Before trying to quit gang, he readied girlfriend to call for ambulance

More than 15 years ago, he approached the "headman" of a secret society and asked to become a member. Since then, Mr Azmi Abdul Rahman, 43, has been in and out of prison nine times.

Each time, he vowed to stay clear of gang-related activities but failed because of his drug addiction.

"Apart from family warmth and love, my gang could provide me with everything that my family was unable to, including drugs," he added.

"Addiction is a disease. I am still recovering even after staying clean for five years."

Mr Azmi was one of two former gang members who spoke to participants at Camp ACE (All Can Escape) VIII, a police initiative to steer "at-risk" youths away from gang-related activities.

When Mr Azmi finally decided to tell the gang that he wanted to turn over a new leaf and leave it, his girlfriend was worried for his safety.

He told reporters at the camp yesterday: "I told my girlfriend, if I am not out (of the meeting with the gang members) within 20 minutes, call an ambulance and inform the authorities."

Fortunately, the gang allowed him to leave, albeit reluctantly and with a warning not to frequent nightclubs or join other gangs.

"They wanted me to change my life for good," said Mr Azmi, who is now a ship chandler.

COURAGE

"The turning point in my life was actually myself. I wanted to have a good life and live my life happily. I told myself, if I had the courage to join a gang, I must have the courage to face the consequences."

Now happily married with four kids, Mr Azmi said of Camp ACE: "This programme is useful as the number of youths involved in gang-related activities is high. In fact, the camp should be more than just an annual event."

He told the participants: "I thought my fellow gang members were my friends, but none of them turned up to visit me in prison."

The camp's other guest speaker, Mr Kim Whye Kee, 37, an artist and grassroots member, recalled his regret when he had to visit his dying father in hospital in handcuffs and escorted by police officers.

"It hit me really hard. What was the point of joining a gang? I neglected my family.

"I dreamt of going home for a simple dinner with my family but instead, a week later, I attended his funeral in handcuffs. I brought shame upon my family," he said.

Mr Kim has initiated a community arts programme to expose at-risk youth to an arts education and hopes to prevent them from ending up like him.

He said: "I want to show the youths a different angle...and instil a mature mindset. This can be done by befriending and connecting with them, showing them other available options."

His advice for wayward youths: "We all have dreams from young. Somehow, that dream gets lost.

"My advice is to go back to that dream and chase it. Gain support from the community."

Teens changed after getting caught

Benjamin, 16, and Ming Xiang, 18, who took part in Camp ACE VIII, got in trouble with the law after they became gang members.

In Benjamin's case, he agreed to join a gang after he was beaten up by schoolmates who were part of the gang.

When asked why he did not reject the offer, he said: "I didn't say no out of ego. I did not retaliate much when I was beaten up, I felt embarrassed and it hurt my pride."

Eventually, Benjamin was caught by the police's Secret Societies Branch (SSB) and put under the Streetwise Programme for counselling and rehabilitative activities.

Benjamin added that his family was a motivating factor behind his decision to quit the gang.

They were upset after finding out about his gang involvement when they received a letter from the SSB.

"I felt my family was giving up on me. They said that if joining a gang and going to prison was how I want to lead my life, they would not show concern and visit me. That scared me."

BACK ON TRACK

He is now getting "back on track" on mending his relationship with his family and he feels they are no longer shutting him out.

Ming Xiang joined a gang "out of boredom" and to seek "company" after being approached at a void deck.

But the gang's negative influence led him to make some poor decisions. He was sent to a boys' home thrice for theft and rioting.

He did not leave the gang earlier for fear of losing his "friends".

He said: "Now I realise that they are fake friends as they are only interested in getting into trouble.

"I realised that joining a gang is a waste of time. I would rather do something productive now."

Having turned over a new leaf, the teenagers are looking towards the future.

Benjamin hopes to enrol in a polytechnic and take up a diploma relating to medicine or social work, while Ming Xiang dreams of starting his own restaurant.