Deborah Emmanuel is a Singaporean writer, musician and actor. She has recited her poetry for TEDx Singapore, The Singapore Writers Festival and the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her first poetry collection, When I Giggle In My Sleep, was published by Red Wheelbarrow Books in early 2015. She also performs musically with the dub/reggae/electro band Wobology.
Her memoir and second published work, Rebel Rites, which she has successfully crowdfunded, will be released in March 2016. This will focus on her incarceration in a Singaporean prison at the age of 19 for drugs offences. She was imprisoned without trial by the Singapore Prison System for the consumption of ganja and MDMA under the drug rehabilitation sentence, which employs direct incarceration and is supposed to be a rehabilitative sentence. She wasn’t found to be in possession of any illegal substances and wasn’t high at the time of her arrest. It has been over seven years since she was released and she is now ready to share her story with the world. We spoke to her about her extraordinary experience at such a young age and how she has channelled this experience to become an accomplished creative force.
Could you start at the beginning of the story and explain what was happening in your life around the time of your imprisonment and the events that led up to your sentencing?
I was 19 and had to defer after my first year in the Acting BA. My family was living in a shithole and my parents were getting a divorce. I was working in a 5 star hotel as a guest relations officer and I hated it. I was lost and sad. I was smoking the occasional joint or popping the occasional pill, maybe once a month. I went to parties a lot because I didn’t like to go home.
They arrested me and drug tested me on a Monday night at a party in O Bar. I wasn’t high. I was sitting at the DJ’s table but didn’t even know the guy. The CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau which is Singapore’s drug enforcement agency) were looking for him so arrested all the people he was ‘with”. I’d been at a beach club the day before and had taken some ecstasy so it was in my system.
They let me out on four weeks bail trying to get me to tell them who my dealer was. I didn’t have a dealer. It was all sharing from my friends. After the four weeks they told me that I would be sent to Changi Women’s Prison under a Drug Rehabilitation Sentence for up to a year. It was misleading to use the word rehabilitation. It was imprisonment without trial for six months, then I was moved to a Christian Halfway House for the next six months.
Could you explain a little what life was like in prison in Singapore? What were the stand-out moments and takeaways once you left?
It was the first time I ever felt loneliness. Also I lost my innocence a bit, I think. It’s almost as if the child inside me died and I took on this unreasonable maturity that I had to lose a bit over the last few years in order to completely experience joy again.
I think the biggest lesson I learnt was that actions have consequences. I also understood how much my family loved me, even though we were kind of messed up.
Prison was being shouted at, degradation, sleeping on the floor and being made to feel bad for asking to go pee. The halfway house was a lot more about rehabilitation but kind of forced Christianity on people who tried again and again to say no.
What has been happening in your life since you left prison? You’re now an accomplished performer and writer, could you outline your career to date
I studied Psychology and Applied Drama for 3 years at diploma level. In 2014 I finished my BA in Contemporary and Applied Theatre in Australia. Sometimes I still participate in theatre or TV projects which involve me telling other people’s stories but that’s not my main interest any more. Mostly, I want to push the boundaries of my performance ability by creating multidisciplinary work and telling the stories which I think are important because of their philosophy. That or to create awareness and change.
Since childhood I was writing poetry. Recently I found a poem I wrote for my mother when I was about 10. I didn’t realise that I’d been doing it for so long but I guess writing was always the natural way for me to articulate my emotions. I wrote on and off for many years but in the halfway house and after prison I had so much to purge that I wrote more than ever. after prison when I was doing my diploma someone asked me if I had ever heard of performance poetry. There was a competition. I went to a workshop and wrote my first spoken word piece then tied for 1st place at the competition. Never looked back. It was easier for me to perform poetry since I had a theatre background. Then I started making music a couple of years ago with Wobology and in Australia I made funk and soul with a band called Mojave. Music is a new realm to me and I’m looking forward to continuing my exploration of it.
In the last few years I’ve featured at festivals internationally and spoken at things like TEDx and Creative Mornings. I’m also about to start my first solo poetry tour in Australia in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. My next project is going to be a solo show for next year in which I want to use poetry, dramatic text, physicality and song.
What made you decide to work on the project Rebel Rites and what were your reasons for crowdfunding the project?
I wanted to write a poem but kept getting stuck. At a writing group someone suggested I write a factual account. The account was way more nuanced than a poem could be so I decided to keep writing it and suddenly it was clear that it had to be a book because nobody knows what prison is like in Singapore. I want to raise awareness about imprisonment and our response to people that break the law here. Our society can be harsh and not compassionate, which is not the way to build peace or equality. Hopefully my book can lead to discussion and attitudinal change.
I decided to crowdfund because I wanted complete control. I also wanted to see if I could self-publish successfully like other people I know. There are issues to think about for the future like further distribution, but for right now i’m very happy to be on the ground doing the work and getting the book out there.
How has the response been to the project so far?
Very good. I was 145% funded by the end of the campaign. It’s a bit scary because it’s my first work of prose but at least I’m saying what I want to say. It’s just a lot of pressure for the book to be good. I hope that I can deliver.
Many friends and people that I hadn’t met before have expressed interest and support for what I’m doing. That has been invigorating, to know that there is a community which supports my voice. It makes me feel more empowered to do this without the nervousness I experience when I think about censorship or further imprisonment.
What would you like to see changed within the Singaporean punitative system?
I think the next step for societies is to use methods that heal offenders instead of deterrence. It’s rudimentary for us to assume that the best way to deal with people who break things is punishment. If the state was a parent it is an authoritarian one. Everyone knows that the authoritative parent is the best. Why are we still so archaic?
Do you think that Singaporean culture’s attitude towards criminality is problematic and if so, why?
Our system is based on instilling fear. People are afraid to break the rules. People are therefore afraid of other people who break the rules. We all believe a little bit at least (even me, I have to unlearn this) that pushing boundaries disrupts the peace. Perhaps it does but I think it is a problem that we only see the act of boundary pushing instead of questioning or understanding the root of the boundary pushing. I think we could be a more philosophical people. That being said, I meet Singaporeans every day who are thinkers and questioners. We just slowly need to get to the place that our explorations lead to action and change.
What would you like to happen as a result of the publication of Rebel Rites? What would your dream scenario be?
Ooh. That’s a difficult one. I don’t think I have one dream scenario. Some kind of response and awareness is really all I want. I have a dream for the future but I don’t think it would be a consequence of Rebel Rites. In my dream I will be able to speak my mind in this country and not be afraid.