Ending the spiral of trouble

SINGAPORE - It is easy to forget that James is still only a teenager.

When you check his record with the police, it looks as if James (not his real name) was a hardened criminal.

He was only 15 when the cops arrested him for rioting and unlicensed money lending in 2011.

Life for him could have so easily spiralled out of control.

It is therefore hard to imagine that the former Normal (Academic) student is now studying for a diploma in human resources.

And he owes a lot in his turn-around to teachers from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Since January last year, more than 20 teachers from the ministry have been helming classes in juvenile homes.

James was discharged from the Singapore Boys' Home last July. With the help of some of those teachers while at the home, he later managed to take and pass his N levels.

Life was different before his arrest.

With his friends, he went on a crime spree.

James, 17 now, said: "Somehow, I just went into it with my friends. It was easy cash (from getting involved in unlicensed moneylending)."

The only child did not even have to get his hands dirty. He said: "I was the 'supervisor' who was in charge of three or four others."

He received $180 for every door that his runner splashed with paint and the latter got $50. In one night, they could target up to 10 flats.

DEVASTATED

When James was caught, his parents, who run a hardware store, were devastated.

"They knew I was rebellious, but they didn't expect (me to get arrested). They were quite shocked that I actually broke the law," the soft-spoken teen recalled.

"But it's not their fault (I ended up like this). My parents doted on me. They still do."

James spent more than a year at the Singapore Boys' Hostel, but breached his curfew because he wanted to see his friends.

Packed off to the Boys' Home for nine months, James found it tough being cut off from the outside world.

But having full-time MOE teachers in the home helped him focus and he was also able to get extra coaching if needed. Thanks to them, he vowed to stay trouble free. He said: "I know I cannot keep making the same mistakes."

With the support system in place, the percentage of re-offenders has fallen slightly. (See statistics above.)

A Ministry of Social and Family Development spokesman said: "There was greater effort by juvenile homes from 2007 onwards to prepare residents for re-integration back to the community."

At the point of discharge, homes work with schools to ease the youth's return to study or engage them in vocational training or work.

While the state can help, self-improvement is vital too.

James' case worker, Mr Melvin Chua, said: "The boys themselves have to be motivated for the programmes to work. They have to want to change."

For now, James is looking forward to enlistment.

He is not sure about his future career, but the one-time trouble maker is clear that he is not following in some of his wayward friends' footsteps.

James intends to stay out of trouble for his mother's sake. He said: "She really dotes on me... It's just that last time, I never noticed (how she dotes on me)."

kohht@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 21 in The New Paper. Get The New Paper for more stories.