How 12 Strokes of the Cane and 10 years at Changi Prison shaped a Starfish.
In 2015, I met Barry again for the first time after 27 years.
Barry has great tattoos. Barry used to be a drug addict.
I first met Barry Yeow at the Moon Crescent Prison and Detention Barracks in 1988. We were both 19. I was an Army Lieutenant assigned to supervise a soldier addicted to drugs and Barry was a detainee in the same cohort serving his National Service time not in the barracks but in jail for heroin offences and threatening his officers with a machete.
Somehow, we connected. I never saw him as an addict, but a warm and talented man whom I could relate and communicate with. My hurried letters to keep in touch with him were always reciprocated with beautifully scripted letters flawlessly printed by a simple ball point pen. Each letter written on prison issued paper, a work of art. I was amazed and he encouraged me much more than I did him.
After Barry’s release from military prison in 1988, he set up an interior design business and I was delighted. But delight soon turn to dismay as he succumbed to heroin again. In desperation, we agreed to go through a week of DIY detox together — to try to kick the habit. It was in 1989 when in a friend’s vacant apartment, I tied Barry’s hands together and promised to stay with him until his agony subsided. By day 2, we were in trouble. Barry asked that we go to an old haunt in Bedok to pick up some methadone — an opiate that helps alleviate his withdrawal symptoms. I drove him there and watched from a distance as he went to a group of old men. After 2 hours, he secured his prize and returned with it clenched in his fist.
When we arrived home, Barry fished out a straw — not of methadone — but of heroin. I scuffled him for it and told him I was going to flush it down heroin the toilet. Barry held my gaze and quietly informed me that if I did so, he would kill me. His desperate eyes told me that he would do it — he had no choice.
I failed Barry that day. I watched him cook the heroin on a foil or spoon — over a lighter, and chased the dragon. I left him for good after that. I judged him as someone whom could not be helped. I forgot that my role was to be his friend, not his saviour
For 27 years, I lived with the guilt that I’ve failed Barry. I told my kids about him, and tried to find him. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know that for years after we last met, the hell of drug addiction continued for Barry until all was lost. Barry plunged into the depths of despair and committed armed robbery. He was sentenced to 10 years jail time and 12 strokes of the cane.
Barry lost all hope. 10 years was a long time to contemplate on day 1. Suicide was a viable option to a swift release.
Then he met 3 other inmates who had even less to hope for.
The first, a fellow addict who like him had just be arrested, but this time, for trafficking. He had no hope of seeing life on the outside. Under Singapore’s tough laws, he was to die by hanging.
The second, another acquaintance who was to be released from prison within a few weeks. Barry was puzzled at his sullen demeanour. He found out that this man had terminal cancer. He would be released, only to die.
The third person Barry saw was an inmate in the infirmary. A failed attempt at suicide scrambled his brain, a living vegetable strapped on a gurney. Awaiting death without hope.
Barry decided then that he had to cling to hope — hope that after 10 years, he can rebuild his life again. He rediscovered his talent in art, and he found his identity as an artist, and a new creation in Christ. God gave him a dream one night — a prophetic dream that he would appear in the newspaper upon his release — but as an artist. When he was finally released, a counsellor helped him to set up an art studio, and his dream literally came true.
I read about Barry in the newspaper in 2015 (he was released after 6 years) the very picture that he dreamt about in prison appeared on facebook. Without my knowledge, he too was looking me up. I managed to get his number and we connected again.
We arranged to meet. I was wracked with guilt. How do I apologise to someone whom I had failed and neglected for 27 years?
When we saw each other, we hugged and two 48 year old men held hands and shed unfettered tears like kids for what seemed like hours. Somehow 27 years melted away. Barry forgave me.
“I am your starfish…”??!!
Instead of being angry with me, Barry told me something that blew my mind. He told me that he was my “starfish”. He told me this story.
An old man walked along a beach littered with thousands of Starfishes. He saw an boy tossing Starfishes back into the water, one after another. The old man asked the boy “Why are you wasting your time? You can’t rescue them all!”. The boy replied “ I can’t rescue them all but I made a difference to that one Starfish I just threw back.”
Somehow, my infinitely small act of friendship 27 years ago was one that he took comfort in through the years. Like the one Starfish of thousands on a beach that a boy threw back into the ocean, our friendship decades ago somehow made a difference to him through his years in prison.
I’ve learnt a precious life lesson from Barry. The only thing really worthwhile to do in life, is really to love, to do our best to throw that one starfish back into the ocean.
That act may give that person dignity, but much more than that, it gives us the right to live — it make our lives worth the air that we breathe.
It was at this time that I decided to go into partnership with Jabez Tan, an ex-offender himself who established Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh, a social enterprise that dishes out Bak Kut Teh recipe that he created. Jabez used to cook for prisoners on death row. His food is to die for. When he was released, Jabez set up Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh to help give ex-offenders a vocation. Our joint venture, Soon Huat Without Borders Pte Ltd runs the 5th Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh branch at Timbre+. The stall have been operating since April 2016 and we are in the midst of establishing a pilot project called “StarFish Home” — a ¾ way house for ex-offenders. I hope this home can support both ex-offenders and people with disabilities who needs a roof over their heads.
SPONSOR $10 FOR OUR STARFISH HOME (click here)
Life came full circle for me when Barry agreed to paint our Bak Kut Teh Caravan with his signature Starfish story. It is not street graffiti that he painted, but a canvas of work that reflects his life story, our life story.
His forgiveness threw me back into the ocean.
Soon Huat Without Borders Pte Ltd is a joint venture between Jabez and Philip. We seek private sponsorship of up to $10,000 to carry out a pilot trial to establish a ¾ way house. We have rented a 3 room flat with which we can house up to 6 ex-offenders and/or People With Disability. These shall also be provided with jobs at our branch at timbre+ @ blk 71, Ayer Rajah Crescent.
Project StarFish Home (click here)