Footprints freshly minted by the muddy boots of construction workers mark the cement floor of the spanking new Housing Board block in Yishun Street 31.
The walls of the lifts are still lined with cardboard and protective padding to minimise damage as families move in to occupy the five-room units.
Mr Chua Soon Poh’s new home – a bright and cheery flat with white floor tiles and white walls – is on the third floor. He moved in two weeks ago with his wife, three children, maid and 86-year-old mother, who is starting to show signs of dementia.
When she is well, Madam Goh Lay Hong – a small, wiry woman with a shock of silver hair and a winsome smile – is chatty and affectionate. But when her illness kicks in, she has been known to accuse Mr Chua of trying to poison her.
“Or she will bang on my bedroom door several times in the middle of the night, asking me to look for her Panadol,” the 55-year-old says, shaking his head.
Her loopy behaviour drives him up the wall sometimes but he does not complain.
“She is the most important woman in my life,” the stocky man declares passionately in Mandarin. “Without her, I probably won’t be here today.”
His mother, he says, is the reason he is today a happily married man holding down a steady job as a youth worker and not a hard- core drug addict behind bars or dead from an overdose.
Mr Chua has a past. It is writ large on his body in the gaudy tattoos of serpents, tigers and buxomly women all over his chest and back.
He was a secret society member in his early teens before becoming a hard-core drug addict and pusher, and served three jail terms.
It was his mother’s unconditional love and devotion that finally made him change.
“She never gave up on me. She never missed a prison visit, she was always there, telling me to turn over a new leaf. Now it’s my turn. I will always take care of her, no matter how difficult,” he says.
Garrulous, with a booming voice and the quick manner of one used to taking charge, Mr Chua grew up the second youngest of 10 children in an attap house in a kampung near Bukit Timah’s Beauty World.
His late father was a carpenter, and his mother worked in a soft drinks factory to make ends meet.
“We were so poor that the only time we could have soft drinks was during Chinese New Year when guests came to visit. When they left, my third brother and I would fight over what was left in their glasses. We would spit into the glass to stake our claim,” he recalls with a laugh.
A quiet child, he discarded his muffled personality when he entered Pei Hwa Primary School and made friends with rowdy characters.
By the time he was nine, he was the bane of his teachers.
“I started picking fights in Primary 3. By the time I was in Primary 5, the fights had become more serious. I started hanging out with a group which had links to secret societies so that I would have their backing and protection,” he says.
His unsavoury friends egged him on to take part in gang fights and steal.
“I had to repeat my Primary 6 twice. After leaving primary school, I was supposed to attend the Industrial Training Board (ITB) but spent my time getting involved in fights instead. My father was hauled up to see the principal; I left the ITB after just a few days.”
Instead of getting a job, he got inducted as a triad member. The initiation rites, he recalls, took place in a temple and involved chopping off a chicken’s head and drinking its blood.
He soon got involved in drugs, starting with pills and marijuana before moving on to heroin.
Mr Chua snorts when asked if he remembers who first offered him heroin. “No one gave me. I wanted it. It’s very easy to blame others but I was already a bad fellow. I was curious and I wanted to try it,” he says.
That first experience left him retching and spewing but did not put him off. Pretty soon, he was chasing the dragon – a euphemism for smoking heroin – three or four times a week, a habit he sustained through theft and extortion.
He was arrested in 1977, just before he was to start his national service. “I was getting my regular fix and the police just happened to be out arresting addicts and pushers.”
An 18-month sentence in a drug rehabilitation centre followed.
“My family had no idea I was doing drugs until I got arrested. One thing about me, I was bad outside but never stole or created trouble at home,” he says.
At the centre, he was forced to go cold turkey. “You feel as though worms are gnawing away at your bones. It’s all pain, cold sweat and snot,” he recalls of the ordeal.
But he went back to drugs almost as soon as he was released.
“I was doing drugs when I went into the army,” he lets on.
During his time, Singapore youths spent two and a half years in NS. He took five years, half of it spent in military detention.
“I was always fighting with officers, going Awol (absent without leave). I was court martialled twice, and sentenced once for six months, another time for 18,” he says with a sigh.
The jail terms included periods of solitary confinement, but proved no deterrent.
Finding a job after NS was not a priority. Living a life of narcotic highs, and making big and fast money was. “I never thought of getting a proper job. I reckoned I would never find one which would pay enough for me to afford my drug habit.”
