak” [kids], like in school haha!… “Budak dok buat apa kat asrama sekarang ni?” I was `promoted’ to “resident” during the three-month pre-release programme at Jalan Gambut – a five-minute walk to the offices of Sherry Nor Jannah and Nazmi!):

    Yes, some read, of course. But only a very few were of the `bookworm’ type – there were so many `better and more fun’ activities to do at Gambang. The amusing thing is that a few would come up to me, shake their heads and grin: “Don’t you get bored reading for hours?!”

    Gambang does have a library – two in fact. There was one at the mosque. Predictably, they were religious books, with a few on psychology. Except for ONE, all were in BM. The other one was for the officers. Yes, I could borrow from here through a few officers. But they were mostly religious books too.

    I heard that some Pusats have quite decent libraries for the inmates. I had wanted to help start one during my last three months – a sort of leaving a legacy for the place that will always remain in my heart. Earlier on, I had organised “the greening” of the area around the pond, including on the islands. I had started a working paper on it, and would have started. However, I was chosen to go to the Kuantan Pusat Khidmat (PKAADK) at Jalan Gambut.

    Your last question: Despite not knowing “on what” and other specifics, if the commandant and officers were still the same as during my time, the answer is, YES, DEFINITELY 100% sure. The officers there – they were nice and encouraging. God Bless them.

  10. Salam Mat

    Thank your for your reply amidst ur busy schedule…..waduh…bila mase gua jadi kaki pukul ni….u make me sound like that singh fella….

    But mat that pond look big!!! Satu round berapa ratus meter tu? Got boat or not?

    Keep ur creative juices flowing….no need to rush..let it flow….or buy a recorder if you don’t have time….

    take care Mat…till the next episode!!

  11. salaam en.Mat,

    i read bout you when my cousin, Azhar shafie write a post bout you and ever since i’m a silent reader to your blog ( silence no more..) eh, i did post a comment the 1st time i visited the blog..then no more. :)

    i must say, your stories is very addictive, like kakteh’s and bergen’s. kudos to you.

    sometimes u bring tears to my eyes and make me laugh n smile by myself in from of the laptop like some crazy women. your life journey n cerita di ‘pusat’ teach a lot of lesson to us,the reader.kudos to you again.

    im now officially put your blog link on my ‘must read’ section, along with my fav few blogs.

    thanks to ajan, my cousin for introducing us, and thanks to your for the wonderful blogpost.

    all the best to you sir. and good day.

  12. nadya.s
    Thank you. You have made my day with this comment; the same type of encouragement that I’ve been receiving from you generous people ever since I came out from the shadows last August. You folks don’t know how much it all means to me; the joy and confidence upon hearing such kind words. Each time I sit back and think about it all, I’m filled with gratitude and wonder.

    Upon reading “tears to my eyes”, I immediately went to see your blog (well, it took some time because the connection wasn’t steady)… Apparently, there are a few things here and there that were emotional for women; things that I had felt were `only’ of the “matter of fact” kind.

    Like the comment from satD, I’m tempted to write the continuation and a new post right now. But these things that demand to be completed and sent in today, tomorrow and Friday, “or else”… it’ll have to be “later”, unfortunately.

  13. dear en.Mat

    take your time, kind sir, as some things..cannot be rushed one., hehe! i myself hv tones to write sometimes.. ada la 4-5 idea or story to spill or share, but time is not at my side. lagipun, sometimes, i dont know how to write it, and photo can tell a better story out of it.

    thank you for the instant reply eventho (i assume) u have a rather busy schedule.

    hope to read more cerita2 on your blog.

    mind if i send emails to you.. there are few thing i rather ask via emails intead of posting it here.

    im in the mids of ‘upgrading’ my blog templete, that cost me -loosing the clock n shoutbox. now screching my head on how to do it via html. sungguh lemah bab2 teknikal ni. maybe that also contributes to the fact that u hv problem excessing my blog.

    take care en.mat.

  14. Mat can provide us advance schedule or not say once every 2 weeks(if not too heavy for u..heheh).

    Macam tengok sinetron bro, got series n episodes at least we can manage our expectation instead of macam tunggu hujan musim kemarau.

