If you build it well, they will come

If you build it well, they will come

SINGAPORE - Patrick Chan, a community volunteer in Taman Jurong, was convinced that an extreme sports park he successfully pushed for would draw youth-at-risk to hang out. He tells Susan Long how he hopes to make them stay.

On the surface, Mr Patrick Chan hardly has anything in common with the poor kids of Taman Jurong he cares so much about.

The great-grandson of Chinese philanthropist Tan Kah Kee speaks with a crisp, pedigreed accent that drips with irony. The Anglo-Chinese School boy studied abroad and lived in bungalows in Cairnhill and Bukit Timah. Growing up, he only ever ventured to Taman Jurong to go to the skating rink or Chinese Garden.

But today, the 51-year-old has made the largely working-class constituency his home in every way. He lives there in an old Jurong Town Corporation flat. He is an unpaid community volunteer. And he's totally consumed by the fate of its young denizens.

Throughout the four-hour interview, he is concise but can't stop reeling off evidence to highlight the lousy odds for poor kids breaking out of that classification, and harps on how stopping school radically boosts their chances of winding up in jail.

Mr Chan cares very deeply. So deeply that he's turned his company Ergos International Sales, a high-tech woodworking business, into a not-for-profit that hires ex-inmates. Since 2008, it has helped train and turn around over a dozen former offenders, one of whom is now a social worker on his way to getting a degree.

He cares so deeply, he's spent the last two years tirelessly persuading the authorities to give him the north-western shore of Jurong Lake to build an extreme sports park that will be largely free, so that poor kids have a fun, safe place to hang out.

What he has in mind is a state-of-the-art park with skating, rock climbing and mountain biking facilities, "designed and built by young people for young people, as opposed to places designed by old people imagining what a young person would want to have".

He envisages a clubhouse and 24-hour cafe for kids to play, socialise, study and get tutored by volunteers. The sole condition: They have to adhere to strictly-enforced rules - no smoking, no alcohol and no drugs.

First, he identified a narrow strip of land along Yuan Ching Road and Boon Lay Way, across from Lakeside MRT. Fringing the water catchment Jurong Lake, with the MRT tracks running above, he argued it had little alternate viable use. Spanning about 6ha (the size of over 60 football fields) and easily worth a billion dollars, it was no small victory that the authorities recently approved the use of land there for an extreme sports park.

He's now working with Singapore Sports Council on how best to fund the building of the park so that it will be free for users as far as possible. He hopes it will be up and running by 2016.

Mr Chan is also trying to organise some 50 skaters in the neighbourhood, mostly aged 15 to 25, to "teach the authorities what they want", and help design their dream park. He wants to give them the facilities to train and to excel at something, which he hopes will help them build up other skills that are financially viable: "There's a huge correlation between someone willing to train to do something well and being able to use that same tenacity to achieve a better life."

He cares so deeply about how the environment shapes them that he's spent the last seven years looking after the infrastructure of Taman Jurong as a town councillor. It is a thankless job that sees him getting some 20 complaints daily about the height of grass, leaking toilets and the like. But he shrugs and says: "I like fixing stuff." He considers himself a repairman.

And a repairer of broken things and people, too, if you like.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is MP for Taman Jurong and has worked with Mr Chan over the past nine years, says that his strength is helping people to make things improve for themselves.

He relates: "I recently asked him to help a resident who was feeling down, had withdrawn into himself, and let his house fall into disrepair. Within days, Patrick had got him to repair and paint the house together with him. He can be tough, he takes no excuses, but people know he really believes in them, and he ends up earning their trust."

Complainer to volunteer

Ironically, Mr Chan's social conscience was pricked in 2004 by the most Singaporean of pursuits - complaining to his MP about how he was denied a training grant due to a technicality.

After he shot off an irate e-mail to a statutory board, cc'ing Mr Tharman, he received a phone call the next day at 8am. "The way was cleared," Mr Chan deadpans, in his sardonic way.

Grateful, he decided to help make a similar difference in other people's lives. He showed up at the next Meet-the-People Session (MPS) to offer his help. And he continued turning up - rain or shine or surgery - for the next six years. Even when he was diagnosed with nose cancer in 2009 and had to undergo radio therapy, he showed up.

