PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT ABC STORY: Monday, 21 February , 2005
Debbie Singh was running a Perth boutique and juggling marriage and three children, when out of the blue in 1998, she discovered that her brother had been locked up in Thailand’s notorious hell hole, the Klong Prem prison, or the “Bangkok Hilton’’.
John Doran had been arrested for passing forged travellers cheques in Bangkok and was sentenced to eight years imprisonment.
In the third world conditions of Klong Prem prison, John developed tuberculosis, became emaciated and lost half his teeth. Debbie feared he would not survive.
Ignoring family advice, Debbie put her life on hold for six years so she could visit John and lobby endlessly for a Prisoner Exchange Treaty between Australia and Thailand, to allow her brother to serve out his sentence in his home country.
During the process she became passionately involved in the plight of other prisoners of all nationalities and developed projects to try to help them as well.
In 2003, John Doran became the first Australian prisoner to be transferred from Thailand to a Perth jail. Debbie was widely acknowledged for providing the crucial impetus for the ratification of the Prisoner Exchange Treaty.
But Debbie’s crusade on her brother’s behalf has had a significant financial, physical and emotional cost.
And when John Doran finally returned home, he rejected Debbie and her family in a development that shattered them all…
But there was to be one final happier twist – the arrival in Australia of a small stranger – John Doran’s Thai born son.
CAROLINE JONES: Hello, I'm Caroline Jones. Tonight's Australian Story is about a woman going to extreme lengths to rescue her younger brother, with unexpected consequences for all concerned. Debbie Singh was running a boutique in Perth and juggling work, marriage and children. Out of the blue she discovered that her brother John had been locked up in Thailand's notorious Bangkok Hilton prison. It was just the beginning of a saga spanning seven years that's changed the law in two countries and brought a young stranger into the family. This is Debbie Singh's story.
DEBBIE SINGH: The first morning I got to the prison I could see John from a distance, you know, this tall sort of gangly figure with his glasses. But when I got closer to him I got the shock of my life. He was very, very thin, he'd wasted away. We just embraced and all I could feel was bones in his back, you know I could just feel the bones sticking out of his back. And then, to make matters worse, he smiled and half of his top teeth were missing and the rest that were there were sort of black stumps. And so that was it. I just broke down and I then just vowed to John that I'd do everything in my power to try and get him out of there, you know, because I just didn't think he would be capable of surviving in such conditions. And I suppose I didn't realise on that day, you know, in 1998 that it would sort of change our lives forever, you know.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: For about seven years Deb devoted her life, and our lives, and put a hell of a lot of effort in for John. Three years ago our marriage was on the rocks and, at the end of the day, if she'd lost that and with what's happened with John now, you know what would she be left with? Nothing.
DEBBIE SINGH: I don't think you could ever comprehend how it's turned out. You could never have guessed that it would have ended this way. I've got no regrets of what I did because it didn't only help John, it helped a lot of other people. Whether I'd do it again is another story because I don't know whether I could put my family through that strain. John came into our family as a foster child when he was about seven years old. He didn't have a very good start in life. He'd never had a father figure and his mum just wasn't capable of looking after him. John and I became very close you know, because I was 14, 15, and I'd sort of baby sit and pick him up from school. It didn't take long to feel as though he'd always been a part of our family. John was a bit of a loner. He never shared much with anybody. Once he turned 16, 17, he just drifted along, not keep in contact very often. He travelled to Thailand. The next thing we know, mum receives a letter to say he's been in a Thai jail for seven months.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: John was arrested for travellers' cheque fraud. The value was around a thousand Australian dollars.
DEBBIE SINGH: He bought forged cheques in a bar and he tried to cash them in, in a hotel. They alerted the police and they came along and they arrested him.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: He received a sentence of about ten years which was reduced to eight on appeal. That's a long time for such a crime because in Australia he may have only been having to do community service.