He became a drug pusher and also helped a gang run a network of gambling dens, loan shark outfits and illegal bookie centres in areas like Beauty World and Tanjong Pagar.
There were two more stints in the slammer, each lasting a couple of years. “I was like a man possessed. Nothing was going to come between me and Miss White,” he says, using the addict’s term of endearment for heroin. “Addicts will leave their wives, disown their children for Miss White. Nothing compares to her.”
There were many like him in prison. “We were hard-core addicts who couldn’t think straight,” says Mr Chua, whose tattoos are the handiwork of several of his cellmates. “Even their wives and mothers gave up on them. I know because I’ve seen many of these wives and mothers stop visiting after a while.”
Not his mother though.
Madam Goh never missed a prison visit, often accompanied by Mr Chua’s third sister.
“Each visit, she would bring four kilograms of biscuits and four big apples – the maximum allowed – for me. They were supposed to last me two weeks before her next visit, but they’d often be gone in one night because I shared them with my friends,” he says.
Grimacing, he lowers his head and shakes it in shame.
“I didn’t know what was going through my head but I would yell at her if she cried when she came to visit. ‘Who’s the one in jail? You or me? So why are you crying? If you want to cry, don’t come!'”
The old lady remembers those trying days well.
“There was a lot of pain in my heart but he is my son. I refused to give up; I knew he would one day come back to me,” she says in Mandarin.
Mr Chua’s elder brother Kim Soon, 56, says his mother often wept over her wayward youngest son. “But she never gave up hope,” says the pastor with Charis Evangelical Free Church.
He recalls an incident when a stranger came to the family home looking for his brother shortly after the latter was released from prison.
“My brother went into the kitchen to retrieve a parang which we didn’t even know he had hidden. My mother blocked his way and told him that if he wanted to leave the house, he had to slash her first,” he says.
Mr Chua fell into a deep funk in 1987 when he was released after his third prison sentence.
“I was still doing drugs at home. I felt there was no hope, no meaning to life. I was thin as a skeleton because of my addiction. I just wanted to end my life by jumping from a block of flats,” he says.
Fortunately, he called one of his sisters, who pleaded with him not to do so.
The thought of hurting his mother also stopped him.
Deciding that he had to change for her, he agreed to take up his sister’s suggestion and attend a religious retreat.
“I only went because I wanted to change for my mother’s sake. Don’t laugh, but I sneaked a few packets of heroin into the camp. I’d go off for a smoke whenever I had the urge,” he says.
But something an instructor said struck a chord with him on the second day.
“He said, ‘You think you are free because you can smoke or drink whenever you want. But that’s not real freedom. Real freedom is freedom of the heart, it’s not doing something even though you can.'”
That year, his pastor brother Kim Soon roped him in to work with youths in his church. He has been there since.
The pastor says: “I was so scared when he first started working in the church. He had a fiery temper and would smash things when he got worked up. I was always in trepidation. But I was not going to let him go. Like the rest of my family, we just wanted him to change.
“And he has changed. He has quietened down and developed very strong leadership skills although he still occasionally betrays the manner of a triad chief. But he is very good with young people.”
Besides his mother and his newfound faith, another woman appeared to keep Mr Chua on the straight and narrow.
He met accounts manager Elena Pang at church and married her 21 years ago. The couple have three children aged between nine and 19.
She says: “My parents and my friends wondered why I chose to marry a guy who earned less than I did, and who didn’t seem to have much of a future. But I knew what I was doing.
“He was patient and responsible and he is worldly because he has seen and experienced so much. I knew his history but I was very confident he was a changed man, and I was right.”
Mr Chua, who spent a year studying theology, says candidly that he still fears he will go back to his old ways. On more than a few occasions, a couple of his old cronies have tempted him to go back to drugs, by offering him as much as $50,000 in cash.
“It’s been more than 20 years but I am still scared I’ll be influenced again. I have seen one friend go back to drugs after being clean for five years. Another became a grandfather with two grandkids but he was so bored, he went back to his old ways.”
The fear, he says, is good for him. “I’ve been given a second chance. I get to spend time with my mother and make her happy, I have a good wife and good children. I can’t throw that away.”
Meanwhile, the last two decades have been comforting ones for Madam Goh.
“When he changed, my joy was indescribable. I felt as though a big stone was lifted from my heart,” she says.
On Mother’s Day next Sunday, her prodigal son will pay her the ultimate tribute.
He says: “I will tell my story in church, and how she saved me with her love.”
This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.
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