Nearly 10 years ago, 17-year-old Alvin Lee found himself in court on a charge of rioting.
Just before his sentence was read out, his father ignored court protocol and tearfully addressed the judge.
"He vouched for my innocence and said he would quit his job to keep an eye on me and make sure I did not get into trouble again," recalls Mr Lee.
On seeing this, a hardened drug dealer who was also in the dock turned to speak to him. "He said, 'You should be more sensible. You have a better father than I do'."
The judge was visibly moved and sent the teenager to be assessed by a probation officer who recommended 18 months of probation and 40 hours of community work.
When they reached home, he apologised to his father.
"He told me I alone was responsible for my future and nobody could help me change but myself."
And so he did. The former gangster who failed his N levels and dropped out of the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) went back to school.
Despite having to work part-time to help his family, he graduated with a diploma in computer engineering from Singapore Polytechnic.
Since September last year, he has been working as a lecturer at the ITE where he hopes to mentor and inspire students who are struggling with their studies or other problems.
He has also just won an ITE scholarship and hopes to pursue a degree in engineering at Nanyang Technological University.
Clean-cut and neatly dressed, Mr Lee is the youngest of three children and grew up in difficult circumstances.
His father, who used to sell vegetables in a Marsiling market, barely earned enough to feed the family; his late mother, who had a low IQ, did not work because she could not communicate properly.
Mr Lee's elder brother, 35, is also intellectually disabled and makes a living assembling headphones at Minds (Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore).
"He wasn't born that way. But when he was three years old, he had a very high fever which damaged his brain. My parents had no money and didn't take him to the hospital until it was too late," he says.
The electricity and water supply to their four-room Marsiling Housing Board flat was often cut because the family did not pay the bills.
"I was too young to feel embarrassed but I remember it affected my sister quite badly because she sometimes had to go and stay with a friend so that she could study for her exams," he says.
"But no matter how hard it was, my father never borrowed from loan sharks or other people. He always said, 'Do not trouble others with our own troubles'."
To help out the family, the former Fuchun Primary and Woodlands Secondary student started working part-time as a hawker's assistant at an economical rice stall when he was 13.
His studies took a back seat and the Normal Technical stream student ended up failing his N levels. He enrolled in a precision engineering course at the ITE but was barred from sitting his exams because he had attended only three classes in his first year.
"I was busy working several jobs, helping out at the rice stall and packing syringes in a factory. It was also during this time that I made some undesirable friends," he says.
These were ruffians he got to know in the playground near his home. "Because I lacked parental guidance and a sense of belonging, this new group of friends were like my guiding light. We met daily and could chat about everything under the sun," he says.
He picked up smoking and, with his gangster friends, stole bicycles and got involved in fights.
He recalls the time when he readily headed out to a confrontation with a rival gang near the Woodlands Checkpoint.
"My classmate called me to make up the numbers and show the other side how powerful we were. I thought it was fun so I went. But we turned up only to find that the other group was even bigger," he says.
Their opponents, it turned out, were also armed with broomsticks, baseball bats and parangs.
"So we just ran," he says sheepishly, adding that he had never physically hurt anyone during his two years as a gangster.
He landed in the soup when the police arrested him and half a dozen others when he was hanging around in the void deck of an HDB block one day.
"We were suspected of being involved in a big gang fight in Marsiling. I was not involved in the fight but some in my group were," he says.
He ended up in the Cantonment police station where he was in a lockup for four days.
His family could not be contacted because they did not have a home phone.
"My sister was the only one with a handphone but we were allowed to make calls only at certain times and I couldn't get her until the fourth day," he says.
The four nights he spent at the station, he says, were miserable. He was alone in the lockup, with no pillow and no mattress.
"But those four days were very important. I started thinking about what I had done, what I had contributed to the family and how my life would turn out to be."
His father went to see him immediately after he learnt what had happened.
"The first thing he asked me was what I ate the last few days. He then took me to a nearby coffee shop so that I could have a plate of noodles," says Mr Lee, adding that his father pledged his flat as collateral to raise the $10,000 for his bail.
To fulfil his 40 hours of community work, he helped out at several old folks' homes. It made him feel even more remorseful.
"Many of the old people I saw were lonely; some were abandoned by their families, others were there because they had no family. It made me realise that family is the best thing and I should cherish what I have."
National service came next. His sister - a 32-year-old polytechnic graduate who shouldered the burden of looking after the family when she started working at 21 - took him aside and advised him to think carefully about what he wanted to do.
"I was quite lost. I decided to get a driver's licence so that I could at least fall back on a driving job if I were unable to get into the ITE again," he says.
But he did get back into the ITE, thanks to the help and constant encouragement of his class adviser, Madam Stella Lai. "She never gave up on me. She would often call up and ask me to go back to school."
Madam Lai, 40, says: "I knew about his family background. I knew he was not stupid, and he had potential. So I encouraged him, told him this was his second chance and he could do it. I told him it was his responsibility to hold the family together."
In 2009, Mr Lee enrolled in an ITE communications technology course, and threw himself into his studies.
Two years later, he achieved a GPA 4, a perfect score, and bagged a heap of awards, ranging from model student to top graduate and all-round achiever. All this he did while working as a driver for a moving company in the evenings.
"After school, I would go home, cook for the family before starting work as a driver from 6pm to 11pm. When I reached a destination and while the workers were unloading, I would take the opportunity to revise my studies," says Mr Lee, adding that he earned up to $2,000 a month.
His sterling results got him a Lee Kuan Yew scholarship to study computer engineering at Singapore Polytechnic in 2011. He graduated among the top 5 per cent of his cohort last year and was offered a teaching job at the ITE.
"I always had a dream to come back and serve. Madam Lai really impressed me with her caring attitude, her selfless devotion and her passion for teaching. I just want to give back," says the electronics lecturer.
He secured a place at NTU to study computer engineering last year but did not have the funds to embark on that journey. His employers, however, recently offered him a full scholarship and, if all goes well, he hopes to be at NTU this year.
With a sad smile, he lets on that his mother died of a thrombotic stroke in 2011, aged 61. His father, now 79, suffered a stroke three months ago that left him paralysed on his right side. He is now recovering in a community hospital.
"I told him about my scholarship and he is very happy," says Mr Lee, whose elder sister is also studying part-time for a degree in biotechnology at the Singapore Institute of Management.
Mr Lee loves his job at the ITE.
"As a former student, I guess I relate to the students better. I try to get them to express their feelings, tell me what they think so that I can guide them better. The main difference between ITE students and other students is that they do not always do things the conventional way. With the right motivation, they can be very creative," he says with a smile.
This article was first published on Apr 5, 2015.
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