It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: From drug addict to expert trainer

Jix Sze was hooked on heroin at 14, but a bizarre stroke of luck changed his path in life

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Jix Sze started taking drugs when he was in secondary school. To feed his addiction, he turned to stealing and robbing people at knifepoint. He eventually got caught and decided to change his life.
Mr Jix Sze was once so heavily addicted to drugs that he required at least three fixes a day. At the height of his addiction, he often slept on the streets in search of drugs and money. The law caught up with him when he was 19, but he managed to esc
Mr Jix Sze was once so heavily addicted to drugs that he required at least three fixes a day. At the height of his addiction, he often slept on the streets in search of drugs and money. The law caught up with him when he was 19, but he managed to escape imprisonment when his urine test proved negative for drugs. He decided to turn over a new leaf and later took up courses in training and development. He is married to a PhD holder in early childhood education. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Jix Sze makes a living as a training consultant and looks the part. The bespectacled 60-year-old with the receding hairline speaks well, dresses neatly and is unfailingly polite.

The mild-mannered demeanour, however, belies a wild and racy past. He spent most of his adolescence in a drugged stupor, an emaciated, long-haired figure who attended pot parties, and who stole, extorted and peddled drugs to fund a heroin addiction that started when he was just 14.

The law caught up with him when he was 19. But when he managed to escape incarceration through a bizarre stroke of luck, he decided to turn his life around.

With only a Primary School Leaving Certificate to his name, he started working life as an office boy.

Through sheer grit, perseverance and some lucky breaks, he started a couple of businesses, not all of them successful, and is today a training consultant married to a PhD holder in early childhood education.

Two years ago, when he was 58, Mr Sze also got himself a master's degree in training and development from Griffith University in Australia.

His latest achievement? He turned author. Published by Marshall Cavendish, his book Chasing The Dragon Out chronicles his trials and tribulations and how he "altered" his destiny.

A long-haired Jix Sze in his teens. PHOTO: JIX SZE

Chatty and earnest, he grew up in the gritty neighbourhood of Geylang and is the third of four children of a carpenter and his wife.

His father died when Mr Sze was four. "When my father died, my mother had to take over his business as well as raise four children. She ran the carpentry workshop till we were in our teens. It was a struggle and was very hard on her," he says.

Ruefully, he says he was the family's black sheep. "If my father had been alive, things might have turned out differently. There was no one to keep an eye on me."

Although he himself never joined a gang, many of his chums were triad members. By the time he was in Primary 6 at Geylang English School, he was already smoking and drinking.

Things got worse when he went to MacPherson Secondary. A classmate introduced him to MX pills, a sleeping pill favoured by addicts in the 1970s because it put them in a trance. "It made me feel as though I was pumped up with helium and floating on air," he recalls.

Before his classmate went home to Christmas Island where his family lived, he introduced Mr Sze to his supplier, who was only a couple of years older.

"When he ran out of supplies one day, he broke into a clinic in Lavender Street at night because he thought he could find MX pills there. I joined him and was his lookout," he says. "He came back with a whole bag of pills but there was no MX, so we threw the whole bag away."

From MX pills, Mr Sze progressed to marijuana, and remembers attending all-night pot parties, including one at a house on Sentosa.

To fund his habit, he plucked coconuts, sold newspapers and stole from his mother's workers.

It wasn't long before he started chasing the dragon, the euphemism for heroin abuse. His addiction started in 1972 when he was just 14.

"The first time I did it was in a friend's home - one of those one-room flats - in Toa Payoh. There were five of us," he says.

Unlike many novices, he did not get violently ill.

"I liked it immediately. There was a big rush of adrenaline," he says.

By the time he was in Secondary 4, he had to have a heroin fix, which then cost $5.50 for a small straw, every two days.

"In those days, the heroin was quite unadulterated. The straws were about 1.5 or 2 inches long, making it easier to hide them in the anus. By 1975, I had long hair and the police often stopped and searched those with long hair to check for drugs because it was an epidemic then," he says, referring to an anti-drug campaign by the Central Narcotics Bureau to tackle the heroin-addiction problem in the 1970s.

Although his mother and siblings knew what he was up to, they couldn't do anything about it.

"I was skinny and fine-boned but was hot-tempered and violent. My mother spoke to me but to no avail, my siblings didn't dare."

Not surprisingly, his studies went south. His report card was a tsunami of red. "I had F9s all the way from Sec 1 to Sec 4. I was absent from school about 85 per cent of the time," Mr Sze says.

"The school wanted to expel me. My mother pleaded with them, and my uncle knew one of the vice-principals and spoke to him. I was not allowed to attend school but allowed to sit my O levels. I was so happy," he says.

He failed and left school with not even one O level.

He is now a training consultant and hopes to conduct courses in self-empowerment. PHOTO: JIX SZE

When he was not too drugged out, he would work as an odd-job labourer for $7 a day at an oil refinery on Pulau Ayer Cawan off Jurong Island. There was also a short stint as an apprentice electrician.

