Saturday, 9 March 2013

Youth with a mission

He was a bright child who floundered in secondary school and was labelled a failure. SPLAT! founder Dominic Lim tells Susan Long he now wants to help all young people believe in themselves and feel accepted.
The Straits Times, 8 Mar 2013

IT WAS "just bad luck", a freak incident during national service. A sand fly bit a wild boar, then bit him. Mr Dominic Lim, then 20, contracted encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. He was hospitalised for 10 days and laid up for 50 days more.

It galvanised him into action. Reminded how fleeting life was, he resolved to start living for real and helping other youngsters do the same. Six months later, in November 2006, he co-founded SPLAT!, a non-profit, community arts movement for youth at risk, with two friends.

They began by visiting secondary schools, sharing the stage with prison officers and former offenders, to talk to students about gangs and other issues that delinquents face. They conducted arts-based programmes in dance, drama, jamming, vocals and photography for youth at risk to draw out their talents. They also advocated giving former youth offenders a second chance.

Seven years on, the movement has grown. It has worked with about 250 youth identified by schools for playing truant, drinking or smoking, helped by more than 500 volunteers, mostly tertiary students.

SPLAT! works with up to 60 youth each time in schools like Assumption Pathway School, which takes in PSLE failures, Boon Lay Secondary, Jurong View Secondary and Anderson Secondary to produce musical, visual arts or culinary arts exhibitions that show off the youngsters' strengths beyond academic studies. It operates on about $3,000 in cash funding a year, primarily from the National Youth Council.

Now 26 and a social worker, the 1.82m-tall, reedy and intense Mr Lim is seized with even greater urgency. He wants SPLAT! to have a presence in every school by 2016 and to be known to every young person here by 2018. Beyond Singapore, he wants a footprint in every Asean country.

He has started training junior college students in Interact Clubs and Community Service Clubs to start programmes like his. He wants to broaden the definition of "service learning" beyond direct work - painting old folks' homes, cleaning up beaches or going overseas to build houses - to advocacy work, such as being a voice for the marginalised.

"My wish is to see students at the frontier of change themselves, knocking on doors of employers, asking them to hire ex-youth offenders, raising awareness, talking to parents on how to better relate to their kids," he says.

Aspirational poverty

TODAY'S youth lack for nothing, he feels, but suffer from "aspirational poverty". Forty years ago, the problem was material poverty as Singapore struggled to get its economy in shape. Ten years ago, it was "relational poverty" as families split up and bonds frayed.

Today's youth seem rudderless. They don't know what to aspire to or if they can get there at all. He disagrees that the solution lies in broadening the pathways to success beyond academic studies. "My take is before we talk about this, we need broadening notions of aspirations. The standard path is to study to age 22, get a good job and so on, but what about those who are frustrated with that sequence? How supportive is the system if they take a gap year to do their own thing or if they want to be their own boss?"

It also has to do with broadening mindsets. After a former offender is helped to realise he is good at baking, will an employer hire him despite his record?

"There's a tendency to let the dark clouds cloud out the sunlight here. But those clouds, which are dark periods in people's past, will pass, while the sunlight - people's strengths and the potential - remain. So do we want to fixate on the clouds or the light?"

He notes that although the proportion of youth offenders as a percentage of total arrests here have come down, delinquents are starting younger. It used to be that kids started smoking and joined gangs around age 14 to 16. These days, they start at 12 to 13, typically within their first six months of secondary school.

He is also seeing more youth at risk from intact dual-income families. "They rush home from school but an hour later they are at the void deck in their home clothes seeking companionship," he observes.

What parents need to do is to help their children discover something they are good at. When the family is supportive of their aspirations, youth tend to have higher self-worth, longer-term goals and are less vulnerable to negative influences.

So if your son wants to drop out of school to dance hip hop or be a mechanic, don't panic.

Ask him: "Do you want to be a dancer or do you want to eventually run a hip hop dance company? Do you want to be a car mechanic or run a chain of workshops and bring in the big suppliers who make tyres for Formula One? How do you think you'll communicate with a foreign manufacturer if your English is not good enough?"

Mr Lim's advice: "Help them to link what they are currently doing with their aspirations, while at the same time helping them to broaden and scale it up."

Most value-deducted

MR LIM is the elder of two sons of a lock manufacturing businessman and airline sales executive, and grew up in a Tampines five-room flat. A Catholic, he joined a church group at 12 to tutor poor children and found his calling in volunteering.