Former IT executive Ang Thiam Hock, 50, who helps out in Taman Jurong, recounts Mr Chan's "selfless" dedication. "Instead of recuperating at home afterwards, he was helping needy residents at MPS, with a mask on. I will never forget his 'burnt' face during the treatment process."

The sessions opened Mr Chan's eyes to the dismal plight of some of the estimated 700 families who live in three rental blocks and two interim housing blocks in Taman Jurong. Week after week, he saw parents with no money for milk powder or bus fares, struggling to keep their kids in school. There was even a case where the mother came to beg for stay of execution for her son, which was due to happen the next day.

He notes that most delinquency cases usually start off innocuously with a bit of smoking, then escalate to sniffing glue and taking drugs. "The next thing, the kid is stealing bicycle parts, then robbing someone on the street," he says. "If you have a kid that drops out in Secondary 1, chances are he's going to be in jail by the time he's 20. In fact, probably before that. And he's probably going to spend 10 to 20 years in jail for robbery, theft or drugs."

His hope is to intervene through various programmes, to increase these kids' chances of staying in school and breaking out of the poverty trap. He chairs Beacon Of Life, a self-help group of ex-offenders who have turned their lives around, which is based in Taman Jurong. It trains poor kids in football in an outreach programme, with the intent of cautioning them not to throw away their lives. It was set up two years ago by a man he's mentored over the past five years, Mr Kim Whye Kee, 34, an ex-gang leader who spent 10 years behind bars for drug and gang activities, who has since graduated with second upper honours from Lasalle College of the Arts.

Mr Kim relates how Mr Chan personally drove him to get art materials for school, made him dinner during term time, and even paid for his fees when his bursary fell through. "He is like a father to me. I was someone who didn't dare to dream of a future, but I met this man who not only taught me to dare to dream but who also walked with me throughout the journey to realise my dream," says Mr Kim, who now works for Mr Chan as a product designer and followed in his footsteps to become a grassroots volunteer in Taman Jurong.

Broke for years

Mr Chan was born to an architect father and civil servant mother. His elder sister is a lawyer and his elder brother a doctor. He gained early entry to Iowa State University in the US at 16 to read mechanical engineering, then returned to a plum job with a multinational as a computer engineer, and five-star business travel.

Five years later, he received a call from his absentee father, who has since died, to help him get his latest venture off the ground. Since Mr Chan enjoyed woodworking, he agreed and relocated to Kuala Lumpur to run the 50-man factory making high-end ergonomic office furniture. But he soon realised - too late - that the business wasn't getting off the ground. "It was somewhere stuck in the mud. It was a few hundred thousand dollars underwater. It was a sophomoric attempt at business," he relates.

The first five years, he got stomach ulcers, maxed out his credit cards, lived off the charity of friends, not knowing where his next meal was coming from. "Coming from plenty, to nothing, it was painful," he remembers, with his trademark grimace.

Then, just as things turned a corner in 1996, the Asian financial crisis hit. All orders dried up overnight. Suddenly he was over a million bucks in debt, and starting his ascent from rock-bottom again. He diversified into making children's furniture, musical instruments and laboratory furniture. At the peak, he was making a few hundred thousand in profit a year.

He spent it on a University of Chicago Booth School of Business master's degree in business administration here in 2001, hoping to decipher the mysteries of business cycles. Instead, he emerged in 2003 utterly convinced how unimportant money really was. He sums up: "I learnt that you can work hard all your life and still end up with nothing, or you could do nothing and end up with lots… It's better to do something that is actually meaningful to you, and hopefully also pays the bills."

All the boom, bust, penury and cancer he has been through, has re-ordered his priorities. "You don't need a lot of money to have a decent quality of life. It just depends how you define what's important to you," says the agnostic.

The man who has now become the father he missed to many Taman Jurong kids calls himself a "low rent guy". Since 2001, together with his wife Betty, 51, an airbase facility manager, he has lived in the three-bedroom JTC flat, with kitchen cabinets he built himself, a hand-me-down dining set and a discarded TV. He drives a 14-year-old van.

Apart from his four-man woodworking outfit at Toh Guan Road, he does some small-scale electronics component procurement, cleaning chemicals and aircraft jet engine servicing business in Belgium and Hong Kong.

"My philosophy of life is, if you have been there, done that and you have enough, why do you need more? You might as well do what you like to do. Something that's meaningful to you and hopefully also useful to society at large. And I find great satisfaction in being able to help people turn their lives around."

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