Stories based on lives of former offenders

Above: The writer for 'Low-Class Animals'.

Low-Class Animals

"My starting point may have been better than other people's, but in here, we're actually all the same, trying to reform ourselves day by day, learning to confront loneliness, longing for our freedom.

"My name is Zhang Xiao Yu. In the past, I was too arrogant. I looked down on people and liked to make fun of them. "But actually, I'm no better. I'm a lowclass animal, too."

The author:

Her story for Passages is under her pen name Han Han. In reality, Tan Kee Yun, 30, is a journalist with The New Paper.

She has published three short story collections in Chinese and a collection of Chinese essays. She was also part of the literature contingent at Singapore Season 2007 in Shanghai and Beijing.

Her story was originally written in Chinese.

Your story is about:

A female prisoner who initially looks down on other prisoners as she is richer and more educated than them.

The ex-offender you met was:

A drama practitioner in her 20s. When she was 19, she was arrested for drug possession. She spent six months in the women's prison, and another six months at a halfway house.

She came from a middle-class family, and has a polytechnic diploma.

Her story affected me because she was eloquent, stylish, confident and friendly - very unlike the stereotypical prisoner portrayed in movies.

She went through depression in her first weeks behind bars. She thought she had "fallen" because she didn't have a tough childhood.

The message of your story is:

Everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. It doesn't matter what you are born with.

Prison is also no joke. Hearing her describe it, I never want to commit a crime, ever.

I embellished some of the incidents to create a more dramatic conclusion, but the character's sentiments and anxieties were real.

Grandfather's Time

"I wanted to impress people I did not even like very much, and I spent money that I did not have. When I was in prison, all my fast, fake friends disappeared. I felt so terrible I wanted to die.

"But every visiting day, your (his granddaughter's) Nenek (grandmother in Malay) came with my parents to see me. She wrote to me: 'If you kill yourself, then all my time taking the bus from Eunos to see you is all wasted. If you don't want to live for yourself, then live for me, live for your parents,'" he laughed softly at the memory.

The author:

Ms Ovidia Yu, 52, won the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 1996 and has written plays for more than 20 years. Her first children's book Aunty Lee's Delights was released earlier this month.

Your story is about:

A grandfather who comforts and advises his granddaughter, who has been arrested for shoplifting.

The ex-offender you met was:

Well-spoken, nice, in his 40s, works in the social service industry. He has a two-year-old son.

About 20 years ago, he committed fraud. He borrowed money to lead an extravagant lifestyle to impress his colleagues and friends.

He ended up borrowing money under false pretences to pay back his creditors. His father had to pawn valuables to cover his debts.

His story impacted you because:

He switched from trying to impress friends to deciding what he wanted for himself. Prison was a wake-up call that turned him into a better man.

The message of your story is:

Going to prison is not necessarily bad. It can force you to look at your own values.

I think some people don't ever grow out of needing fast cars and fancy clothes. They deserve to have some time in prison and come out the better for it.

My story was exactly his story, except that I extrapolated 20 years into the future.


"I think it's difficult to say you can do anything you want. The world doesn't work that way. If you take whatever you want, somewhere, someone or something goes missing. We cut trees to make paper, we lose the oxygen they produce and carbon dioxide increases."

"Sir," said Gilbert, "for someone who went to prison, you sure know a lot."

The author:

Mr Marc Nair, 31, is a poet and photographer. He teaches creative writing in schools with non-profit arts organisation Word Forward and is the artistic director at multi-disciplinary arts festival Lit Up.

Your story is about:

An adventure camp trainer who has a heart-toheart talk with his trainees.

The ex-offender you met was:

In his 30s and working in the tourism industry. Earlier on, he had been caught peddling drugs and was jailed for five years.

The stunts he pulled when dealing drugs seem straight out of a movie. There were good guys, bad guys, guns, betrayal and revenge. It was all illegal and nerve-racking.

His description of his time behind bars made me appreciate the freedom we have in the outside world.

The message of your story is:

You have to live with the consequences of your decisions. One mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life. If you are given a chance, treasure it.

How much is based on fact:

The story of how he was caught was verbatim - down to who betrayed whom and what they were fighting about.

I also used some of his descriptions about life in prison, such as how some articles were cut out from the newspapers, so inmates were not able to read them. It helped create a feeling of realism in the story.


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