HOW do I resume life after losing 18 years of it to prison and death row? Can I just walk back in and pick up the pieces or do I have to start a new? Will the people around me judge me for my ordeal? Do I have to conceal my identity? Would I have to exist as an outcast? Would I have to buy my meals hurriedly and rush to a corner to eat them to avoid attention?
Fortunately, these are questions many of us will never ever have to ask ourselves. But for 38-year-old Teng Howe Sing, they were the very questions that haunt him constantly during his time behind bars.
Nineteen years ago, Teng was a normal 19-year-old college student in Sibu. It was his first time living on his own outside his hometown Kapit and he savoured his new-found freedom.
Being a social butterfly, he had friends in various circles and spent his days, focusing solely on his friendships and school. His new-fangled priorities, however, led to a series of events that caused his ‘new rosy lifestyle’ to come crashing down on March 17, 1999, when he was charged with drug trafficking.
“On that fateful day, a friend of mine asked me if I could do him a favour by picking up a parcel for him in Sibu as he was in Sarikei. I obliged and went along with another friend to pick up the parcel,” Teng recounted.
It was a simple favour most of us would agree to without a second thought but for Teng, that simple favour was the beginning of the end because unbeknownst to him, the parcel contained 371.12 grams of cannabis.
Teng was arrested following a police ambush shortly after picking up the parcel and was sent to jail after being held in custody for 13 days. Following a string of bad legal advice and conflicting police accounts of the day’s events, Teng was convicted of drug trafficking and given the death penalty.
He sought appeal after appeal to fight the injustice but his attempts were rebuffed at every turn. His final failed appeal was made on Jan 24, 2009 when the Federal Court announced “it did not wish to disturb the lower court’s findings”.
Pardon from the Governor
In a last-ditch bid to save his life, Teng and his supporters sought a pardon from the then Head of State Tun Datuk Patinggi Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng.
Abang Salahuddin felt compassion for Teng’s case and granted him a pardon on July 1, 2013, reducing his death sentence to life imprisonment – which was 20 years at the time. Teng was calm and peaceful when he heard the news. It was a joyous occasion, and his family, friends and supporters throughout the entire ordeal, were relieved he had escaped the gallows.
Having already served a number of years in prison, Teng’s release date was set just three years later – on Dec 22, 2016.
With three years of prison left to serve, he spent his time contemplating about his life, his experiences and his future.
He thought about how he would live after spending 10 years of his life in an eight by eight square foot room with a single window.
He also thought about ways to reduce the burden he would place on his family besides his own future, goals and aspirations. With time on his hands, Teng did a lot of soul-searching and came to just one conclusion, “I want to be a normal person again.”
Striking a chord
While on death row, a guard told him, “If I were you, I’d kill myself. Because then, my parents would only have to cry for three days and nights. Instead, your parents now have to grieve every day not knowing when it will be over.”
It was a crass comment made in an attempt at humour but it struck a chord with Teng.
“I mulled over it for a while and came to realise it would be a lie to say my parents would only cry for three days and nights. They bore and raised me and this is something that cannot be dismissed so easily. I’ve learnt the most important thing in the world to me is my parents.
“I think they might face a whole life of regret, guilt and remorse instead if I did such a thing (commit suicide). That, in itself, is worse than me choosing to live and depend on them for my well-being,” he said.
The guard’s comment did, however, impact Teng in a positive way as it further reinforced his desire to be self-sufficient and responsible when he re-entered society.
While Teng’s goal of wanting to be a normal person again might sound simplistic, it was far from that as he wanted to make amends and resume his own life.
Trying to find his place in life again
He wanted to settle in his state and live openly as Teng Howe Sing and no one else because it is the life his parents had given him, and one his parents, family, friends and supporters value highly. “I fell down here in my home state and it’s here where I need to stand back up again.”
Telling his story
Teng explained it was because of this resolution during his time in prison that he chose to publish several articles he wrote under his real name.
“I decided I couldn’t hide what has happened to me. I wanted the world to know my story, that I was tricked into picking up drugs, that I used to be in jail and that I have escaped the gallows.
“If I were to introduce myself to someone, I would be upfront with who I am because I don’t want to second-guess myself whether or not the person would still be my friend if he or she knew the truth.
“I wanted to have friends who knew my history but still decided to stick around. Then they would be real friends. I want people to say – ‘Oh he is out and he still has so many friends around him’.”
It was rather strange to hear Teng emphasising the need to have friends when it was the very action of his previous ‘friends’ that got him into deep trouble and stole 18 years of his life.
Teng said what he did in prison was time and during that time, he had contemplated for a very long time about the concept of ‘friends’.
“I fell because I chose friends over family and during my time in prison, I did think about exacting revenge and not trusting anyone again. However, as my release date approached, I started to think all these thoughts about vengeance and distrust were not worth it. As Nelson Mandela once said ‘If I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.’
“Besides, I am standing up again because of friends – new friends who have supported me by treating me like a human being again and who have also taken me swimming, to picnics and mountain-climbing expeditions.”
In the five short months since his release, these friends have helped Teng immensely to experience the joys of life again and because of that, he has decided if he is to go on living, he needs to live a more meaning life.
