Looking at the tattoos that cover his body, one might make the mistake of thinking that he is a gang member.
But Mr Gary Lau, 24, has put his rebellious past firmly behind him.
Today, his tattoos help him connect with youth at risk so that he can serve as a role model for them.
"Some of them tell me 'I want to be just like you', but my advice to them is to just be yourself," he said.
In March, he completed his Nitec in Community Care and Social Services at ITE College East with a perfect 4.0 Grade Point Average score.
He was of one of 44 students who received the Lee Kuan Yew Award, which recognises students with consistently good results and outstanding conduct.
Mr Lau is pursuing a Diploma in Social Sciences (Social Work) at Nanyang Polytechnic and wants to work with youth at risk. But nine years ago, he was a troubled teenager himself.
In 2006, he was remanded in Singapore Boys' Home for a month and then Boys' Town for two years after being involved in a gang fight.
He was then living with his mother in a three-room HDB flat as his parents had divorced when he was three years old.
His mother, who worked at a Chinese restaurant in the day and at a karaoke lounge at night, had little spare time for him.
Added Mr Lau: "I was bullied in primary school and was often left alone."
At first, he hung out with bad company because he was curious about cigarettes. Later, he joined a gang to seek "protection" from his bullies. He also ran away from home for two weeks.
His mother found about his gang activities and beat him to discipline him.
But all this did nothing to curb his rebellious streak until he was sent to Boys' Town, where he attended CampVision, a camp held for youths there.
Mr Lau said the experience was life-changing.
"Initially, I thought the camp activities were very childish and I refused to participate. But on the second day, I became interested in a rock-climbing activity.
"Because I had a 'don't care' attitude, I only made it halfway up the wall before I asked them to let me come down."
Instead of allowing him to give up, the camp volunteers cheered him on.
At that time, he also had a crush on one of the female youth leaders and it motivated him to continue climbing.
After he managed to reach the top of the wall, the volunteers, including his crush, hugged him.
"I have never felt so loved and cared for," he said.
After he left Boys' Town, he worked hard to stay out of gang activities and learnt cooking at Eighteen Chefs, a restaurant that employs troubled youths and ex-offenders.
While serving National Service, he also decided to continue his education and sat for his N levels privately.
The ITE initially rejected him because of his poor results.
"I didn't know what to do. I asked my social worker to help me and she never gave up on me," said Mr Lau.
He was determined to help other young people who came from difficult backgrounds and appealed for a place.
Mr Lau was interviewed by Mr Tay Wei Sern, now deputy director of Health Sciences at ITE College East.
Said Mr Tay: "I asked him to promise that if I gave him a chance in ITE, he would make good with this opportunity and do well. Something about Gary made me think that he was genuine."
At ITE, Mr Lau, who took part in three CCAs, was vice-president of both the Care Connection and the Interact clubs.
He also went on an overseas industrial attachment to the US, where he volunteered with an agency that works with the homeless.
Mr Lau, who now lives in Simei, also shared how he became the top student for his course at ITE College East.
"I studied every night at Tampines East Community Centre because I could concentrate better there, even though sometimes I was uncomfortable with people staring at my tattoos," he said.
He is also grateful for his ITE education: "I was very lucky. I did not expect to have so many opportunities because of my (gang) background."
This article was first published on May 29, 2015.
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