By Nina Muslim
KUALA LUMPUR (Bernama) – The new year carries many hopes with it – an end to the pandemic and global economic downturn chief among them – and especially so for a British-Hong Kong man who served almost three decades in a Malaysian prison.
Chu Tak Fai, whose Muslim name is Abdul Hadi Chu Abdullah, 49, was pardoned recently and flew home to Hong Kong last December after serving 27 years in prison for smuggling drugs into Malaysia. According to the British High Commission, he remains the only British national to have served a life sentence in Malaysia,
Chu said he had many hopes for the new year as it would mark the first year he was truly free since 1993.
“For 2021, I hope society will accept me and I’ll be able to adapt to a new life. And eat,” he told Bernama.
After being in Malaysia all those years, albeit behind bars, it is no surprise that Chu considers himself a transplanted Malaysian at times. He converted to Islam in 1996 and speaks street Malay, picked up from guards and other inmates, and some English so he could converse with the officials from the British High Commission who visited him.
Fresh from quarantine, and celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve with his family, he is in the midst of adjustments and reflections on his past.
“I was gone from Hong Kong for a long time. Now I go out, everything is new,” he said.
JOURNEY TO MALAYSIA
The events that forged his road to Malaysia and back to Hong Kong started simple enough. He was raised in a broken family where his father was often abusive to his mother, his sisters and him. When his parents divorced, he joined a street gang to make money after dropping out of school.
“I was a thug. I would fight, hit people. Typical gang stuff,” he said.
In 1993, he agreed to pick up some heroin in Thailand for his boss. Then he travelled overland into Malaysia before flying back to Hong Kong.
When asked why he took a circuitous route, he said he thought customs officers at the Malaysian-Thai border post in Bukit Kayu Hitam, Kedah would be less strict and diligent. He was wrong. They found two kilogrammes of heroin in his belongings and he was arrested and charged.
The news came as a shock to his sisters, who would be the ones financing his defence and appeals.
“We never knew he was travelling. I remember him telling me that he was going to work in China, not Malaysia,” said his older sister, Netalie Chu, a psychologist, through a Zoom interview.
“We never imagined he would be dealing with drugs in Malaysia. We knew what he did was wrong but (he didn’t deserve the) death sentence,” chimed in his eldest sister Shadow.
Chu was convicted and sentenced to death for smuggling heroin in 1994. Upon appeal, his sentence was commuted to imprisonment for natural life in 2006.
In 2016, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment for 20 years. He received a final pardon from the Sultan of Kedah recently for good and exemplary behaviour, freeing him from serving 10 more years on top of the 27 he had already served.
While in prison, he lost his grandmother and mother; the former died a few years after he was convicted, the latter, nine years ago.
According to his sisters, their mother’s final wish was to see Chu free from prison and back home.
“Being unable to reunite them has become our regret,” said Netalie.
His family initially did not tell Chu his mother died so as not to dampen his spirits, but finally told him a year later.
Chu admits he was upset to have missed seeing her before she died.
“(But) I really believe if she could see me now, she’d be happy to see the new me. I was a terrible person before. I was lazy and would get into a lot of trouble,” he said.
He credits prison and Islam for instilling discipline, teaching him patience and giving him a more positive outlook on life.
While in prison, he earned the trust of his guards and fellow inmates, helping new prisoners to adjust to life behind bars. He took up tailoring, earning a little money for his work.
For his troubles, he received the “Blue Suit”, a blue jumpsuit that marked him as a trusted prisoner, which also conferred him special privileges, such as a television and a fan in his cell.
Chu acknowledges leaving prison after so many years, with its regiment and tight schedule, is going to be challenging. The question, ‘What next?’ looms large now.
“He may not be able to plan because he needs to adjust first,” said Sterling Ho, a Malaysian businessman and family friend.
Chu agrees. For one thing, he has to figure out how to join the digital age. When he entered prison, Hong Kong still belonged to the United Kingdom. It was a time when the only pandemic people worried about was blood-borne HIV/AIDS, and VHS cassettes were popular.
Now, he is entering a world of Hong Kong under China, airborne COVID-19 and smartphones.
Prior to this interview, he had tried and failed to set up video conferencing app Zoom on his new iPhone, a gift from Ho. At the airport before his departure, Chu almost broke his smartphone while trying to learn how to use it.
“When I give him the phone, he kept pressing very hard. I said, ‘Not too hard, the glass will break’,” said Ho, laughing.
Chu also has to learn to adjust to life in Hong Kong, a country he last saw when he was 22 years old. He said he had thought about opening a tailoring shop but dismissed it as renting a shop in Hong Kong was too expensive.
He mentioned going to the United Kingdom as a possibility in the future.
He added he misses Malaysia, calling it his second home and wishes he could return to visit. Laughing, he added he really missed eating nasi dagang, a dish popular in the east coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan, comprising coconut rice, fish curry, and pickled cucumber and carrots.
In the meantime, he has decided to stay with his family to make up for the lost time. Alone for so long, he now has family members he can see and touch.
He said he was not worried about losing his way and falling into his former life of criminality, having cut out all friends from his previous life.
“I didn’t live with discipline for just one day or two days. I lived with it for 27 years. My family has helped me a lot, borrowing money to pay for me, for the lawyer. I must not waste their sacrifice. I must turn over a new leaf,” he added.
Edited by Rema Nambiar
Malaysian National News Agency
No.28 Jalan BERNAMA
Off Jalan Tun Razak
50400 Kuala Lumpur
Tel : +603-2693 9933 (General Line)
Email : helpdesk[at]bernama.com