He 'runs' away from drugs

PHOTO: The New Paper

Huddled at the staircase landing on the third storey of a HDB flat at Jalan Bukit Merah, he was so desperate for his heroin fix that he did not care that he was smoking it out in the open.

When the police closed in on him, Hanniel Choong climbed over the railing and jumped to the ground.

He fractured both ankles and was arrested.

That was in 1983. It took Mr Choong 20 years to finally free himself from the clutches of drugs, swopping his addiction for a passion for running.

Tomorrow, he will take part in a run to raise funds for the rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-offenders like him.

The Yellow Ribbon Prison Run was first organised in 2009 and Mr Choong has been taking part almost every year since its inception.

He missed out on the run only once, in 2013.

This year, the run will flag off at the SAF Open Field at Farnborough Road, near Changi Village, and end inside the Changi Prison Complex.

The competitive route covers 10km, going past historical sites like the Changi Chapel Museum, Johore Battery and the Old Changi Prison Wall.

By taking part in the run, Mr Choong, 54, hopes to create more awareness about drug abuse and encourage drug offenders to quit.

The situation is dire because the number of young abusers below the age of 20 arrested in the first half of this year has shot to a four-year high, said the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in a report released last month.

Mr Choong can relate to that as he was introduced to drugs when he was just 16.

He dropped out of school when he was in Primary Six, hung out with older kids in his Queenstown neighbourhood and they got him hooked on marijuana.

It did not take long for him to start abusing heroin, which would see him go in and out of jail and drug rehabilitation centres four times in the next two decades.

In 1983, after he jumped three storeys in his attempt to evade the police, Mr Choong was hospitalised for 15 days.

While in hospital, he asked his friend to smuggle drugs in for him.

After his discharge, he continued to abuse drugs to ease the pain from his injuries.

The next year, Mr Choong was charged with trafficking and jailed for five years and given five strokes of the cane.

It was one of the lowest points in his life.

Now Mr Choong leads a very different life.

He is a staunch Christian and goes to Changi Prison twice a month to preach to pre-release convicts serving the last 10 months of their sentences.

Mr Choong's road to recovery started off by chance.

In 1994, he did a four-month stint at the The Helping Hand halfway home.

He was introduced to Christianity and he thought of quitting drugs.

Battling withdrawal symptoms left him feeling nauseated. His nose would run and his eyes would tear and with that came muscle aches, diarrhoea and chills.

"At the end of the day, I couldn't quit," he said. "One minute, I wanted to throw away the drugs, to flush it down the toilet. But the next minute, I wanted the drugs back."

"I didn't have the sincerity to change, I wanted to take the easy way out."

Back in rehab

Just months after he left the halfway home, Mr Choong was back in rehab, his fourth and final time behind bars.

Before his release in 1996, he made the decision that would finally free him from his addiction.

"When my father came to visit, he would tell me to come home. He would say, 'go home, there is a place for you there'."

Instead, Mr Choong decided to rejoin the halfway house to focus on his recovery.

After spending a year there, where he started to pick up running as a hobby, he joined the Adam Road Presbyterian Church.

He has been doing maintenance work there ever since, supporting his 39-year-old wife and his three sons.

Through his interactions with younger drug offenders, Mr Choong noted that the more popular drugs now are synthetic drugs like 'Ice' (crystalline methamphetamine) and Ecstasy.

But he said the motivation was the same - peer pressure and curiosity.

Mr Choong's advice for them is simple.

"If you know that there is a danger in taking drugs, why do you want to take it?

"Once you start on it, there is no end.

"If there is an ending, it is going to be jail or death," he said.

This article was first published on September 12, 2015.
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