DEBBIE SINGH: We were informed by foreign affairs that he was in Klong Prem Prison, which is the notorious Bangkok Hilton, and it just all didn't seem real for such a petty crime. We were just absolutely devastated.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: The conditions in Klong Prem Prison are very overcrowded. Of course it's very hot. The food is very different. There's no western food at all. They are locked up for up to sixteen hours a day. Access to clean water is rather difficult so they seem to get a lot of diseases from the water. John contracted Tuberculosis in that time.
DEBBIE SINGH: I received a letter from Department of Foreign Affairs to say family members are able to have a contact visit with the prisoners once a year. It was going to be in August '98. Although I was very nervous at the thought of travelling to Bangkok, I was just determined to get over there to see for myself how John was coping.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: He appeared to be a really very sad figure to her, only a shadow of the brother that she knew before.
DEBBIE SINGH: He just felt as though there was nothing that anyone could do, but I promised him that there's no way that I was going to walk away and leave him there.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: Apart from waiting to the end of the sentence there were only a couple of avenues available to him. One was a Royal Pardon from his Majesty the King which is quite a lengthy process. The other avenue which Debbie became aware of was a proposed prisoner exchange treaty with Thailand.
MALCOLM PENN - WA JUSTICE DEPT (’81 – ’04): The Commonwealth had passed its legislation in 1997 to enable transfer of prisoners back to Australia but it got to the stage around about 2000 that things had really started to slow down and that's where Debbie behind the scenes started doing her lobbying to move that along.
DEBBIE SINGH: Every door I could knock on I decided that that's what would be needed to lobby to have the transfer treaty in place.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: She'd just go down to Senator Ellison's office and just harass them. There was just no way she was going to take no for an answer.
DEBBIE SINGH: There's a list of people that I'm sure every time they picked the phone up and they heard my accent, I didn't have to say who I was, and I know there were a few that probably just cringed when they heard my voice.
MALCOLM PENN - WA JUSTICE DEPT (’81 – ’04): She was persistent, not in any rude sense or anything like that, she was just very keen to make sure that she could do whatever she could to get her brother back here.
DEBBIE SINGH: I'm a pretty determined person. If I really want to do something I'm going to do it. My parents were very worried for me. You know, different family members had just had enough of him. They said he was a taker and not a giver. But I was still a teenager when John come into our lives and I did spend a lot more time with him. So I just felt this responsibility for him.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: Everyone was trying to pull her back, her parents, her brothers. I mean, everyone was trying to say "Well, what about your family" and what not. But at the end of the day we all knew there was no stopping her.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: There did come a time when Debbie became extremely depressed with the slowness of getting John out of prison. Instead of just wallowing in that depression, she went through what perhaps she could do to help other prisoners who she realised must be just as frustrated as she was.
DEBBIE SINGH: I was just overwhelmed by how many prisoners were there who didn't have any kind of family support. There was a great need for spectacles for the prisoners and so we started to do a spectacle donation to Klong Prem Prison. A lot of the guys who obtained the glasses hadn't been able to read for five, sometimes ten years and just from a simple pair of second-hand spectacles their lives changed forever. English reading novels and books were almost non-existent. So I just set out on a book drive here in Perth, called the radio station and by the end of the evening the phone hadn't stopped and I ended up with about a thousand books.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: She brought boxes and boxes of books into the prison which was unheard of. They are put to good use to this day. For me, meeting Debbie was quite inspirational too because not many people are interested in the prisoners. I saw her as a partner, as it were, and that we could perhaps together make some pleasant changes for the prisoners who were inside Klong Prem Prison.
DEBBIE SINGH: My focus on getting John back to Australia, getting the treaty ratified, totally overwhelmed the rest of my life. At the time I couldn't see it, but looking back I realise that it came before everything at a cost.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: Debbie had a business, it was a lady's boutique. That was going along pretty well but she just didn't have time to keep things going. When she started to do not just one trip a year, it was becoming a couple of trips and, you know, it was getting a bit too hard to handle. We were just going deeper and deeper into debt. You could see the kids were starting to suffer a bit. And that's when things started to get a little bit messy, I suppose, in our relationship.
