SINGAPORE - Life is quite different today for ex-inmates Kim Whye Kee and Darren Tan, who are now an artist and a lawyer respectively.
Both graduated this year - Mr Kim with a fine arts degree from Lasalle College of the Arts, and Mr Tan, with a law degree from the National University of Singapore.
But the men, both 34, who each spent about a decade behind bars for drug- and gang-related offences during their teenage years, have never forgotten their past. The pair had crossed paths several times while serving their jail terms, even sharing a cell for about a month at the former Kaki Bukit Prison School.
Two years ago, when they saw young boys playing truant and committing petty crimes, they were reminded so much of their younger selves that they decided to do something to help these boys. So they started an outreach initiative, Beacon of Life, based in Taman Jurong, where Mr Kim lives and is a grassroots volunteer.
The group, supported by about six regular volunteers who are also ex-offenders, reaches out to at-risk boys with disciplinary problems or difficult family backgrounds. In the past year, they started to "recruit" teenage boys.
Said Mr Tan: "There was already a loose network of boys playing soccer or skateboarding in the neighbourhood, so we tapped on that."
Recruiting the boys was not hard as he could speak their "lingo", Mr Kim said. His own journey to success was helped by people like Mr Patrick Chan, a grassroots volunteer who mentored him, and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and his wife Jane Ittogi, who have supported him in grassroots work.
The group is made up of about 30 boys who meet weekly. They play golf on Mondays at the Fairways Club in Jurong, soccer on Saturdays for about four hours, and jog twice a week. Since August, they have been learning to draw and paint through art lessons conducted by Mr Kim, now a product designer. The boys and their older mentors also went on their first trip overseas last month to Kukup, a fishing village in Malaysia.