'Fighting was an important part of underground culture'

(Left) Mr Jasper Yap is now pursuing a diploma in aerospace technology at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. (Right) In 2009, after a fight at the Singapore Boys' Home.
SINGAPORE - He cannot forget his time in the Singapore Boys' Home.

 

Mr Jasper Yap, 19, remembers his time so well, he wants to stay on the straight and narrow.

He said: "There were officers, teachers and other staff members working to help us. And they did a good job at guiding us."

But there was also a dark side - the alleged bullying which took place away from the staff members.

It didn't happen often, he said, but fights did break out, sometimes to settle a dispute and sometimes for the boys to "man up", said Mr Yap.

The former resident claimed: "There was also an underground culture, where we had to show 'respect' to the senior boys, and prove we could stand up for ourselves.

"Fighting was an important part of this culture."

The alleged bullying culture was highlighted by TNP on Aug 1 after a mother refused to let her son return to the home.

Speaking to The New Paper, he claimed he was beaten up by two other residents inside the home.

Following the incident, the Ministry of Social and Family Development, which runs the home, stepped up efforts to better ensure overall security and safety for its residents, among other measures.

It said it will intensify patrols for both open and enclosed areas, and increase staff deployment.

Mr Yap was sent to the home at the age of 15 in 2009 for robbing a man and stealing motor vehicles, and he never wants to repeat the two years he spent there.

'New boy!'

He spent two years He recalled the first time he set foot in the complex. "The walkways were covered with grilles on both sides. When I was first taken to my block, I noticed all the boys - about 100 of them - staring at me.

"Some called out, 'New boy!' Others were dead silent, looking at me like they were tigers and I was their prey.

"It was the scariest time of my life," he said.

There were many rules inside the home. Items that could be used as weapons, for instance, were prohibited.

These included watches, needles, nail-clippers, staplers, scissors and razor blades.

So they were only allowed to shave and clip their nails once a week, and under close supervision by an officer, he added.

"I don't know the reason for that. But I assumed it's to prevent residents from grabbing someone else's hair and knocking their head on the walls."

Inside, the boys had to follow a daily schedule for everything from classes to time in the shower.

"During bedtime, I couldn't even sit up on my bed. Someone on duty would see me, and - over the PA system - ask me to lie down.

"During TV time, I had to sit with the other boys in front of the TV, even if I didn't want to watch the programme.

"On some days, I felt the only choices I could make were the scent of shampoo and soap I used."

"As a result, most of the residents didn't wear socks or underwear," he adds.

But the bullying frightened him, Mr Yap claimed.

He said: "The place was just 'ruled' by 'old boys' who had been there for over a year.

"They would challenge new boys to fights, and these fights would take place in the toilets - in a space about 2m long and 1.5m wide - inside the boys' dormitories." According to him, other boys would act as "sentries" looking out for duty officers.

During the duel, the fighters would be naked, and could hit any area of the body except the face and crotch. Sometimes, even the face was fair game. The duel was over either when one boy surrendered or when the time was up.

During his two years there, Mr Yap claimed to have fought more than 200 times.

Said Mr Yap: "Sometimes, I wanted to fight too to prove I was a man. You might think the reasons are trivial, but inside, these things matter."

"It was not something the officers could do much about."

"Inside, I had to be tough, strong, muscular. I had to show I can fight back, or I would be 'eaten' by the other boys."

However, not all fights were over disagreements or staring incidents. Newcomers were generally challenged to a fight as a form of initiation, and there were also friendly sparring sessions.

Tim (not his real name), 19, corroborated Mr Yap's account of life in the Singapore Boys' Home.

Said Tim, who was in for a year from 2009: "It was the most terrifying period of my life.

"I always had to be careful how I acted in case it offended some of the older boys."

"What's important was that you agreed to fight. It showed you had 'honour' and were man enough to stand up to the challenge.

"Refusing to fight signalled that you are weak-willed and can easily be bullied."

During his time in the home, Tim said he fought six times with different boys and suffered bruises from fighting.

After one fight, Mr Yap said he was sent to hospital a month into his stay, when his left eye was punched by one of the boys.

"I had to be sent to the National University Hospital, where I had to undergo surgery.

"But I told the officers that I was hit by a sepak takraw ball," he added.

Unwritten rule

This was because it is an unwritten rule that the fights must always be kept from the officers, he said.

"The worst thing a boy can do is to inform an officer of a fight, or say that someone beat him.

"If you are found out, you will be labelled a 'tell-tale' and ostracised.

"Nobody will talk to you for as long as you are in the home. You will have no friends and your life will be miserable."

There were times, he admits, that the officers were convinced that he had participated in a fight, and decided to punish him.

Still, Mr Yap would not admit to being in a fight.

He said: "Even when they punished me, I'd stay silent."

"It's really important to have people on your side, because you have to live with those boys for a long time.

"If you played by the system, you'd eventually become an 'old boy' too.

"You could have friends who can help you - sharing their toiletries and food with you, even speaking up for you when there are conflicts."

 

Jasper

Mr Yap is now pursuing a diploma in aerospace technology at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

Tim is pursuing a diploma at a private school, and is working part time as a salesman.

Said Tim: "Looking back, all that fighting was really pointless. It's just that we had nothing to do when we were inside the home.

"If prison is anything like being in the boys' home, then I never want to break the law again."

Past cases

2008

A teenager placed in the Singapore Boys' Home for two years could not stand the strict regime there and wanted out.

He begged his family to file an appeal for the court to reconsider probation.

He was eventually granted probation - on condition that he first stay at the less-regimented Singapore Boys' Hostel for a year.

2006

A mass protest took place in the Singapore Boys' Home, following a fight between two groups of residents. Residents had banged their beds and shouted intermittently out of mischief. The protest was reported to have lasted for four hours.

2005

A resident in the Singapore Boys' Home was reported to have fought with another boy while he was remanded in the home. The resident was one of three teens hired by a man to kill his mistress and gouge her eyes out that year.

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