My Brothers In Arms

Places, buildings, things – depending on where and what, they can give comfort, prestige and opportunities. But they aren’t critical, and by themselves might not be of much value.

The most important element anywhere and everywhere are the people, for even at places most others might regard as god-forsaken, the type of people there can actually make it feel like a resort. And the most important of the people is… yourself.

I’ve said this to a few people here whom I’ve become close with and trust: I can say with all honesty and sincerity, should I be given the choice of spending a few weeks at Disneyland and other tourist attractions, BUT with the Pusat Serenti Gambang experience never happening, I’d reject the former immediately. That’s how significant and profound the 13½ months there had been for me.

Was it like a holiday there?” No, it was much better than a holiday. Even if I had attended those RM5,000 three-day motivational courses held at resorts and conducted by experts, I doubt they would have left much on me beyond the superficial. What was it then about Gambang… And why was it that some people, who were with me at the same time and experienced the same things basically, ran away… Or thought the whole thing to be a big drag? I’ve often thought about this, and the best answer could be this — “Through the Grace of God”… plus the individual’s attitude and response to it all.

I had a few dormant assets that helped me to survive the dreadful Pengkalan Chepa prison without too much damage; and to thrive at Gambang. I made use of things that I had learned before I was arrested but couldn’t really put to practise. Gambang was the perfect time and space for these. The most important was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.



This is a book that I had first read in 1995; and reread quite a number of times after that. The first time, I didn’t want to accept what Covey espouses. I was heavily addicted at that time, and I was looking for “something far easier” than the steps or habits mentioned in the book. They were hard work! I was looking for “something magical”… like invoking some secret chants which would then “create things and situations”.

NOTE: Clicking the book’s image takes you to Covey’s website. The link at the title above is at Wikipedia.

Over the years, I finally admitted it: Like many/most people, I was looking for a free lunch: of wanting to receive good things, but not wanting to put in the appropriate effort… the same mentality as those who buy a RM2 Big Sweep ticket and hoping to get RM3 million. “Work hard, save money, invest and be patient…? That’s too tough!” 

Covey argues that “effectiveness is achieved by aligning oneself to principles of a character ethic that are universal and timeless. YES, the Habits are so hard to undertake and maintain… BUT there isn’t any other way!

Fortunately, at least I had succeeded in drumming this fact into my head when I first entered the Pengkalan Chepa prison – I must start with and do something about someone I have FULL control over… Myself. I didn’t have Covey’s book with me but the repeated readings had etched the main principles into my mind. Before I do anything else, I must undertake Habit 1 and ensure that I don’t ever neglect it regardless of how good or bad things were for it is the foundation to everything else: Habit 1 – Be Proactive

If you aren’t familiar with this book, you might be perplexed: “Is that it??” YES! But this isn’t the time for me to elaborate, but suffice to say that it worked for me and paid handsome dividends at Gambang.

By the way, if you are curious, that is the first of three habits to move one’s self from “dependent” to “independent”… being master of one’s self. The others are: Habit 2 – Begin with the End in Mind | Habit 3 – Put First Things First

The next three are to do with our relationship with others; moving from independent to “interdependent”: Habit 4 – Think Win/Win | Habit 5 – Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood | Habit 6 – Synergize | Habit 7 relates to maintaining and sustaining the six habits.

brothers-NA-Blue Another crucial block of knowledge came from my repeated readings of a book titled Narcotics Anonymous.

NOTE: An introduction to NA can be found here or by clicking the book’s image (in PDF) 

This was a gift I had received in 2000 from Mark E – a recovering addict in Brooklyn, New York. And he is someone like almost all of you here – people whom I’ve known through the Internet.

A few crucial techniques from this book had helped me to refrain from doing negative things. “Just for today”, for example – during those times when I really felt like joining in the fun and consume samsu (moonshine), I’d get a grip of myself with it … “Okay, I’m not saying I won’t take samsu ever, and I might take it tomorrow or during the next opportunity. BUT NOT TODAY, period.”