MICHAEL SINGH - SON: Sometimes it got really annoying that she'd go away because you wouldn't want her to go away at the times that she went away. And um when I was little I used to like cry a lot, just really missing her and stuff. But then I thought at least she's helping to get her brother out and stuff.
DEBBIE SINGH: This sort of crusade was on the verge of costing me my marriage and I really had, it was a big wake up call because, you know, that was the last thing that I wanted to happen. I decided that I was going to sell my business, sell the house, downsize, and just start again. If I look at what it cost as far as like telephone bills, trips to Thailand, loss of earnings, we'd be looking at probably $50,000 plus. In the seven trips I made to Thailand to see John, I don't think he ever realised the financial, physical and emotional cost that it was having on our family. But I felt as though on the visits to see him he really opened up to me and he did appreciate what I was doing.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: The difference between a Thai prison and a prison in Australia is enormous. The isolation was one of the most difficult for him to endure. He really was alone. It would have been very easy for him to literally so implode in himself that he never would have gotten out of that. That's what Debbie did. Debbie kept tying him back into, into his life, that there was a life outside of this prison. Had she not done that, I doubt very much if John would have survived.
DEBBIE SINGH: John never showed any interest in any of the progress because he had been let down so many times. He'll believe it when they bring the key was what he used to always say.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: Just as John was losing hope that he would ever get out of the Thai prison, Debbie was also falling victim to that same kind of despair. So many promises were made, so many timetables that had been drawn up just didn't happen. I was very concerned that, that after all of these years of struggle that Debbie would just call it quits, that literally she would just cave in from all of the demands. She was so battle weary.
DEBBIE SINGH: And then one day I checked my e-mail as usual and what I read just absolutely floored me. It was an e-mail from the Thai Ambassador to Australia and he was telling me in the e-mail that he was going to be signing the treaty with Alexander Downer that evening and he wanted me to be the first to know because he knew I'd sort of put my heart and soul into this for the last three years or so. And he congratulated me for all my efforts and that was just really, really overwhelming. It was brilliant.
MALCOLM PENN - WA JUSTICE DEPT (’81 – ’04): Debbie was able to attend the transfer ceremony when her brother was formally being handed over to WA authorities. She was on the plane accompanying John back and I don't know whether anybody else would have been given that level of access that Debbie had got if it wasn't for the relationships that she'd built up with various people in Thailand and in Australia.
DEBBIE SINGH: Now that we had John back in Australia, a concern that had always been in the back of my mind was, you know, hopefully one day to bring his son Jason to Australia. Jason was born after John was in prison.
YVONNE ZIEGLER – FORMER AUST. EMBASSY STAFFER: He was a four year old who lived in the north eastern part of Thailand. His mother had left for America and the child was left with relatives. Debbie was very concerned that once John left Thailand then he would have no connection at all with his son so she actually made an effort to find the son.
DEBBIE SINGH: What I found when I got to the village was a lot of smiling faces but behind the smiles all they wanted me for was for money, money, money and I felt as though they were using Jason as their cash cow. And the other side of it was the guy who was meant to be like his primary carer, at nine o'clock in the morning he's sitting back drinking Thai whiskey. And I just grew concerned when I'd seen where Jason was living and sleeping. Alarm bells rang and I just knew that I couldn't leave him in this situation.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: Yeah, well, I mean it all happened that quick it's really, it’s sort of hard to keep track of. Jason came down to Bangkok and Deb managed to get the support of the embassy and John and Jason's mother and the next thing you know she's off for another quick trip to pick him up. We got him home and you just don't know what to do when you've got this child who can't speak a word of English and he's just scowling at me. He was feral, simple as that. There was certainly a lot of conflict with the kids.
KIERAN SINGH - SON: He was stealing all the attention. That's what me and Michael thought and stuff. Because it used to be, like, me with her but now then Jason came and then it got a lot harder.
DEBBIE SINGH: Jason's been with us since January 2004. He's just come along so well and he's nearly speaking perfect English. Because he's had so many changes in his life he just took this as another change. He's just grown and grown from that. You know, for a six year old he's absolutely amazing.
