A heroin smuggler at 12, he counsels drug inmates today

Tan Han Lay defied the odds in turning his life around, and now hopes to help others do the same

Mr Tan Han Lay, who was behind bars for almost 28 years of his life, is now an operations director of his own cleaning company. His efforts as a counsellor were recognised when he received an award recently at the Yellow Ribbon Celebrating Second Cha
Mr Tan Han Lay, who was behind bars for almost 28 years of his life, is now an operations director of his own cleaning company. His efforts as a counsellor were recognised when he received an award recently at the Yellow Ribbon Celebrating Second Chances ceremony.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

When most Primary 6 pupils were preparing for the PSLE back in 1983, Tan Han Lay, a skinny 12-year-old with a rough home life, roved with older neighbourhood boys he called "The Elders".

One of them made a tempting offer - to show him the outside world beyond his home in Nankin Street, Chinatown. That outside world turned out to be just across the border in Johor Baru, where he was put up in a small hotel and given a tour of the city after being treated to meals.

On his return home, his life would change, Mr Tan, now 47, recounted to The Straits Times recently.

At the Singapore side of the Causeway, he was dragged out of a taxi by men in uniform. The officers found two packets of heroin weighing 68.62g tucked under his waist.

Mr Tan, now an operations director of his own cleaning company, says: "(At that time) I didn't know the seriousness (of it). I knew it was illegal but I didn't know I was facing the death penalty." He suspected that he had been betrayed as his taxi was singled out from a long line of vehicles at the checkpoint. Yet he acknowledges that it could have been far worse had he continued to smuggle drugs for The Elders.

Mr Tan, who embarked on a long journey to wake up from his narcotics daze, found himself behind bars for drug-related offences for almost 28 years of his life.

In 2010, he was released and has since remained drug-free. Six years later, he became a volunteer prison counsellor, advising inmates that they too could be free from the clutches of drug abuse.

Mr Tan's efforts as a counsellor were recognised on Nov 4 when he received a Merit Achievement Award at the Yellow Ribbon Celebrating Second Chances ceremony.

His has defied high odds in turning his life around. Growing up in the 1980s, especially in Chinatown, was a turbulent time for a teenager rarely supervised at home. "Beside our house (in Nankin Street), there were many gambling dens," he recalls. "People smoked opium. And 70 per cent of my neighbours were involved in drugs and crime."

It did not help that his father was busy with his business and seldom home while the young boy's mother had died when he was six years old.

Heroin and ganja were the menace then. His first trafficking conviction saw him spending five years at a boys' home, said Mr Tan, the youngest of four siblings.

His eldest brother and his father visited him when he was detained. It was his brother who assured him he was too young to be hanged.

In a cruel twist of fate, that same brother was hanged in 1994 for trafficking about 1kg of heroin. Mr Tan visited his 29-year-old brother on his last day before execution.

"My brother was my hero," said Mr Tan, whose eyes turned red when describing his late sibling. "He told me, 'Now you see I'm inside, (but) tomorrow I'm gone. But you still have a chance.'"

Even with his brother's advice entrenched in his mind, Mr Tan struggled to stay clean. Temptation was always near. Friends would offer drugs freely whenever they met.

Mr Tan would also fail to turn up for urine tests and stayed on the run for two years. He was convicted for numerous drug-related offences, including trafficking, consumption and possession. In that 28-year period, he admitted to abusing drugs like heroin, cannabis, ketamine, sleeping pills, Ecstasy and methamphetamine.

At least 10 of his friends have been hanged for drug offences.

Luckily, his path to a normal life was illuminated by a prison counsellor from Teen Challenge, Mr Michael Lim. It was Mr Lim who encouraged him to become a prison counsellor.

Mr Tan now sees his twice-a-week volunteer role as a cathartic experience even when its sole purpose is to support inmates. "When I see them (inmates), they always remind me not to fall again. They also encourage me to move forward."

Mr Tan is encouraged when some offenders ask him about job opportunities and how long it would take family members to rekindle ties. In the end, it is all about rebuilding trust, he said.

But some drug offenders - especially those below 20 - are harder to convince because they do not see that there is a problem. "If they (young offenders) realise that they did something wrong, then it would be easier," said Mr Tan, who also counsels offenders from the Reformative Training Centre. "If they say, 'No choice, police caught me', or 'I spend my money on drugs and I didn't steal', then they don't admit they did something wrong. They don't know how seriously they are harming their families."

In a sense, his battle has never stopped even after his release from prison. His several attempts at finding jobs were fruitless as nobody wanted to hire an ex-con. Yet he continued to tell potential employers of his past drug convictions.

With barely enough money to spend, Mr Tan could afford to eat only roti prata for breakfast and dinner. Before he landed his first job, he ate mee goreng because it was the cheapest dish.

But he had faith on his side. He landed his first job at Hougang Swimming Complex as a pool cleaner. Encouraging him was his then girlfriend, Helen, whom he had met in church. The couple later tied the knot on Christmas Day in 2012.

"When I had nothing, she married me," said Mr Tan, whose small office in Ubi Techpark is decorated with art pieces by inmates. "Now whatever I have, I owe it all to her."

With limited savings, the pair started their own business, T & H Cleaning, in 2015. Out of 80 employees his company hires, 30 are former offenders.

Mr Tan added: "I want to tell them that, like me, they can do it too. And there will always be someone to support them in life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'A heroin smuggler at 12, he counsels drug inmates today'. Subscribe