“I went to prison three times for housebreaking. To this very day, I cannot carry a test pen with me when I’m outside the house. If I get caught, I’ll be sent to the police station, and they’ll have to scan every building in the area to make sure no break-ins took place.

There was no YouTube back then, so I had picked up most of my skills through trial and error. I always operated alone. I’d break into different buildings at night, take about $3,000 each time, close the door behind me, and walk away like nothing happened.

When I first started doing all of that, I simply wanted money for enjoyment. I wasn’t a gambler, but I loved drinking and women. Whenever my friends paged me to ask where I was, I’d tell them I was at this club called Venom with a bottle all to myself.

I’ve been in prison three times, all for similar crimes. But things were different the third time. I was already married with kids then, and I desperately needed money to send my son to school.

I needed the money in a week, but the staff at the Family Service Centre I approached said that they could only approve my request three weeks later.

That’s when my dark side called out to me I had the skills to get the money, so I did what I had to do. I was caught a month later and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

That’s when I really learnt my lesson. My daughter was only a year old at the time, and the thought of losing her and everyone else in my family shook me up badly. My wife made a promise not to leave me, only if I kept mine to never break into another building ever again.

Next year, I’ll be celebrating 10 years since my release from prison. I still remember before I was due to get out, my counsellor advised me to take things one day at a time. I can’t believe how much time has flown by since then.

I have a long relationship with ISCOS because they helped me a lot after I came out from prison. When I wanted to take up a business course, they provided training subsidy for me. All of us enjoyed the fun family activities organised by ISCOS. My daughter’s favourite is the Family Day.

Today, I run a Malay food stall at a school canteen. It’s called ‘Sedap Corner’ and I’ve been running it for four years now. When I first went to that secondary school, nobody knew who I was, but that quickly changed after Elvis (ISCOS Deputy Director) asked me to give a talk to the students.

I’ve done many sharing sessions with ISCOS before, but when they asked me to give that talk, it felt different. I was nervous, of course. Despite the fear that the students might put up a barrier once they knew I was from prison, I decided to test the waters and give it a go anyway.

The day after my talk, my Instagram following suddenly went up because the students started following me (on Instagram), and whenever they passed by my stall, they’d shout ‘Uncle!’ and wave at me. Instead of pushing me away, I actually became more popular with them.

I’m not sure why they are very comfortable with me. Maybe it’s because I’m very transparent and respectful to them. You give out good vibes, you get good vibes in return. But to know they accepted me even after knowing my story was really very encouraging.

They look up to me and always pour out their hearts to me even when I’m busy and not interested to listen, hahaha. When one of them didn’t qualify for the national sailing team, he came to me and shared how sad he was because it was his dream.

There was another boy who was always getting into trouble. After hearing his frustration of being targeted and labelled, I made a pact with him.

Every day at 2.30pm, if he hadn’t done anything wrong, he is supposed to meet me at the canteen. Otherwise, I’ll assume he is in detention. For the past one year, he managed to stay out of trouble and meet me at 2.30pm every day. I am truly happy for him.

It’s very different from how members of the public treat ex-offenders. Even for me, I still get stopped at the MRT station for my tattoos. We’re marked as bad people from the moment we were sentenced.

Just imagine this: After being labelled as a number for six to seven years in prison, you’re still being perceived as trash or worthless when you go out into the real world. Ex-offenders want to change, but they need people to accept and care for them. Otherwise, it’s very difficult for them to reintegrate.

But the kids at the school don’t label me. They’re only 14, 15 and 16-years-old, but not as judgemental as the adults. Instead of pushing me away, they welcomed me into their circles. It’s an experience I cannot find anywhere else, and I’m very happy to be here.” – Zulkhairee, 48

Zulkhairee Udik is a member of ISCOS.

Humans of ISCOS is a collaboration between The Everyday People and ISCOS, a co-operative that helps ex-offenders in Singapore. Read more here.