The New Year, for the most part, represents new hope, new resolutions. For actor-singer-entertainer Tony Eusoff, however, who until three months ago wasn’t sure if he would be able to see his family and friends for Christmas, it has come to represent a new beginning and a new, full hold on forgiveness and life.
Photographed by Aaron Lee/Lenswork Studio; styled by Ibnu Aswan; makeup by Joey Yap; hair by Juno Ko; words by KC Yap
Since inception, August Man has always stood for inspiring individuals and stories, men who dare to dream and go for it, who, despite setbacks, failures and mistakes, remain driven by their passion and conviction.
To kick off 2017, we’ve decided to tell the story of Malaysian actor-singer-entertainer Tony Eusoff, whose narcotics-related blunder at the Singapore immigration checkpoint in March last year had cost him a brief time in prison and then some. Describing the place as not one that he will ever want to go back, Tony shares with us the silver linings he caught and the new outlook he has gained on life.
I first came across the artiste back in 2004, on a music video project for a digital video competition. Still a fledgling then, Tony had generously accepted our offer of the starring role in a music video spoof on Daniel Bedingfield’s If You’re Not the One. By nature, the video was a comical one, but Tony was committed to the shoot and his art, and delivered the parody to great effect. Following the judges’ deliberation, the team took home second place. Such was Tony’s character, a serious artiste, committed to his art, even in a comical role.
Over the years, Tony has risen to fame for his celebrated singing and acting performances in stage productions such as Tunku The Musical, The Secret Life of Nora, La Cage and P. Ramlee The Musical. On screen, he’s made his mark in films and on shows including Akhirat, Sepi, Pecah and Cuak
It was on his trip to Singapore to finish up his part in Mediacorp Channel 5’s upcoming series The Hush, however, that Tony was caught in possession of narcotics and later sentenced to eight months of jail in the Singapore prison. Despite the charges, the actor put on a brave front, admitted his fault and apologised for the oversight. It was an honest mistake, and the actor has since assured us that he is not an addict and was certainly not trafficking, but consuming it for recreational purposes.
Amongst those who have attested to his contribution to the art scene was actress Neo Swee Lin and Ivan Heng, founder of theatre group W!ld Rice. Tony has also expressed deep gratitude to peers such as Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina and husband Tan Sri Effendi Norwawi, Jehan Miskin, Jennifer Thompson and Chelsia Ng for showing their continued support, and most importantly his family, particularly his mother, and KL-based partner of three years, for visiting him twice every month without fail, and writing him on average three times a week.
As a result of good behaviour, his sentence was reduced to five months and 10 days, and Tony was kept busy in the later two months of his time with daily kitchen work. In the following interview, Tony shares his experience and how it has made him a better person and rejuvenated his passion, having already performed at several corporate gigs while awaiting three film offerings to take place this year.
Did you know what to expect on your way to prison? What was going through your head then?
On the way in, I was thinking about how I should be conducting myself. First impression matters. I put on the best act of my life. The first thing I did was to make sure that people don’t think that I’m weak. On my first day, I put on an act when really I was trembling and terrified inside. Some of the inmates recognised me and started hollering at me, “Pelakon!” But you really don’t want to be drawing too much attention to yourself. So I had to play it cool and just maintain this semi-badass character the entire time and kept to myself a lot. Your guards are up all the time. That was the biggest role of my life.
Did it take long before the whole situation sank in? What was the process like?
The survival instinct kicked in. I knew I had messed up, so the objective was to obey the rules and do whatever needed to be done to get released as early as possible. Every day I was just thinking about that day and it felt so far away. Ten minutes in there felt like an hour. The first month was trying to get that denial out of the way. By the second month, you start to accept it and get the hang of things. And then you start counting down. What happens is that you serve two-third of whatever your sentence is, based on good behaviour. For me, it was eight months, which came down to five months and 10 days. Nonetheless, they can also add more days to that if you misbehave or are involved in any misconduct.
What did you do to keep yourself occupied?
The two months working in the kitchen helped to deal with the guilt and shame. It was a full eight hours a day and very labour intensive. But they only allow you to work until just before your last month in there, so that last month was a month of uncertainties. You’re anxious, hoping that nothing will happen to you because there have been cases where people got sabotaged. The last month was to be extra careful; you want to avoid any misdemeanour, and that was the month where reality sank in and you don’t know what outside is going to be like because it’s a jungle out here too as much as I was happy to leave there. I didn’t know how well society was going to accept me again.
And how did you reconcile that conflict inside you?
I knew that all bets were off once the news got online, once every major paper had published it. There would be nothing to hide anymore. But in a way that kind of helped get me prepared. I mean, it was already out in the open, so I’ve got one headache out of the way. Secondly, I’ve already done my time, I’ve paid for it and more. I have to repeat all this to myself, so that I could pick myself up again and move on. I was also getting a lot of letters from friends. I had mothers of friends who wrote to say that they’ve got my back. Those things helped tremendously. It got me prepared to return to society.