    Buat script mat…..lets do an indie on this!!! guarantee laku

  15. nadya
    Yes, of course you can send anything by email. The address is cendana287ATgmail.com BTW had been trying to write a comment at your blog, but somehow Blogger doesn’t want to accept the WordPress ID tonight.

    Yes, I guess that is possible, of course. I mean the schedule. But “the result” is something else – it might be mechanical. I’m going to admit one thing: Writing a post here usually leaves me drained. The things that I write about might not seem much at times, BUT they take out a lot in me – I definitely have to lie down and not do anything after writing one.

    BTW right now, work-wise I’m behind schedule and in trouble. And it’s Thursday too. Then there’s some personal matter to also shoulder at this very moment. Things are very tight – I hope I’ll pull through these tough few days.

  16. Mat

    Salam to you and also satD in Nusantara. Wish I was there – currently reading an old book long dormant in my seldom-reached shelf: Nusantara, Indonesian History by Prof. Vlekke. Getting nostalgic.

    I can understand satD’s interest in more postings – you write well. I don’t want to sound patronising – it’s not my intention – but you do, in your blog and elsewhere.

    I’m sure you will pull thru by sticking to your priorities – the bread-and-butter first, the rest second.

    Best wishes.

  17. Matt,
    Perhaps, others would also agree with me, that you can further contribute via your write-up plus hands-on experience,,,, to be further extended into a healing program – targeting ex-offenders or subtance abusers which offer a uniquely powerful way of solving problems and hence should merit carefully tailored support from the Authorities concerned, if they are dead serious to manage such subject issue.
    Guess, you can offer your special skill/service to the various “Pusat” too ?.
    Your writing so far has attracted many fans,,,,keep it up brother, am proud of your progress and willingness in sharing.


  18. sepadu
    Thanks for the advice – it also strengthens what my elderly father keeps stressing. After years and years of my arrogance in not listening to him – and paying stiff and heavy prices along the way – I’m following what he says about bread-and-butter matters.

    Your comment has also encouraged me to have a good rest today without feeling guilty about it.

    Your words have given me a lot of strength, hope and encouragement; although I’m quite hesitant with how you’re rating me here. There’s one thing that I’m quite worried about – of people thinking there’s something special about me. I’m the same as every one who comes out of the Pusat; facing the same things that they do. And trying to “live life on life’s terms”. Maybe I can write better than most of them, but that’s just about it. Ah, the memories of some of those whom I had known at Gambang – *they* were special people indeed, not me.

  19. Mat

    I think it’s Kijangmas himself who wrote in earlier on.

    Behind the hard hitting demeanour, he has a good nature.

    He has noble aims, no-nonsense disposition concerning the kind of Bangsa Malaysia we want.

    He may not say many words here but let him conserve his time and energy for the ungrateful, hidden-agenda, funny history, MCP-admiring fellows.

    Best wishes.

  20. Mat,

    Tumpang lalu. TK.


    I could not access your site just now. The same over a week ago.

    Could be my old jalopy of a Sony, or virus or whatever. Salam and

    Best wishes.

  21. Sepadu

    DinTurtle also had the same thing?Strange..he only managed to access my site last nite.

    Could it be that the “comment system” that I’m using i.e Intense Debate does not load or takes too long to load

    Or am I being ‘banned’?

  22. Mat,

    Tumpang lalu again. TK.


    Your Comment button often not showing. When it shows, it quickly disappears.

    Maybe you’d like to try changing the system you use.

    I like your pieces on the economic stimulus and on forex.

    Best wishes.

  23. Salam Mat tumpang lalu n also tumpang tanye please

    Re: sepadu note above…do you have same problem with you other site which is using intense debate?

    To Sepadu.

    Please click the hyperlink (topic of post) it will take you to the article and must wait for intense debate to load (may take time depending on number of comments)

    On the FX on going with no “conclusion” yet i may be wrong hehe..i’m having this discussion with hishamh a new blogger who just surfaced in Feb, very good guy, very data driven as well check out his site at econsmalaysia.blogspot.com full of gems!!!

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