One of my closest friends, 290/05 `Omar’, who was with me at Pengkalan Chepa and also had spent Raya Aidilfitri in early November 2005 at the dank and miserable lockup in Pasir Mas, often took a dig at me about this. Now he’s someone “who did everything”, including drugs, alcohol, inhaling thinner, bullying, getting tattoos, rioting…

You keep saying that!…`maybe next time, but not today’. Keep up with this and you’ll probably be released without ever taking samsu!” Actually, that’s what eventually happened – I was one of the few who never took an iota of drugs, alcohol or thinner while at Gambang.

Omar would playfully try to `hasut’ me. He’d come to my hostel after Isyak with a big grin… and I’d smell what he had just consumed. “Hey, it’s pusat after all – you should experience everything, including taking samsu. I pity you; what a waste of opportunities! If not now, when? won’t get it at home. Take it now, here… it’s really nice, the feeling.”

My relationship with Omar was something that most probably wouldn’t happen had we not been in pusat. He was only 21 – young enough to be my son. And yet we were very good friends at Gambang. He’s one character the inmates would remember. When I first met him in prison, it was his third time there!

The first two were also drug-related. But unlike our problem then – the Drug Dependants Act – his previous terms were under the Dangerous Drugs Act and regarded as `crimes’. The first was the well-known “duabelas dua” section 12(2) for possession, while the second was section 15 – administering drugs to one’s self (Memasukan dadah dalam tubuh sendiri). This one, in my opinion, is a dumbass law: which addict wouldn’t administer drugs himself??

Anyway, it was with Omar that I had started having some influence on others, and which helped to elevate what some inmates and officers think of me. Unlike my previous self – the one arrested on 11 August 2005 – `Cendana287’ was taking shape.

One of the major things that changed was my growing desire and ability to listen to others – the kind where you do so respectfully and with a desire to understand and/or help alleviate a person’s pain. Even during the days when I wasn’t addicted, I was rather egoistic and self-centred… the `listening’ was with the mind always thinking on what to reply. There’s a vast difference between both types; and the listener can sense it.

At the lockup, I had told Omar what I felt inside. I told him that despite the disparity in our age, there were things in him that I admire; which I didn’t have and which I hope I’d be able to learn from him. One of that was his consistent mood; which was so unlike my rollercoaster. He was surprised to hear this… but he also knew I was sincere and not flattering him.

Omar came to Gambang three days after I did; with 291/05 Azman, 25. The latter had been bailed after his arrest and had escaped remand at Pengkalan Chepa. The magistrate’s order that he be sent to Gambang, and not the supervision which he had expected, came as a shock to him – from the comforts of home to the cell at the court and the police lockup. Then, it was the Detox cell at Gambang, followed by Orientasi `B’.

When they reached Gambang, there were two others from Kuala Terengganu who arrived just a bit earlier – 288/05 Nik, 25 but looked like a Form Five student; and 289/05 Sharif – someone of my age. They were in Cell 1 at Detox, and all except Nik planned to escape from Orientasi `B’.

During the afternoon of 28 Nov – just four days after coming out of Detox – Omar sat beside me. He was solemn, and I could sense it. He told me he was going to run away later that day “with a few others” whom he wouldn’t name. He was telling me that, he said, “because it wouldn’t be proper without saying goodbye to me – someone who had spent that Raya together.”

I didn’t know what I accurately said, but I remember asking God to help me. I told him that I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop him. And I would pray that he make it safely back to Bunut Susu, Pasir Mas; which is near Tumpat. He knew I was sincere. But I told him I just had to say a few things, which are now vague.

Among other things, I mentioned about the continuous worry he’d face – things are now computerised, and how would he feel when, maybe four years or whatever after the event, he was picked up for something unrelated… and a routine check pops up on the policeman’s computer? Wouldn’t he regret it, and also think: “Had I not escaped, the 13 months would pass and I’d have been free… But now, long after every one of my batch had gone home, I’ll be at Penor prison. And Gambang was such a soft and comfortable pusat!” He gave a good-natured grunt but didn’t counter me.

