Ex-inmates reach out to help troubled teens

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.

To learn discipline and responsibility, the boys take charge of these activities, and are given roles like "discipline administrator". They take time to review their behaviour every week and "report" misdeeds like smoking to Mr Kim.

Mohd Nurazdanial, who dropped out of school last year after mixing with bad company, wants to return to school next year, after meeting Mr Kim and Mr Tan. The 16-year-old, who hopes to be a mechanic, said: "I want to go back to school so that I can help my mother, who is a retail assistant."

Mr Tan, who starts work at a law firm this month, said getting the boys to take their studies seriously has been one of his "biggest achievements". He himself started to focus on his studies only after he turned 25. He sat his A-levels and applied for law school from prison."We lacked these opportunities when we were younger, and at that time, we were doomed to fail," he said. "Now we are trying to make all the resources available to them, and help them think about their future."

The group has so far received about $85,000 in donations from Yuan Ching Secondary School and Jurong Lake Run organised by the Taman Jurong Community Sports Club this year. Said Mr Kim: "If the boys want to change, and they have a dream, we will find ways to fund them."

ateng@sph.com.sg


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