I’m having breakfast with Billy Tan who was in school with me in Kuala Lumpur and cannot remember this guy no matter how hard I try.
Everybody swears he attended St John’s Institution and was in the Class of 1970 like me, and when we met at a reunion in 2016 he was singing our school song with gusto. In the months since then, people have been telling me about him.
“How could you forget Billy? He’s the only one from our year who had a public caning from Brother Joseph Yeoh.”
“You must hear his story.”
“You haven’t been to his bak kut teh restaurant? It’s the best in Kuala Lumpur. Maybe even Malaysia.”
This morning I have a couple of hours with him and I’ve told other schoolmates who tried to join us to stay away. At a quiet cafe in a hidden corner of Bukit Timah, I get to ask: Who are you, Billy Tan?
He’s in Singapore for the first time in 30 years. He was turned away the last time he tried to cross the Causeway and recalls the Immigration officer saying to him: “You are not welcome in Singapore, Mr Tan.”
So he never came back. But now his son is starting university in Singapore and a group of Christians have invited him to tell them his story at their house meeting.
“You don’t remember me? I got caned in public, what.”
For what? I ask.
Turns out he was the original upskirt photographer. Our Christian Brothers school was co-ed at the Sixth Form, when girls joined and stayed two years to sit the Higher School Certificate examinations, the equivalent of the A-levels.
There was a fashion show involving the girls, and Billy had a vantage point as well as a camera. He clicked away from ground up as the girls went past. But he was caught, his film was confiscated, and he was caned in front of the entire school at a morning assembly. The principal, Brother Joseph, administered the corporal punishment himself.
Unlike most of us who were at St John’s from the age of six, Billy joined at Form 1 after attending a primary school in Petaling Jaya, on the outskirts of KL. He was a bright boy who moved quickly to the third-best class out of the seven in our year and should have done well.
But St John’s made him feel like an outsider. The son of a car repairman, he felt poor compared to some of our better-off schoolmates who were chauffeured until they got their driving licences and drove themselves to school. Not everyone at St John’s in the 1960s was wealthy, but Billy felt out of place except when he was playing hockey, and then he was a star, the goalkeeper on the school team.
Our year was the first when you had to pass Malay Language or you failed the entire national examination for the Malaysian Certificate of Education, the equivalent of the O levels. Billy was in the exam hall and one look at the Malay paper told him he could not pass. He walked out, quit the rest of the exams and began life on his own terms.
He tells his story straight, answers every question I ask, and is sometimes half amused recalling situations he landed in. Sometimes he pauses to check my reaction, reminding me that if he was a bad boy, I was more detested, a school prefect.
While most of us went from school to university or started work, Billy went into drugs, and in a big way. He started smoking marijuana while in school and it was a way to cope with his feelings of inferiority and not fitting in.
Heroin came next. Though he denied it at the time, he was soon addicted. He moved from consuming drugs to selling drugs, going from small-time peddler to trafficking across borders, handling quantities of heroin large enough for him to have been hanged if he had been caught in Malaysia or Singapore.
By the time he was in his 20s, Billy was making money easily and spending it freely. He was a handsome fellow, a smooth talker who was hot with the girls he met at the unisex hair salons that popped up everywhere in the 1970s.
All the time he was sinking deeper into drugs. His story might have turned out quite differently and come to an abrupt end, except for some uncanny lucky escapes.
One time he was in a hotel room in a seedy part of Kuala Lumpur when anti-narcotics officers raided the place and started a floor-by-floor, room-by-room check. He had enough drugs on him to face arrest and the death penalty, there was no way to escape, and he could hear the team of officers arrive on his floor, moving nearer.
“Suddenly the officer in charge told his men to stop, and the raid was over. They were just one room away from mine and I don’t know why they stopped at that point,” he recalls.
Another time the narcotics officers came to the Petaling Jaya house where he lived with his parents. They searched the house but found no drugs – he had hidden them in the hollow metal legs of the chairs in his home and the officers did not know to look there. But they took him away anyway, he failed the urine test and Billy found himself locked up awaiting a court date for consuming drugs.
His escapades in prison are the stuff of bad movies. Bribing warders, securing a regular supply of drugs to sell to other inmates. His charming personality and gift of the gab landed him a job as the prison counsellor’s assistant and, on the pretext of helping prisoners, he gained access to all blocks and his drug business thrived.
He tells me that being quick-witted helped him escape a long period of detention too. The day he was taken to court, he watched in dismay as a no-nonsense judge slapped three-year detentions on the offenders whose drug consumption cases were dealt with first.
When his name was called, Billy asked to address the court and proceeded to deliver a convincing pack of lies. He told the judge he was grateful to have been caught, that the time in prison had made him realise how wrong it was to take drugs and now he wanted nothing more than to turn over a new leaf. He was sentenced to just nine months’ detention.
There is much more. The short version is that my schoolmate Billy Tan was a badass to the core. He stayed on drugs. His parents loved this youngest son of theirs and were broken-hearted to see him live out his 20s in this state. He would try to quit drugs, sometimes because there was a girl he cared for, but it never worked.
His trafficking days began with smuggling drugs overland from Thailand to Malaysia for couriers to deliver to Amsterdam and London. Then he and some friends decided they could make more money if they cut out the middlemen and made the deliveries themselves.
Soon they were swimming in cash and living it up in London after each successful delivery, spending their nights in casinos as high-rollers and pretending to be the sons of Malaysian tycoons. They hatched an elaborate scam to recruit hapless young people to become drug mules and pulled it off. All of that ended after one of his partners was arrested, tried and jailed for 15 years in London.
There are many other parts of Billy’s story. The untimely death of his brother, the good son of the family. Some supernatural stuff too, including vivid dreams of his dead brother promising to be by his side always. And of ghosts, and a chained dog that vanished in the dead of night.
The main thing is, there was a turning point in Billy Tan’s life, and it came after he was sent against his will to a Christian drug rehabilitation centre. It seemed like the craziest thing because his family was Taoist.
He tells me he was in the throes of going cold turkey when he challenged Jesus Christ to prove his presence and it happened convincingly enough for him to change his life. Forever.
And what a transformation. Billy goes to Bible school. Billy becomes a pastor. Billy starts receiving invitations to speak to groups in Malaysia, in India and elsewhere. Billy becomes an inspiration to many who are lost and in despair. That gift of the gab works in new ways as he holds himself up as living proof that if someone like Billy Tan could be saved, there is hope for everyone.
He draws endlessly from a bank of miracles he has experienced – large, small and sometimes a little hard to swallow – that are his evidence that God walks with him everywhere he goes. In this new life, Billy Tan met the woman who became his wife and they have two children, a daughter and a son in their 20s and nothing like he was at that age.
His two bak kut teh restaurants happened along the way and have become famous for serving top-quality pork rib soup. They are social enterprises to help needy communities overseas.
Everyone who hears his story says: “Billy, you have to write your book.”
But Billy tells me he can’t write any of it. He is a gifted teller of stories, comfortable in front of large congregations and small groups, but he experiences an inexplicable block when he tries to write anything down. Those who have heard him preach and describe his conversion so eloquently are amazed to learn he writes nothing down and always speaks spontaneously.
“You’ll have to help me write my book,” he informs me.
Someone must have told Billy Tan I’m that cradle Catholic with a simple faith, a sucker for stories of miracles and wonder. Let’s see where this goes.