At a ramshackle house in a small town in Tumpat, Kelantan, children run in and out, calling to each other as they go.
It is a small house, with a dilapidated toilet attached on one side – just one of many such homes filling the area.
In the backyard, 29-year-old Din (not his real name) watches as the children scamper about. Not too long ago, it seems, he was one of them. Now, though, life is very different.
Din no longer lives in the dirt and squalor of his childhood home. Just outside the gate, his white Volkswagen Golf awaits – a striking symbol of just how far he has come from the hardship and poverty of his early years.
In one hand, he holds an electric cigarette as he speaks to MalaysiaNow about the drastic turn his life took.
He was only 15 when he began his career as a drug dealer.
Back then, he needed money to pay for his school fees and supplies. He approached a senior known as Abe Wan who offered him a part-time gig delivering “goods” to Gua Musang twice a week.
For each trip he made, Din was paid anywhere from RM500 to RM800. This meant about RM4,000 in hand at the end of the month.
Every now and then, he would be sent to other places as well.
“I went as far as Kuala Lumpur sometimes,” he said.
There in the capital city, Abe Wan would buy him expensive shoes and clothing.
“I would follow him there on his trips as well,” Din said. “I didn’t know what we were delivering because the car was always empty.
“I had no idea that he was distributing drugs. But many of my friends told me that he was doing bad work.”
Bad work or not, though, it meant more money for Din who used it to buy household necessities and to pay for his siblings’ school fees.
His mother, a diabetic, was by then no longer able to work. She did what she could, cleaning houses for RM70 while his father collected and sold roadside scrap.
One day, there was no more money even for food.
“That was when I knew, I really had to sell such things,” Din said. “I would sell it after school, and eventually even the teachers who knew would come and buy from me. At the same time, they would complain that I was too lazy to study.”
And so, Din became a statistic for drug-related activities in Kelantan which, as of 2014, was the state with the most serious drug abuse and smuggling problems in the country.
Within the next five years, the National Anti-Drug Agency said more than 12,700 individuals were found to be “slaves” to the illegal substances, with the figure expected to continue rising.
Working with dad
In Form Five, Din dropped out of school and began actively working for Abe Wan instead. By then, he was a known dealer and had customers both within the country and in several areas in southern Thailand.
“If I didn’t do it, who would have given me RM4,000 a day?” he said.
“It was better that I worked. My parents could eat, and my siblings could have diapers and milk.”
Around this time, Din began recruiting others to work under his supervision. These “juniors” were tasked with delivering drugs such as marijuana and ganja to their waiting customers.
Din himself no longer held drug stocks; he only issued instructions and took orders from customers.
Eventually, even his father began distributing drugs for him.
Din said this marked the beginning of a change in his father’s life. He became known to his peers, and relatives began to gather around as money began coming in.
“He would deliver the goods in the Mercedes that I had bought,” Din said.
One day in 2017, though, his father was shot dead by the authorities in Thailand as he was returning from a night club there.
He had been a wanted man for three years for smuggling and distributing drugs. His body was found by the locals at the banks of Sungai Golok.
It was then that Din felt the beginnings of fear.
“I thought about stopping,” he said. “I found work at a shopping mall in Kota Bharu, but that didn’t last even a month. There were all sorts there. It was better for me to sell drugs.”
But he, too, was becoming too well known for his own good. By 2018, he could no longer enter Thailand as his name and picture were in circulation among the authorities.
“I was afraid,” he said. “Truly afraid. Not the regular kind of fear, either. Even the sound of a car passing by at night would be enough to startle me out of sleep, and I would run and hide under the table.
“You never know, the police could be coming.”
By the end of 2019, Din had set up his own household and was giving serious thought to what lay ahead.
“If I got caught, I would be jailed and hanged,” he said. “What would become of my wife and children?”
So while he remained in the game, he began inching his way to the fringes.
“I still do such work, but I myself am clean. I hold none of those goods anymore.
“If customers want anything, they call me because they have my number. I pass their orders on to an active dealer, and I get a small commission.
“But holding the drugs myself, selling them myself and delivering the goods – no. I don’t do that anymore.”
‘I will go back’
Din’s story is one of many that tell the tale of poverty and crime.
In Kota Bharu, not too far away, a woman called Mek Cah told MalaysiaNow her account, culminating in a four-year jail term which she had just finished serving.
As a child, Mek Cah, an acquaintance of Din, lacked the official documents needed to obtain citizenship. Unable to attend school or find a job once she grew up, she spent her life on the move as her parents never had enough money to pay the rent.
She and her 11 siblings grew up stateless. By the time she was 16, only four of them were left – the rest had been sold to other families or married off.
At that point, Mek Cah was already familiar with ganja and actively sold it among her male friends in the village.
She said she did this as she did not want to lose the rest of her siblings because of money problems.
After 10 years, she married a drug dealer based in Kota Bharu. But her life did not change to one of plenty despite the money and other valuables flowing in.
“I had no choice,” she said. “I had to do it. I didn’t want to see my siblings scorned and looked down on.
“When I sold the drugs, I could buy them new clothes and give them money to go out with their friends.
“If I didn’t do it, who would feed us? It’s easy to say ‘dirty money’, and that it wasn’t the right way.”
Mek Cah was finally arrested in 2017 and sentenced to several months in jail.
“The police arrested me in front of the school where I had gone to pick up my nephew,” she recalled. “I had nothing with me. Even at home, I never kept any of the goods.”
Her husband was arrested that same day, in Pasir Puteh.
“During the investigation, I cooperated and admitted that I used to do such work. But after I had my children, I focused on taking care of them and stayed at home,” she said.
Today, Mek Cah is out but her husband is still on death row in prison although his sentence has been suspended.
She has found some sewing work which brings her about RM1,200 a month. But she needs to pay RM4,500 a month for her home loan, which still has 10 years left to go.
“How can I live seeing my children in hardship?” she said. “It’s all right if I don’t eat. But if my children don’t eat, I will go crazy.
“If I get really desperate, I don’t care. I will go back to doing that work. That’s the easiest way. But,” she added, “I must be ready to take the risk.”