And I mentioned his mother: although she didn’t visit him at Pengkalan Chepa (it was she who reported to the police), she did come to see him at the Pasir Mas police station the morning he and Azman were to be transported. And gave him RM50, which he smuggled in to Detox (bought tobacco from a kitchen crew, and gave a packet to me). Nobody came to see me off – that, to me, meant that “your mother loves you. She’s also happy you are here; a place where she hopes you’d get better. What do you think she’ll feel when you suddenly turn up at home? Would she welcome you with open arms, or…?”

That night, after the Isyak prayers, the squad leader, Zaidi Dugong, sensed not everyone was at the hostel. He mentioned it to the prefect, 048/05 Zaidi, 42, a security manager from Penang (He became the Ketua Pengawas a month later, and went home in May 2006. Dugong, who was HIV, was released in March 06… and I missed both of them). He called for everyone to assemble for a rollcall. Four were missing – 260/05 Kanna, 26, from Batu Caves; 282/05 Wazai, 26, the Sabahan with Zul and Hanafi; Azman and Sharif. Omar had backed out at the last minute.

Later, he would tell everyone about it; including to his counsellor. He said he was “100% determined and sure to escape”, and it was courtesy that led him to take leave of me first. “Dengar hok chegu kecek, jadi putuh angin teruh!” … that after hearing what I said, he was deflated. He decided to stay, but he’s going to have a lot of fun – and I had better not stop him.

Actually, there was someone else whom I had talked out of earlier than Omar. He was 270/05, `Ayie’, someone of my age who was a retired army officer from Maran. Note the `officer’, not rank-and-file. Like me, he was having marital problems, and had attended a hearing at the Syariah Court earlier. He also told me about problems related to his pension payments, and a serious matter about his ATM card.

Ayie said he’s going to run away because he had to attend to these matters. I knew he was serious, and that he was familiar with the surrounding terrain from his army days. I was to learn later that the four who escaped (plus Omar) were depending on Ayie’s skills to handle the territory… and for Sharif’s adult son, a car repossessor in Kuantan, to pick them up at some spot later.

This was the first time when I felt “some outside power” was helping me. I must have said the right things, and displayed the right body language with Ayie. I didn’t argue about his ability to escape at all – all I asked was, “If there’s a way to take care of the problems here, would you still escape?” He was surprised by that question and took a bit of time to answer: “Well, if that is so, of course not. Why would I want to escape if that can be done?!”

I told him what he could do about the pension payment and ATM card problems. I asked him to just give it an honest effort first, and only to consider escaping if it didn’t work. He went about it… and succeeded!

Ayie later became the CO in charge of religious matters at Orientasi, while I became the CO of Administration – the number three after the prefect and squad leader. And in May 2006 when Zaidi was released, Ayie – the person who had wanted to run away – became the Ketua Pengawas of Pusat Serenti Gambang!

And Omar… I saw what a strong personality he was; one with a lot of potential should he stay away from drugs. He took up exercising with weights, and with the quality of food at Gambang as opposed to prison and lockup, developed his once skinny body into a muscled frame. He’d show off his biceps, and I was impressed… something I didn’t expect.

But he’d exasperate me with his indiscipline… until I decided that I was going to just let him live the life he wanted. But that didn’t prevent me from scolding him; which was quite often. A month after that, someone whispered to me that “Omar has gotten a tattoo on his bicep.” I was furious! He had managed to hide it from me for a few days. I went to him and asked him to take off his shirt.

He replied with a cheeky “Oh, so you’ve turned homosexual now! No, no, please… I don’t want to be involved in such things HAHA!” Well, that took away much of the anger and I could only shake my head as I saw the barbed wire on the bicep. And he later went on to add other things too, including dolphins on his chest.

But character-wise, he continued to develop; besides gaining a reputation as the new toughie. And towards the end of our tenure, he became the head of a much coveted and respected unit in all pusat serentis – the person in charge of the kitchen. Now this wasn’t something that a 21-year-old was ever appointed to… but Omar wasn’t your ordinary young adult but someone special.