The gigs couldn't fund his increasingly heavy addiction, so he started to break into homes, shops and factories. "I also started robbing dating couples in Katong Park and Changi Park. I had a long knife with a seven-inch blade from Indonesia given to me by a seaman friend."

He continues: "I slept on the streets often, on the staircase landing of the old National Library and outside Orchard Cinema because I was always on the lookout for drugs and money," says Mr Sze, who eventually became a runner for a drug peddler so he could make money and have free drugs at the same time.

He was then heavily addicted, requiring at least three fixes a day.

Asked if he ever harboured a desire to walk on the straight and narrow, he replies with a sigh: "There were tweaks of conscience and a feeble willingness, but it was beyond me. I didn't have the strength to do it," says Mr Sze.

In 1977, when they were at the end of their tether, his mother and sister sent him to missionary Neivelle Tan, who ran a halfway house for drug addicts.

Tan, now in his 70s, was once one of Singapore's 10 most wanted men and sentenced to hang for being involved in a gang fight that led to the death of a triad member. He escaped the gallows because at 17, he was, under the law, too young to be hanged; he found faith while serving a 14-year sentence in prison.

Mr Sze went through cold-turkey treatment and left the halfway house after two weeks.

"I felt good and put on some weight. When I left, he told me I wasn't cured yet," he recalls.

True enough, he went back to his old ways the very next day after meeting an old druggie friend.

"It became worse, things got into a different gear," he says.

Together with the friend, who was staying at his uncle's empty flat in MacPherson, he started doing drugs around the clock for nearly a month.

He was nabbed when he decided to go home to get a fresh change of clothes but made a detour to Hippie Garden - then a notorious drug haunt in Geylang - for a fix.

Taken to the Joo Chiat Police Station, he was made to urinate into a bottle so that it could be sent for testing.

His identity card was impounded, and he was asked to go back to the police station a week later for the results. "In those days, it took five days to get urine test results." Panic set in when he got home. "I was frantic, I didn't want to go to prison."

Sheer desperation drove him to go on his knees and pray, and when the results, in a bizarre twist, proved negative, he became a changed man. By then, he had also put himself, using Tan's methods, through another round of cold turkey.

He set himself three goals: get a job, go to church and improve his English. "I got myself a small Oxford dictionary and learnt two new words every day," says Mr Sze, who now speaks English fluently.

He got a job as an office boy at a trading company, cleaning, mailing parcels and making coffee for $140 a month.

After seven months, his employer offered him a job selling spectacle frames, increasing his salary to $750 a month plus a commission for every deal he closed.

"I was then 20 and could make about $1,200 a month; I never dreamt I could make this sort of money," he recalls with a laugh.

Two years later, a church friend roped him in to sell insurance.

He did well, and soon had a gold credit card and a Datsun 120Y. He went on to head a team, and eventually set up his own agency.

In 1983, he married Ms Weelai Suwanarat, whom he met while she was volunteering at a halfway house. Like him, she came from a humble background and once worked as a draughtsman before getting her doctorate in childhood education from the University of Leicester. The couple do not have any children.

Besides insurance, Mr Sze set up other businesses, including one selling Filofaxes and another distributing and developing children's educational products in the 1990s.

As he rose through the ranks, Mr Sze - who obtained two diplomas from the Singapore College Of Insurance - started training other insurance agents.

He enjoyed training, and set his sights on becoming a corporate trainer.

"I thought with my expertise and experience, no one would not want me. But it was a figment of my imagination. I wrote to dozens of companies, no one wanted me," he says.

The problem? He did not have a degree. He couldn't even get gigs to conduct Singapore Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) modules. WSQ is the national system that trains, develops and certifies skills and competencies for the workforce in various industries.

Over the next couple of years, he tried to break that barrier by getting himself an advanced certificate in training and assessment from the Institute of Adult Learning (IAL).

It didn't help. Fortunately a chance meeting with an IAL director gave him a break.

The latter wrote to the director of Kaplan Learning Institute, who granted Mr Sze an interview and, impressed by his experience, hired him to conduct several WSQ modules including problem solving, leadership and decision making.

Kaplan opened other doors to other organisations, including Boxhill Institute and IAL.

At the suggestion of the IAL director, Mr Sze also enrolled in a diploma in adult and continuing education, and later, a master's in training and development.

To date, Mr Sze has conducted training for several institutions as principal consultant and adjunct adult educator; he has also done development work for SG Enable, an agency helping the disabled.

He now hopes to conduct training in self-empowerment, teaching others "how to set goals, how to network and how to develop yourself".

Asked if he has ever regretted his past, he says: "I've never blamed anyone. I was supposed to be responsible for myself. When I was 12 or 13, I might have been too young but what about when I was 16 or 17?"

His path in life is his own to chart, he says.

"You are the ignition and engine in the journey of your endeavours."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 28, 2018, with the headline It Changed My Life: From drug addict to expert trainer. Subscribe