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An Ex-Offender’s Journey of Hope and Redemption
Chasing dreams at this year’s National Youth Achievement Award ceremony – for former gangster and drug trafficker “David”, it isn’t about driving a Lamborghini or living the high life, but leading a modest and peaceful life.

NYAA inmate performance
Inmates performed “High Hopes” by the band Kodaline, a song about the challenges of moving on. The lyrics go, “It’s time to let it go, go out and start again…” PHOTO: Singapore Prison Service

As he sat watching musical performances by inmates at the National Youth Achievement Awar (NYAA) ceremony, David (not his real name) found himself holding back his tears.

Just a year ago, the bespectacled 25-year-old was on that same stage, wearing that same blue-on-blue ensemble and sporting an identical buzz cut – a look which characterised the male inmates at Tanah Merah Prison (TMP). On 13 April 2018 however, he was on the other side – watching, and waiting to receive a NYAA Bronze award for completing the programme during his sentence.

“I felt the pain – I know how hard this journey is,” he recalled. “It’s very tough. So, when they were performing, they touched my heart.”

Arrested on the Cusp of Adulthood

David speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the NYAA ceremony. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari

David was arrested for drug trafficking offences in 2014. It was a day he’ll never forget, and it’s not because this was the first time he was going behind bars. David’s arrest came just as he was about to celebrate his 21st birthday. 

“I felt numb. I didn’t have any feelings at that moment,” he said, recalling the lowest point in his life. “It wasn’t a good scene because it was my birthday, and everyone was there.”

His last words to his younger brother were, “Take care of the family.”

Letting Go and Piecing His Life Together Again

After “hitting rock bottom”, David vowed to change, and one crucial step he took was to leave his old group of friends behind.

“There were a lot of things I had to let go of,” David said. “But I think the most crucial thing was that I left my gang – because if I was still a part of it, I’d never have gotten out.”

Calling himself a hot-tempered teen who was the “rebellious type”, David learned how to manage his anger, an aspect of his personality that he’s still trying to improve. His incarceration also helped him to forge closer bonds with his family members, especially his parents, whom he’d shunned in his teenage years.

“When I was incarcerated, my parents would come and visit me every month without fail,” David said. “Gradually, I started to share things with them. They supported me, giving me advice and telling me what to do. Their actions proved to me that they loved me.”

In addition, his participation in the NYAA programme during his sentence allowed him to hone a variety of soft skills, such as overcoming stage fright through performing. This was something he still has fond memories of.

“I learnt how to play the bass guitar – I wasn’t doing well and I actually wanted to give up,” David said. “It was peer support that got me through it.”

David speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the NYAA ceremony. PHOTO: Ash Tiwari

Chasing a Humble Dream

“Catch Your Dreams, Chase Your Destiny” was the theme of this year’s NYAA ceremony, and David’s dream is truly a simple one: to live a modest and carefree life. Currently a salesman in the financial sector, he’s planning to pursue a Degree in Business Administration at a local university.

Having spent his teenage years embroiled in gangs and constantly worrying for his safety, all David wants in his life is peace.

"My dreams are nothing big – nothing like driving a Lambo,” he quips. “My dream is just to get a proper job, settle down and lead a peaceful life. That’s all"

About the National Youth Achievement Award for Inmates

More than 1,800 inmates, aged between 16 and 25 years old, have participated in the NYAA programme since the SPS implemented it in 2000. The programme requires NYAA inmates to plan and participate in a variety of “components” geared towards honing pro-social life skills. 

These inmates spend an estimated four hours daily on NYAA activities, which range from adventure-centric challenges to community skills training. The programme aims to encourage them to develop personal qualities of self-reliance, perseverance and a sense of responsibility not only to themselves, but also to the community. 
© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.

  1. by Muhamad Khair
  2. 20 April 2018
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