Was there someone that you could talk to or mentored you through your time?
“One of the men I met inside was a Malaysian in his 30s convicted for credit card fraud. But he was a good person to talk to. He helped me through my first month there by telling me repeatedly, you have to know who you are, if you know you’re not a bad person, know that you’re not a bad person.”
Over the five months in there, what was the biggest revelation you experienced?
It was a wakeup call. I couldn’t blame anyone. It reminded me of what’s important in my life and not to take any of it for granted. The best thing I took out from there is that I can’t take even the smallest thing for granted. I missed the freedom of being able to just walk out from home and feel the grass under my feet, breathe in the fresh air and soak up the sun. Honestly, I didn’t miss the phone or the Internet. I read a lot, any material I could get my hands on.
And what things did you realise were important to you?
Family. I’ve always known that. It’s just that I never knew that they were as important as they are to me right now. It’s a different level of appreciation. What’s important right now is to know how much each and every relationship means to you. When i was in there I had so much time to think about everything in life, every single friend in my life. You have loads of time to look back and ask what you could have done differently or better.
The most painful experience?
When you see your mum cry; that was absolutely the most painful thing. I think it’s definitely second only to the death of someone. She wasn’t preachy; at a time like that, she knew there wasn’t much to say and trusted that I had learnt my lesson.
Having been released several months now, how do you feel about society’s response towards your return?
I was so pleasantly surprised at how generous the public was. I had people come up to me and say, “Hey, welcome back,” and “Be strong, bro.” So it’s nice to know that people got my back. When I came out my first attempt was already received with a lot of warmth. I performed in Bobo KL to two nights of full house. People still supported me, so everything I attempted thus far has been received well, so you get encouragement and encouragement goes a long way. I have no reason to be bitter.
Friends have reached out to me, which has reaffirmed the meaning of our relationship. The feeling is a lot stronger now. I don’t need anything else to prove this love anymore. The amount of warmth and support has been ridiculous and that has helped me deal with the shame and guilt. Under no circumstances will I ever forget this. It’s easier to pretend that all this never happened, but I don’t want to do that because that would take the poignancy of your story out. Everybody has a story, so this is my story. It has already helped me in a certain way, a better way. It has taught me to be less selfish. By that I mean, everything that you do, it’s not just about yourself; it’s also about your family and loved ones. For example, it’s less terrible for the person who has committed suicide than it is for his family who would then have a lot more to deal with. My action was done without much thought of the people in my life. If you are talking about me having it bad, what about my family, my mum? Also, friends matter, friends that you keep, giving you the encouragement that you need. These are some of the more important things in life that I’m realising now.
Has this affected your goals in life? Or has it made you even more driven?
I’m more cautious now. Also, it happened at a very interesting time. I was starting to get very jaded. When that happened, it kind of rejuvenated this passion I have for what I do. It has given me a new sort of perspective towards my goals. My goals are still hazy but at least I’m better equipped with how to look at things, and not to get easily put off by brick walls. Right now, any brick wall is still better than the ones inside.
Speaking of perspective, has this given you a new outlook on life, on second chances?
On life―I’m way more present than ever before. I had this utopian vision which was actually unrealistic. And because of these unrealistic goals I was jaded, which I only realised after doing time. I’m more present in that I’m now thinking about what to do in a more logical sense and with a more practical approach. Being present means you appreciate the present, you’re not too preoccupied with what you can and should achieve, it’s about appreciating the present moment. A goal should only serve as a direction. I’ve been offered to star in three films this year, but at the end of the day, maybe one will pull the plug, you never know. You have to be ready for these things, and only by appreciating the present can you resign to the fact that they can pull the plug anytime. You don’t get too anxious about it. Times are bad, but the fact that I’ve got work coming, I would say things are looking up for me.
On second chances―I’ve seen all kinds of perspectives growing up, being the odd one out, being in different situations and having to adapt. It has taught me not to be too quick to judge. Everyone has his own battle. You don’t know what his battle is, it’s different than yours; you’ve got your own story. Nobody has the right to judge another. If someone messes up, it’s important to think that could be me. Nobody is above it, only dead men don’t make mistakes. As long as you are alive, you are up for all kinds of mistakes. The fact that I’m still getting calls for some gigs right now means I’m still in the game. I’ve got a good second chance and I’m not going to mess it up again.
For opening up to us, we would like to dedicate the following piece by prolific Indian writer Ritu Ghatourey to you, Tony…
“You fall, you rise, you make mistakes, you live and learn. You’re human, not perfect. You’ve been hurt but, you’re alive – to breathe to think, to enjoy, and chase the things you love. Sometimes, there is sadness in our journey but, there is also lots of joy. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other even when we hurt. For we will never know what is waiting for us around the bend.”
* For the full spread, get a copy of our January 2017 issue