Every Friday morning, Kak Ma visits the graves of her parents in Rantau Panjang, Kelantan.
This has been her routine for more than a decade. After that, she sits in a hut outside the cemetery and watches people go about their daily activities. From time to time, a friend or neighbour calls out to her or stops for a chat.
Seated on the hut’s smooth tiled floor, Kak Ma looks like any elderly woman one might pass on the street without giving a second glance.
Once upon a time, though, she was a known drug dealer wanted by the authorities in both Malaysia and southern Thailand.
That was when she was young, and known by her real name of Norma Mohamad.
Her life of crime began when her husband, a Thai citizen, became addicted to drugs about three years after their marriage. Up until then, he had been a model husband — but once he began taking drugs, everything changed.
At first, he only bought drugs for his own use. Eventually, though, he began selling and distributing drugs to fellow drug addicts in Golok, Thailand, where the couple lived.
“He used as much as he sold,” Kak Ma recalled in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow.
“If he had five, he would sell three and keep two for himself.”
Back then, drugs were cheap — he would peddle his goods for about 30 baht or RM3.
“Nothing fancy, either,” Kak Ma added. “There was only cannabis.”
This, Kak Ma’s husband would sell stuffed in straws and cut up into smaller sections.
After a while, he asked for her help in selling and distributing his drugs.
Looking back on everything now, though, Kak Ma is firm on one point — she never sold any drugs in Malaysia.
“Never,” she said. “Here, I was clean. I only helped him sell the drugs in Thailand.”
Even then, she added, she did it so they could put food on the table.
“It wasn’t like it is now, youngsters selling drugs just to get rich. We did it because we needed to survive,” she said.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Kak Ma continued selling drugs in Golok.
Her husband had no fixed job, and with three small children to feed and clothe, she could see no other way of making ends meet.
And yet, poverty had been a familiar face since she herself was a child. Her family lived in cardboard boxes which they picked up off the streets, and her father, who was blind, was known to the locals as “Pok Mat Kotak”.
Kak Ma also worried about what would become of her children, who were not given Malaysian citizenship as she had married a Thai national.
Once, she heard of some people who could help her “take care” of that problem. When she contacted them to enquire, they asked for an extravagant amount of money, far more than she could afford even in her wildest dreams.
“I couldn’t pay,” she said. “They said never mind. Come back and sleep with us.
“At that moment, I thought, it would be better to sell drugs and feed my children that way than to be insulted like this.”
Yet her troubles did not end there. The small house that she and her husband rented caught fire from the flame of a candle used to take the drugs, and in the blink of an eye, the family had lost their home.
Not long after, her husband was arrested by the Thai police, and the couple were separated.
Alone with the children, Kak Ma moved back to her home town in Rantau Panjang.
There, she set about trying to start life anew. She rented a small house along Sungai Golok and found work selling cloth at the Rantau Panjang bazaar.
For all her hard work, the family continued to live from hand to mouth but Kak Ma was determined to do what she could for the sake of her children.
One day, though, she was visited by police officers from Bukit Aman who asked her to take them to her house. There, all of her possessions were turned upside down.
“They took me to the police station even though they found nothing in the house, because I stopped selling and distributing drugs after I came back to Malaysia,” she said.
Not long after, in mid-1991, Kak Ma was deported from Kelantan and sent to the high-security prison centre in Pulau Jerejak, Penang.
“I complied,” she said. “I went with them. But I asked them to let me bring my youngest child with me.
“I had to, she was only 13 months old. Who would look after her? She needed me, so they allowed me to take her with me.”
And so, Kak Ma became one of the first women from Kelantan to be sent to Pulau Jerejak — the so-called Alcatraz of Malaysia — for drug-related offences.
“It wasn’t just drugs,” she added. “I had a pistol as well.”
Kak Ma spent two years at the prison centre with her child, who soon became a favourite with inmates and wardens alike.
Every morning, the inmates would be told to line up and march. And every morning, her child would accompany the officers on duty to check the line of prisoners.
By the time she was released in 1993, her child was no longer a baby and she feared that her development would be affected if she remained in such an environment.
“When they told me I could go, I asked the official how I was supposed to do that.
“After a few days, they called my name and told me to come with all of my belongings. And my child and I flew away from Pulau Jerejak in a helicopter.”
Kak Ma no longer remembers how long the journey took, but she recalls landing in the field of a secondary school.
“I was dizzy,” she said, “too dizzy to walk. Fortunately there were some people nearby who saw me and helped me get home.”
The meaning of life
Before she was released from Pulau Jerejak, a high-ranking official at the prison called Kak Ma for a face-to-face interview and asked her what she intended to do after that.
“I told him, I would return to selling and distributing drugs,” she said.
“He asked me, ‘Why?’ I told him I was not satisfied. I was arrested and sent to the island even though I had nothing illegal on me.
“Their excuse was, they arrested me because I was a ‘hot name’,” she said.
“But I was only active in Golok. I never dealt in drugs after coming back to Malaysia.”
And after she was released, she made good on her word — she began looking for suppliers from Thailand, and she sold the drugs she received to anyone who wanted them.
Eventually, she made enough that she was able to buy a house for more than RM50,000.
In 2002, though, she was robbed.
“It was a snatch thief,” she said. “My bag was full of money and of the jewellery that I bought with what I had earned.
“Everything was taken. It was then that I realised — I had to stop. My own children had been telling me to stop getting involved in such immoral activities.”
By then, Kak Ma had remarried, this time to a Malaysian with whom she had two more children.
Her husband passed away several years ago, leaving her with her children and grandchildren.
These days, many in her local community still look at her askance, but she no longer cares.
“When we were in difficulty, did they come to see how we were and offer us help?
“They only know that we were arrested, that we did this and sold that. That we were criminals.
“But through that work, I managed to raise my children. Two of them went to university. The fourth one got a degree, and the youngest one who went to Pulau Jerejak with me finished her diploma and became a nurse.
“They all know my story. I told them everything, I kept nothing back.
“I have waited a long time for an opportunity like this, to share my story so that others can learn from my experience.
“Don’t become like Kak Ma.”