Mr Michael Lim grew up surrounded by triad members, gamblers and prostitutes in his neighbourhood.
His father, who owned a motor workshop in Rowell Road, in the Jalan Besar area, had to be self-reliant and negotiate with gangs who often demanded protection money.
His family moved away after he started attending primary school but by then, Mr Lim, 39, had learnt the importance of community and leadership in dealing with difficult situations.
The father of four children, aged between six and 13, had been busy with his family and career as a senior prisons officer, and never found the opportunity to sign up as a grassroots leader.
But five years ago, he came across a banner recruiting grassroots leaders at a community centre in his old neighbourhood in Bedok.
Mr Lim signed up and has since been involved in planning for social assistance programmes in the Kaki Bukit community.
TAKE PASSION FURTHER
Last July, he decided to take his passion further. A trained civil engineer, Mr Lim signed up for a Master of Community Leadership and Social Development programme offered by UniSim and the People's Association.
Tomorrow, Mr Lim, who is valedictorian of the course, will, together with 20 other students, receive his advanced diploma certificate at the National Community Leadership Institute (Nacli).
The diploma is a prerequisite to getting the master's degree.
Nacli will be celebrating its 50th anniversary on the same day Mr Lim gets his diploma.
He might have come a long way but he still remembers his childhood like it was yesterday.
Mr Lim, who is fluent in Hokkien, Teochew and some Malay and Cantonese, peppered his conversation with Chinese proverbs as he recalled the harrowing clashes between gangs he witnessed.
"I hid behind a pillar and watched them fight over territory. There were injuries and blood."
A self-professed pai kia (Hokkien for bad boy) in his younger days, Mr Lim never joined a gang but had many opportunities to observe them. The gangsters were not passive, they took action immediately.
He said he adopted their "proactive" nature which helps him during home visits where he needs to assess the residents' needs.
Mr Lim said: "The resources are available but it is important that the right resources go to the right people.
"For instance, it makes no sense to give a senior citizen a bag of rice when she already has many bags donated to her, and all she needs is money to pay her utilities bill."
His grassroots mentor, Mr Goh Hock Ho, 59, managing director of a food business, said that Mr Lim has matured in his role over the years.
"As a young man, he was passionate and wanted to see fast results, but he has improved over the years and has come up with many thoughtful programmes for the community," Mr Goh said.
How does Mr Lim feel about the misconception that grassroots leaders work only for the Government?
He said: "All I am concerned about is that residents who need help are getting help. I am sure the community can feel the difference."
He also defended against accusations that grassroots leaders get many advantages, such as free parking in the constituency and priority for Primary 1 registration.
"We conduct many house visits, as often as six times a week, and it is unfair if we have to pay for all the parking fees.
"Also, it is no guarantee that our children will get into the school as they are getting in through Phase 2B which includes parents who are school volunteers or have church or clan associations," he said.
Mr Lim, who is also involved in the Yellow Ribbon Project, is convinced that his role as a community leader is helping to transform lives.
"Sometimes you meet someone you don't remember and he says, 'I know you. You've helped me before'. It is just a feeling you can't describe."
What is NACLI?
The National Community Leadership Institute (Nacli) is the community leadership development arm of the People's Association.
Previously known as Buona Vista Youth Leadership Training Centre, it was set up in 1964 and has evolved over the decades.
It now serves as the "Harvard" of community leadership development, where grassroots heads learn key skills to perform their roles as leaders who understand their residents' needs and strive towards serving them better.
To date, over 650,000 leaders, including prominent names like Social and Family Development Minister Chan Chun Sing, have been trained by the institute.
This article was first published on Oct 11, 2014.
Get The New Paper for more stories.