Ang Poh Wah: Daredevil drug buster

21 Sep 2012

Ms. Ang Poh Wah, Outstanding Singapore International Volunteer 2012 Special Commendation Award recipient, on her calling as a drug rehabilitation specialist and her fascination with the drug sub-culture.

I have been in the “drug scene” for over twenty years.

Some have asked why I chose to take this less trodden path. It is difficult to explain one’s calling in life, I suppose.

My fascination with the mindset of drug addicts fuelled my passion for this field. There is a strong desire within me to want to understand the challenges faced by these addicts upon reintegration into society. Also, there is a general lack of interest among volunteers to want to be involved in this area of helping drug addicts compared to the aged or children for instance.

In the early nineties, I became the Deputy Head of the Drug Rehabilitation Branch in the Singapore Armed Forces Counselling Centre. It was here where I was first exposed to the drug problems of young National Service men who were transferred to our supervision upon their enlistment. Being an uncharted territory at the time, the sub-culture of the drug group fascinated me as it was a world that was so different from mainstream society, where everyone goes through the usual route of getting an education for a good career and marriage.

Gradually, I began to get more involved as I wanted to uncover the extent of the drug problems among the drug addict community. I started volunteering with the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home, now known as the Singapore Girls’ Home and also The Turning Point, a female halfway house. Eventually, I ended up joining The Turning Point as a Director after a twenty-year stint in the Army. I decided to have a change of vocation to help drug addicts as a service to our community.

At The Turning Point, I would spend three to four days a week living round the clock with the residents because I wanted to really know them and to empathise with them at the deepest level possible. I went through their journeys with them, and in the process of understanding and experiencing the loneliness they felt, I began to see the world through the eyes of these addicts. Eventually, I have become a friend and mentor to some of them who decided to share their past in more detail with me, having earned their trust after a length of time.

For a period of time, when I started working at The Turning Point, I actually lost contact with most of my “non-drug addict” friends and many of them thought that I had moved overseas! As I ventured into the world of drugs, it literally became a turning point in my life as I became more convinced and convicted in helping drug addicts.

My family is pretty supportive of what I do. They are used to it, because I am the daredevil in the family and am always the first one to try something new and dangerous. The SAF has taught me that nothing is impossible and as long as I am able and in good health, I should keep going with an adventurous spirit. I know that my family is proud of my chosen vocation because they are fascinated whenever I share with them true stories of the life of drug addicts.

There are not many drug rehabilitation counsellors in Singapore and there is a lot of misconception about female counsellors facing more difficulties than their male counterparts in dealing with drug addicts. Females are more intuitive and our traits actually allow us to connect with the addicts easily.

I find it very easy to relate to the drug addicts whom I work with. When I’m with them, I feel at home. We are like kindred spirits in many ways. I have often been mistaken as a recovering drug addict by other addicts, because I seem to know them and their mindsets so well!

I think Singaporeans are too cautious and sometimes think too much before taking any action. If we want to do something, we should not stop at just thinking about it. When I was approached to be involved in the Singapore International Volunteers’ drug rehabilitation project in Laos, I was hesitant at first because it was such an unknown territory for me. Then, I started thinking about the Laotian drug addicts and their needs, and decided to embrace the challenge and take that step forward. I told myself that in community service, we should globalise and go beyond only caring for our own countrymen but also people overseas. Since then, there was no turning back.

Since my first involvement in 2006, drug rehabilitation work in Laos was at its infancy stage, there is so much more that needs to be done, both in Laos and back home in Singapore. I would like to set up a secular halfway house for women in Singapore, as well as pen a book to share my experience and knowledge. The list is never-ending and as long as there is a need, I will keep going.

Anyone can be a volunteer as long as you have the heart, the time and are willing to make the effort and sacrifices. Volunteerism, to me, is not about accomplishing projects according to certain timelines, or doing it only if we have leftover time to spare. It is a big part of my life, and a permanent one too.  It takes time to bring about positive change, usually years. This is why I am involved in freelance and part-time employment so that I have the liberty to go and fulfil the volunteering spirit in me.

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