Dance saved mum of seven from life of drugs
For more than two decades, she led a life of gangsterism, drugs and prostitution.
But when her then-14-year-old son pleaded with her in 2008 to mend her ways during her second jail term, she knew she had to listen to him.
After getting out in 2010, Ms Milah, 34, started Plus Point. It is an informal dance group that keeps teens off the streets by giving them a sense of belonging and family, as well as a healthy way to spend their time.
The group is now in the running for the top spot in a dance competition organised by Shaw Theatres.
STOP MIND WANDERING
Ms Milah said she started the group so she would be too busy to let her mind wander, which would tempt her to return to her old ways.
Dancing, which has been a passion since her teenage years, was also her way of dealing with stress, said Ms Milah, who goes by a single name as she does not know who her father is.
Speaking to The New Paper in her one-room rental flat at Ang Mo Kio, Ms Milah peppered her sentences with laughter. But behind that cheerful facade is a woman still haunted by her past.
Ms Milah was raised by her grandparents, but her grandmother died when she was just 10 and she moved in with an aunt.
At 13, she joined a secret society.
Having dropped out of school at Primary 5, she spent her teenage years doing drugs and "many other illegal money-making activities" which she declined to elaborate on.
She got into a relationship with an abusive man, with whom she had seven children out of wedlock, between 1996 and 2004.
In 2001, she spent 10 months in jail for a cannabis-related offence.
Motherhood did not change her drug abuse habit. Instead, it became a coping mechanism, mostly to endure her boyfriend's abuse, she said.
At one stage, she would take five types of drugs - heroin, cannabis, ketamine, Ice and ecstasy - at once.
With a huge chunk of her savings gone to narcotics, Ms Milah had to scrimp and save to make ends meet. This meant feeding her children with soy milk when she had no money for milk powder.
"A cup of tea cost 70 cents back then, but I had to think twice about drinking it," she said.
Her savings quickly ran out and when her children's father was jailed for drugs, she was left to single-handedly support the family.
In a bid to earn money, Ms Milah, who was then in her 20s, became a streetwalker with her friend's recommendation.
She said: "I was very popular then, with my 24-inch waist. I made quite a bit of money.
"But working in this line is not easy. You don't even know who's the man you are going to sleep with," she said.
She trembled with fear on her first day and numbed her nerves with drugs and alcohol before serving her first customer, she sad.
The turning point came in 2008, when Ms Milah was jailed 19 months for heroin abuse.
When her firstborn, then 14, visited her, he said in tears: "Mummy, don't do any more. Change, lah."
Those words kept replaying in her head as she served the rest of her jail term in an isolation cell. It made her want to start on a fresh slate, she said.
Since her release in 2010, she has been investing her time and effort on Plus Point.
The dance group's expenses has burned a big hole in her pocket. Once, she had to sell her DVD player because she was $50 short of the $550 she had to pay for the dance costumes.
Ms Milah is trying to raise money on crowd-funding site Indiegogo to ease her financial burden.
It is tiring straddling her day job as a customer service officer and Plus Point rehearsals, but Ms Milah is determined to soldier on.
Four of her seven children now live with her.
"What to do? I'm just extra strong because I know I have many people depending on me," she said.
Mummy, don't do any more. Change lah.
- Ms Milah's oldest son, then 14, pleading with her to turn over new leaf
Video: Our Better World
'She is like our second mother'
To the boys in dance group Plus Point, Ms Milah is a leader, a mentor and their second mother.
Her stern expression and loud voice may make her seem unapproachable.
But Prakash Rajamanickam, 20, one of the newer dancers in the group, said Ms Milah, better known as Mel among her dancers, has a softer side to her.
Said the SIM University student: "When you look at her, she is fierce. But if you are really close to her, you will find out how soft-hearted she is.
"She tears easily about small things. We can't take it when she cries."
Ms Milah even extended her one-room flat as a shelter for dancers who are plagued with family problems, Mr Prakash said.
LIKE HER OWN
Ms Milah sees them like her own children and often shares what she has gone through to remind the boys not to follow in her footsteps, he added.
Mr Vincent Krishnasamy, 18, who has graduated from Northlight School and is applying to study at the Institute of Technical Education, said he became more sensible after joining Plus Point.
"Mel tried to talk me out of stealing and fighting and explained why they are wrong. She also told me not to worry my parents.
He is staying in Ms Milah's one-room flat because of his family issues.
So far, she has not scolded him as he is "the only one who can clean the house very well".
"She treats me like a son. I won't give her any trouble," he said.