MICHAEL SINGH - SON: He's probably, like, much better than he was when he first came. And also that he's definitely got more manners.
DEBBIE SINGH: I took Jason to visit John in prison and it didn't go the way I expected it to. I was very disappointed in John's reaction. Didn't give Jason much attention. There was no hugs and I come away questioning you know, have I done the right thing in bringing Jason to Australia? About this time I sensed that John was becoming quite distant.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: I visited John about a half dozen times when he was in prison here in Perth. Things were different then in his relationship with Debbie. No longer was Debbie needing to fill every need. John could make decisions. He began to not only exert some of his independence, but he began also to discover some of his own needs that he had. One of the needs was for female companionship.
DEBBIE SINGH: He got a number of pen pals for the first time. One person in particular who he focused on was a lady called Paula. She was visiting him on a weekly basis. You might interpret that I was actually jealous of this relationship with Paula, but that was the last thing. I was so happy that he had other people to form normal relationships with, but I could see the unhealthy aspect of this obsession.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: And John, whether it was a reaction to what he sensed was too much control on behalf of Debbie and her family or for whatever reason, chose this person to be the person who would be there when he was released from prison.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: The biggest thing for Deb at the end of the day was to see John walk out of prison for the last time. That was going to be the final thing. I think it meant that much to her just to, just to be there at that point.
DEBBIE SINGH: He wanted Paula to be there and I just said, "After all what we've done for you", and I'd never ever said that in the previous six years and he said, "Why, what have you done?" And I said, "Well, what do you think all the trips to Thailand were for?" And he said to me, "You should have just put $50 a month in my bank account." So with that I put the telephone down and I never spoke to him again after that.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: I don't think John realises how much he took away from her with that for what she's put in. He ended up moving in with this woman who's married with a kid. I think he's worried that people will find out exactly what he's about and I think he's always been a bit of a drifter and that's the way he wishes to remain, simple as that. Just shirk any responsibility.
DEBBIE SINGH: John might say I've been bossy and controlling but the way I see it if we hadn't have done what we did for him he would have spent another two years in a Thai jail and wouldn't have been released until June 2005. So if that's what bossy and controlling is, well I'll take that on the chin. John has only made contact with Jason once in the nine months since he left prison. I feel really sorry for him. I just feel pity for him because he's lost so much. You know, he's lost the chance to become a dad. He's lost his parents. He's lost his brothers and his sister. Although it really hurts us to know that he lives three miles down the road, we can't do anything about it.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: Yeah, I'd consider Jason as my son, for sure. He calls me dad, he calls Deb mum. He's just part of the family and he'll be part of the family for as long as - well, forever. Simple as that.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: John is not a bad person. He is a person that has gone through some, some traumatic experiences that most of us can't even imagine. His relationship with his family is strained now but I am hopeful that because he's a good person, because Debbie's a good person, and because they, they both love John's son that there will be some reconciliation.
DEBBIE SINGH: Well, as long as he's Jason's father our door will be open.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: He's got his life but life in Thailand still goes on. Deb's off again end of this month to do some more charity work. There's no stopping her. People say to me, "Why's she going to Thailand again?" Well, she hasn't finished.
DEBBIE SINGH: I'm still working with the prisoners in Thailand but I've also made contact with a Perth nun, Sister Joan Evans, who lives and works in the slums of Bangkok, so I see her as the future.
RICHARD SINGH - HUSBAND: Yeah, I guess I'm proud of her, but I will say that you get a bit tired of it, I guess.
KEITH HORNUNG - CHAPLAIN: This just wasn't about John, it was about so much more than John. There has been some marvellous, marvellous good that has emerged from all of this. For one thing, the Thai treaty has allowed three other Australian nationals to be taken from a Thai prison and brought back to Australia. They have a future which simply would not have been possible if they'd been left to rot in a Thai prison.
DEBBIE SINGH: The ending, and John being estranged from the family, is just absolutely devastating. This is not what we could have ever have dreamt would have happened. Although it's hard to live with the outcome, you have to every day tell yourself that so many other good things have come out of it and Jason is the focus and Jason is the future.