Now, his three big goals in life are to maintain a good relationship with his family, give back to society and stand on his own feet. He hoped his story and experience would serve as an eye-opener to young people, especially those from smaller towns and villages who might be heading to larger cities.
“In smaller places like Kapit, Serian and Sarikei, kids will be more trusting because they grow up in a small environment where everyone knows everyone, and because of that, there is a higher sense of trust within the communities.
“However, there seems to be issues of drug abuse right now around the state and many youngsters appear to be using,” he noted.
As such, Teng hoped the younger generation will be careful about who they choose to trust. He also urged them to consider the grave consequences of dabbling in drugs. Through such advice and cautioning, he hoped he could give back to the local community.
Teng said he doesn’t want these youngsters to lose faith in humanity but be more alert to its ugly side and look out more for themselves.
“I don’t want to have gone through my ordeal for nothing. I believe God placed me there to witness suffering so I could use my experience to prevent others from going down the same path and to give back to society.”
Teng’s mission to help society doesn’t end there as he also wishes to share life lessons he has learnt from his time in prison. During incarceration, he said, the most important thing he learned is that parents are the most important people in the world.
Throughout his entire ordeal, his parents, especially his mother, stayed strong beside him. They kept him sane, gave him hope and made him feel loved and that life is worth living.
“In those 18 years, my mother had gone through so much for me. She not only had to take care of my father’s ailing health and the household but also travel back and forth to visit me in prison. I can’t begin to describe the suffering she endured and I don’t know how to ever fully repay her.”
Teng said when he was suicidal while facing the death penalty, it was always the thought of his mother that kept him strong and sane.
“I almost lost everything, including my mother and my family, so I need to treasure them.”
Because of this, Teng’s number one goal in life is to maintain that love between him and his family. And he hopes others will follow suit because he believes no one loves us more than our own parents. Even before his release, he had already started working on this goal.
Some years ago, the boy who grew up across the street of his home was incarcerated for drug abuse. The boy had overdosed on drugs and in desperation, his mother called the ambulance to save her son’s life even if it meant he would be jailed for dabbling in drugs. The boy survived but in anger, cut ties with his mother, believing it was her fault that he now had to serve a prison sentence.
Teng said his parents called him in prison to tell him the news.
“They said the woman across the street couldn’t stop crying because her son refused to speak to her or let her visit. It was a very sad story. While growing up, I remembered seeing how much the woman loved her son, how she treated him like gold and how he could do no wrong in her eyes.”
As Teng was still serving his life sentence at the time, he went to look for the boy in prison and after finding him, told him, “Look at me, I’ve been here for 18 years, much longer than you have and will ever be. Do you think the friends you have now will still visit you as years go by? No, the one person who will do that is your mother.” The boy was greatly moved and shortly after, made up with his mother.
“For me, that’s one of the most touching experiences because I was able to help someone to see the light and realise how important his mother, parents, and family are.”
“To my own mother, I just want to say this – I hope I can use my whole life to continue loving and repaying you and never letting your tears fall again because of me. I only want you to have happy tears – never sad tears – and be happy every day as I will try hard to succeed in finding my place in life.”
Faith in humanity affirmed
WHILE Teng’s story is one borne out of the ugliness of humanity, it is also one that celebrates humanity’s beauty. Without the help and support of so many kind-hearted people, he may very well have taken the advice from the prison guard or kept on harbouring the anguish and bitterness of his experience.
Judy Wong was among those who worked tirelessly to save Teng’s life. She is his strongest pillar and he regards her as his second mother.
Wong is a former principal of Methodist Pilley Institute (MPI). She was instated before Teng’s time in prison. She heard of his plight from several MPI lecturers discussing how Teng was used by his friends as a drug mule. She felt very disturbed and took steps to find out more. After her first visit and encounter with Teng, she somehow believed in him. She also felt the inner pains and sufferings of Teng’s most gracious, loving and unfailing mother. Thus began a long process of helping them in seeking for more legal help and writing letters of appeal for pardon.
On why she went to such lengths for a complete stranger, Wong said, “It was God’s love that compelled me to do so. Teng was a fine and newly transformed young man. I strongly believed that he should be given a second chance to live and to be used by God. Looking back, I thank God that I obeyed His nudging. I dread to think of the consequences otherwise.”
This seemingly simple motivation of Wong not only helped Teng to regain his life but also find religion.
“Another reason why I have been able to let go of hate is finding religion. When I saw Judy who has no relation and obligation towards me working so hard for my well-being, I was greatly moved. Not once did she come and push religion on to me but seeing her sincerity to help me gave me the motivation to continue living with God in my life,” he said.
The day that Teng walked out of the prison as a free man was only less than 10 days before Wong’s retirement, so she said “That was my best retirement gift!”
Apart from Wong, Teng also wants to thank many other people who visited him in prison. Special thanks go to Datuk Yii Ming Tang and Chang Jih Ren for their help and support, and the See Hua Daily News for their humanitarian efforts in providing the State Prisons Department free newspaper subscriptions.
“The newspapers kept me in touch with the outside world at the time and their motivational articles kept my spirits up. And from them, I have learnt to write articles to tell my story,” he said.