Our Community

Leading with Heart: Two Decades of Rebuilding Desistors’ Lives

Mr Phillip Tan Eng Seong has spent decades improving desistors’ lives for the better, first through his previous role as the Chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Fund and more recently, as the Chairman of Yellow Ribbon Singapore.
YRSG_Leading with Heart_01

Mr Tan’s first foray into Singapore’s corrections landscape began when he was appointed to the Board of Visiting Justices and Board of Inspection (BOVJ and BOI) in 2003. As a Board member, Mr Tan’s role was to visit the prisons to ensure that the basic welfare of inmates was well taken care of.  

Recognising Mr Tan’s involvement with the Singapore Prison Service and generous philanthropic portfolio, his friend and then-Chairman of Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises1 (SCORE), later recommended him for the Vice-Chairman position of the Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF). When the welcome letter arrived, Mr Tan took up the challenge with gusto. Subsequently, he became Chairman of YRF. 

“Being a member of the BOVJ and Board of Inspection (BOI), I got involved with the prisons’ work. On the inside, you’re making sure that they’re properly fed, have proper medicine and that they’re treated right. So [my work at YRF] is just an extension of that,” Mr Tan said.

YRSG_Leading with Heart_02
Mr Tan (front row, fifth from right) led a study trip to Kajang Prison, Malaysia, as Chairman of BOVJ and BOI. PHOTO: Mr Phillip Tan

“After [inmates] are released, what are we going to do? We might as well help them to find work, we want [them to have] further education, so we started bursaries, then, we think about their families. It’s a natural progression.” 

Mr Tan is an advocate of what he calls a ‘wholesome’ approach, in other words, a comprehensive and sustained support system for ex-offenders after they leave prison. His efforts at YRF have laid the groundwork for many life-changing programmes. 

For instance, he was part of the team that instituted the Yellow Ribbon Fund STAR (Skills Training Assistance to Restart) Bursary in 2010, a financial assistance scheme targeted at low-income inmates and desistors interested in pursuing tertiary education. Under this bursary, more than 270 beneficiaries have been supported as of 31 December 2023.

YRSG_Leading with Heart_03
Minister-of-State Assoc Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim congratulating graduates who have benefitted from the YRF STAR bursary. PHOTO: YRSG

Another priority for Mr Tan is investing in career development and upskilling programmes for desistors. In particular, he encourages partnerships that focus on cultivating specialised and sustainable skillsets, giving desistors the means to find jobs with higher salaries. This reduces the chances of them falling back into crime due to difficulties in securing jobs which can give them a proper livelihood. Mr Tan’s long-term goal is to reduce Singapore’s recidivism rate of five years after leaving the prison institution by five per cent. 

“One of my friends owns [a business] tailoring uniforms for schools. I told him, ‘you don’t want desistors to just pack your things, right? What can you do to allow them to earn more?’ He said, if they have the interest, they can cut fabric. Because compared to just packing, sewing and cutting skills are more specialised and would enable them to earn more.” 

Being a retired partner of a well-known accountancy firm, Mr Tan also played a significant role in securing the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and YRF. He hopes that such a partnership will provide more opportunities for desistors and their family members to pursue the professional certifications required to become chartered accountants. Happily, he shared that the programme has attracted interest from several potential participants since the MoU’s signing three months ago.

YRSG_Leading with Heart_04
MoU signing between ICAEW and YRF. PHOTO: YRSG.

Ensuring adequate support for family members of desistors is a core tenet of Mr Tan’s approach. “Family is very important because they are a part of the whole rehabilitation ecosystem,” he said.  

Mr Tan recalled one case where an inmate who was just released from prison found that his wife, whom he married overseas, had left their young daughter to him. Not knowing how to resolve the immigration issues surrounding his daughter’s overseas citizenship, he went to Mr Tan and Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG) to seek assistance. YRSG referred him to the relevant authorities and assisted with the appeal process to allow the daughter to stay in Singapore legally.  

“The grandmother was very happy, she would send me cakes,” he said, laughing. 

Mr Tan felt that such experiences throughout his tenure at YRF and YRSG have made him a better person, both personally and professionally. 

YRSG_Leading with Heart_05
Mr Tan (second from left) at the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run 2023, an annual event held to raise funds for desistors and their families. PHOTO: Mr Phillip Tan

“When I was younger, I had a stricter interpretation of what’s right and wrong. As an accountant, I would always just look at figures. Like in this situation with [the daughter], according to the rules, she can’t stay long term in Singapore, but she can appeal and the authorities would look at the circumstances. In this case, the authorities were empathetic and granted her long term stay with her father. By looking at the circumstances, I learned over time, I became more empathetic, less judgemental.” he said, in reflection. 

Last year, Mr Tan’s 20 years of contributions to various Home Team Boards, Councils and Committees was recognised with the Long Service Award from the Ministry of Home Affairs. When asked what sustains such a long-lived passion for bettering other people’s lives, Mr Tan’s reply was simple and uncomplicated. “There is a joy, a peace, in helping others that I cannot describe.”

YRSG_Leading with Heart_06
A painting by an inmate, which Mr Tan bought at a YRSG art auction more than 10 years ago. PHOTO: Amber Qua

“I try all these ideas and it doesn’t work sometimes because the timing is bad or the idea needs to change. The worst is not knowing the problem because you haven’t tried to solve it. If you want to help, [help others] because you enjoy doing it and don’t think about the results.”

1The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitation Enterprises (SCORE) was rebranded as Yellow Ribbon Singapore (YRSG) on 1 May 2020.

Home Team Boards, Councils and Committees (HT BCCs)
The Home Team has 42 Boards, Councils, and Committees comprising over 450 respected professionals and community leaders, who serve as critical pillars of support to a wide array of Home Team. 

The annual Minister Appreciation Event was held on 24 November 2023 to show our appreciation for members of the HT Boards, Councils and Committees (BCCs) for their contributions and service to the HT. This year, there are 48 recipients of the Long Service Award (LSA) including three members who are receiving their 35 years LSA for their years of dedicated service. 

Read the speech from the Minister Appreciation Event here

Written by

Amber Qua


2 February 2024

Corrections & Rehabilitation
Managing Prisons & Rehabilitation
Managing Reintegration & Aftercare
Related Articles