At Maris Stella High School (Primary), he scored 261 at the PSLE and made it to a top secondary school, but things started unravelling. He studied hard but found he had zero affinity for maths and science. He became disengaged and defiant, showing up hours late for school.

At the end of Secondary 3, he passed English and failed every other subject. A teacher told him he was "the most value-deducted student" the school ever had. No matter that he excelled in project work and rallying his classmates, for example, to bake cookies for health-care workers during the severe acute respiratory syndrome period in 2003.

For his Sec 4 preliminary exams, he scored 20 points, though he managed to shave that down to 15 points at the O levels. But he flunked Higher Chinese, prompting his Chinese-language teacher to label him her first failure in 30 years of teaching.

He left the school "emotionally tired", but with a "fire in my belly". He was convinced that education should be "built on a foundation of character" and be about "more than outcomes, but also about effort and process".

He wanted to take a break after the O-level exams, but his parents wanted him to try for Catholic Junior College (CJC). With his preliminary results, he was an appeal case and at the appeal interview, he was as obnoxious as possible.

The principal then, Brother Paul Rogers, enrolled him anyway. But by Day 2 of orientation, he took off for Starbucks and got a job as a barista.

After the O-level results were out, he got his first choice, Meridian Junior College, but felt something was amiss. He returned to CJC to beg for a second chance. Brother Paul simply said: "I knew you will be back" and tore up the withdrawal form he had submitted, still in his drawer.

Visibly touched, Mr Lim recounts: "He took me on knowing I would leave, built a bond with me, so that I would come back."

Three months before the A levels, Mr Lim proposed a talent discovery programme for at-risk youth. The JC gave him $3,000 to take teens from three charity homes out for outdoor cooking, a rock concert and treasure hunt.

His passion to help disenfranchised youth continued before and after NS, when he worked as a relief teacher at two neighbourhood schools for about 15 months.

The challenge was getting his Normal stream students to show up in class. He would croon inspirational songs he composed, beam video clips and use drama to teach them to write.

After breaking up one of many fights, involving a pair of scissors that scarred his left palm, he asked them to put up individual skits on their home environments. The exercise highlighted their similarities rather than differences and showed him the unifying force of the arts.

Despite his A-level results of C, C, D, he was admitted to the National University of Singapore's social work department through discretionary admission on the strength of his volunteer work.

Still, university course work remained a hard slog. He made it real for himself by volunteering at government social agencies and welfare organisations for up to three months every term break.

Last year, he graduated with second lower honours, then joined the National Council of Social Service as a senior executive to help develop social services for children, youth and families.

He has been a council member of the National Youth Council since 2011 and volunteering with the Tampines Central Citizens' Consultative Committee since last year.

"When what we do is meaningful, we find the time," he says, adding that it has crowded out his other past-times such as in-line skating and cycling. Two years ago, he met his girlfriend, also through volunteer work.

Tough taskmaster

HE RUNS a tight ship at SPLAT! and borrows from the best practices of Fortune 500 companies to improve how it operates. It is probably the only informal, all-volunteer group which has assessed itself voluntarily on the Commissioner of Charity's Code of Governance even though it is not required to do so.

All nine people on its board - none of whom is paid a cent - have their performance scored yearly and are assigned targets to hit. E-mail has to be answered within 24 hours. SPLAT! has also formed a research group to look into issues relating to youth delinquency and to better evaluate the outcome of its work.

Weekly management meetings are held at Starbucks, with proper minute taking.

Board member Taha Mattar, 26, a social worker at the Singapore Children's Society, says Mr Lim is a taskmaster who "sets the highest standards" for volunteers. "To quote him, 'It is not about doing the right thing, but doing the right thing well.'"

And there is an exit plan too - for SPLAT! to do its job so well that no youth gets left behind and it becomes redundant.

A decade from now, Mr Lim's dream is that he and his friends will meet at Starbucks - with no SPLAT! agenda - just to shoot the breeze and chat about their own kids.

Mr Lim on...

Why youth are his mission

"The youth of today will be the adults of tomorrow and the parents of the day after. I want to be a gardener and nurture every seedling to be its best. The outcome will be a landscape of diverse plants, each with its own strengths and potential."

His organisation's goals

"What would success look like to us? We want to empower youth - to quote the Lasallian motto - from being the last, the lost and the least, to become the first, the found and the frontier, pushing the envelope of change for themselves."

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