There was a feeling inside me for many of the inmates – the `sayang’ or what someone had termed as “the timid love among men.” I cared for them… because of the kindness and consideration many had shown to me. Mat Tiger, for instance – on my first night in Detox, he had just managed to get a slit sarong. It was chilly in the early hours at Gambang. Mat Tiger, who felt that I “didn’t look too healthy”, gave it to me instead. This was by a person who was HIV-positive; having sympathy on someone whom he felt “was worse, health-wise.”

Time flew by at Gambang, and I became aware that all good things would come to an end. The  Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms line would come to my mind:

Some day you’ll return to your valleys and your farms
And you’ll no longer burn to be brothers in arms

Due to his HIV status (despite being healthy), Mat Tiger was given early discharge on humanitarian grounds. His release date was on Friday 14 July 2006, together with a few others. I was a prefect then, and was free to go anywhere I wanted to. I went to the front gate to see Mat Tiger off. Both of us didn’t talk much. He gave me his lighter, kept in a leather case with a string attached to hang around the neck. I still have it with me.

106/05 Inderjit Singh, 35, from Bangsar, KL, who as the Deputy Head Prefect (TKP) was the second-highest ranked inmate, was going home too. He wasn’t too big but even the toughies wouldn’t dare fight him one-to-one for he’s a karate exponent. And he was always decent and respectful with me from the first day I entered the Cendana hostel on 15 Feb 2006.

The previous month, the charismatic and boisterous prefect of Cendana from Setapak, KL, 056/05 `Az’, was discharged. He was also in charge of the store. Right after the officers agreed I would replace him (there’s a selection and background checking process – those with disciplinary records even at previous pusats were rejected), Az gave me brand-new blue pants, a canvas belt and Spalding socks; the last meant for officers. He had stolen them from the store. There were a few inmates wanting to buy these from him, in exchange for quite a number of packets of the 70 sen Chop Kuda tobacco. But he refused – he wanted me to have them, for free… “because I want the new Cendana prefect to look smart.” And he was no longer at Cendana.

Two weeks after this, 107/05 `Din Koboi’, 42, from Ampang, KL will leave too. His brother is the CEO of a national broadcasting company. Din Koboi can cook really well, and I had spent many happy and fruitful hours chatting with him about many, many things. And then 136/05 Ramli, previously from Kubang Kerian but living in KL… 137/05 Zainol aka `Frankie’ from Pendang, Kedah and 146/05 Suhaimi from Jengka – all of them were with the fish-pond project, were seniors, but elected me to be the head. Things were getting lonelier every two weeks. brothersinarms-soldiers2

As the AADK `lori ayam’ truck carrying the discharged was about to round the corner, Mat Tiger and Singh held up their hands as a salute and saying goodbye to me. The truck disappeared. I knew that I would never again meet with the people who had shown me kindness and consideration when I had nothing and was a nobody, and helped me so much over the past nine months. There was a toilet behind the registration office which was rarely used — I went inside and cried my eyes out.

Now the sun’s gone to hell, and the moon is riding high
Let me bid you farewell, every man has to die
But it’s written in the starlight, and in every line of your palm
We’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms

**NOTE: This will probably be my last post until I’ve settled some very important matters from next week. Yes, I need a rest too – this post especially is emotionally draining.


14 thoughts on “My Brothers In Arms

  1. Mark Knopfler’s guitar solo in this live version of Brothers-In-Arms is superb…besides your post of course.

    • Now you’re making me blush.
      Anyway, Mark Knopfler is obviously a very talented artiste. I don’t know how to play the guitar, so I can’t really say how good he is. With any song, my yardstick is how much it moves me – if it gets me thinking and imagining, then “it’s good”. With Knopfler/Dire Straits, what I like most is the intelligence and sensitiveness without being pretentious.

  2. Mat,

    ,,,many don’t realised but we were at war in the 70th with the CTs and i lost many buddies plus sqn. mates at the front line. Some died in my chopper and some lost their limbs to booby traps that awaits us by the millions in the Malaysian jungle…every step could be our last !.
    ,,,that brotherhood feeling still holds true with those of us survivals and i guess, its similar to what you guys went through in your personal war against oneself and with the common enemy too.
    ,,,hold on, to the brotherhood spirit and feelings. We can’t just ignore the world or live alone, friends indeed friends make the difference !.

    “indeed, if you look back upon your life that the moments when you have really lived are the moments when you have done things in the spirit of brotherly/sisterly love.”

    ,,,take care, bro.

    • Capt,
      In your case, just ignore the elements of my romanticism here. No, I definitely don’t equate what I/we at Gambang had gone through with you soldiers! Your daily matters during the fight with the communists were matters of life and death. Despite the hardship and deaths at times, ours during pusat or `outside’ were never near your level.

      And the Dire Straits Brothers In Arms is for people like you; all over the world… people whom you had described as “living with the real possibility they or their friends might not be around tomorrow… or in just a few hours or minutes!” I simply can’t imagine how you guys went through it all. Only people who “were there, seen it, done that” would really understand and empathise.

      You guys are brave; a special breed — that’s how I had felt then in the 1970’s when I was a teenager, and hearing about soldiers dying due to booby-traps… and I remember the “Daoyai-Musnah” operation.

  3. hi,

    I stumble upon your blog by accident…simply superb and inspiring…

    My ex-husband was a drug abuser…not sure whether he still is. Reading your story, opens up my heart to wish him well and happiness, that maybe someday his life could be better..for the sake of his 3 children.

    Take care!

    • *Hanim,
      Thank you for your encouraging words. Your first name as in the email address is the same as my ex-wife’s… Are you her? :-P

      But seriously, I’m extremely heartened and touched when I read about your wish for him. Madam, you have elevated yourself to a new level, for there is forgiveness and generosity in your self despite all the suffering and hurt that you surely must have gone through.

      Even though I don’t know you nor your ex-husband personally, I just need to reflect on my own experiences and behaviour “to see” what might have happened. And when I do that – besides feeling shame and regret about my own actions – I feel sad about the sufferings undergone by you and the children… the innocents. That’s why I see how noble you are with that wish for your ex-husband.

      Madam, I’m no soothsayer but I’m confident enough to predict this: you will find your life becoming happier after this… there will be a lot more peace in your life. And this is regardless of what your ex-husband’s life would be.

  4. Mat,

    I like the joke…but i’m not your ex-wife though :-)

    Your words are nicely written. I am touched.

    For a while, I too have to deal with my “What If” of my own also…if we could turn back the clock, we would ya!

    But looking at it now, I always tell myself I have the best 3 out of him and that’s what matters…most. I have no regrets.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Hi Mat. Yours is a very nice story. You say a lot, and there is much I could comment on, but I think the place where you spoke of the difference between listening and listening while planning a reply is the part that hit me the most personally – because this is something I sometimes have a hard time with. In respect to that I choose to refrain from commenting, instead appreciating your post for what it is, as it is.

    I found your blog because of a search I was doing. I recently wrote a book to try and give back to the recovery community. I’ve also started a blog ( and I’m trying to get started on the web. While researching self-publishing I read a good peice of advice about guest-blogging and I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a trade (I’ll write something for your blog, you write something for mine)?

    Thanks, ~Steve

    • Thank you for leaving a comment here.
      This blog has turned semi-dormant (or maybe it’s actually “almost dormant”) where there hasn’t been a new post for quite some time now. And this is also the main reason why I hesitate about guest-blogging: unlike many others who are able to write regularly and consistently, I only write when “I feel something”. Or maybe this is an excuse to be lazy:-)

      A lot of things have changed since I first started this blog; and most of these came about from the fact that I had started this blog. I have known of some great people, which in turn led to big changes. The most significant is in my knowing my present wife, and making that psychologically massive move from my previous place in Pasir Mas, Kelantan to here. And, for the first time in 12 long years, I now have a full-time job.

      Now I’m getting that feeling again… to write a new post.

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