Monday, 4 March 2013

He went from jail to NUS law school

Ex-offender turns his life around in jail and will graduate with a law degree this year
By Chang Ai-lien, The Sunday Times, 3 Mar 2013

Fresh-faced Mr Darren Tan graduates this year from the National University of Singapore (NUS) with a law degree.

That is quite an achievement for the 34-year-old, who has spent more than 10 years of his life in jail and received 19 strokes of the cane for drug and gang-related offences.

When he finally straightened himself out, he returned to his studies with a vengeance, aced the A levels and did what many considered an audacious thing - he applied to study law at NUS.

Associate Professor Eleanor Wong, one of two law dons who interviewed him in jail, said he demonstrated character, perseverance and commitment in the way he schooled himself in prison and turned his life around.

"When we interviewed him, he also demonstrated maturity, humility and honesty, all important qualities for doing well not just in law school but in his subsequent career," she told The Sunday Times.

He became the first student with a criminal past to be admitted to the NUS law school.

A latchkey kid, he was an only child whose father worked in a coffee shop and mother at a fruit stall.

He did well in primary school, but in secondary school he joined a gang and began a life of drugs and crime.

By 14, he was smoking marijuana, sniffing glue and taking sleeping pills to get high, before moving on to pricier drugs. He also sold pirated VCDs, collected protection money, and was involved in illegal gambling and drug trafficking.

At 18, he was sent to the Reformative Training Centre for two years for robbery and drug consumption.

After he was released, he went back to trafficking drugs. Eleven months later, he was back in jail for trafficking and taking drugs. This time he was given an eight-year sentence. He was released, only to be caught and sent back for yet another five years, for taking drugs.

He was 25 and behind bars when his turnaround finally came. Alone in his cell and contemplating his crimes, he saw things more clearly at last: "I realised that my past life wasn't very meaningful or satisfying."

He resumed his studies, eventually taking the A levels and scoring four As and a B, including an A1 for General Paper, which he attributed to "reading the newspapers with a dictionary and grammar book by my side".

He applied for law school from prison, despite everyone advising him not to set himself up for disappointment. "My faith gave me a lot of strength," said the Christian.

Life is quite different today. He lives with his parents - his father is now a taxi driver and his mother, a production operator - has a girlfriend, and is a volunteer helping youth at risk, and ex-offenders.

He is also working with a partner of law firm Braddell Brothers, Mr Anand Nalachandran, as part of his law clinic elective module, assisting on active pro bono matters.

Said Mr Nalachandran: "As defence counsel, we often request a chance for offenders to reform and rehabilitate so I'm glad to be able to support Darren in this course."

It is people like Mr Tan that the Yellow Ribbon Fund aims to help. It linked him with a private donor who helped pay for his course fees and provided a living allowance.

Many feel that his hard knocks will set him apart as a lawyer, where he hopes to cut his teeth in commercial litigation.

But first, he will have to be called to the Bar. Criteria for admission require one to be of "good conduct and diligence", and technically, the Attorney-General's Chambers or Law Society can object.

Noted Mr Nalachandran: "Based on his performance thus far, I look forward to welcoming him to the profession."

A switch to the right side of the law
Former jailbird aims to become a lawyer and role model to repay the help he's received
By Chang Ai-lien, The Sunday Times, 3 Mar 2013

Temasek Polytechnic student Sarbir Singh is in his final year of a law and management course, and dreams of becoming a lawyer.

In and out of prison since he was 15 for gang fights and violence, he finally feels he is able to focus on his books.

"Things weren't so good at home, so I felt a sense of belonging in a gang," said Mr Singh, 24, whose parents divorced when he was four. His father, a building maintenance officer, was often at work, and a strict disciplinarian at home. The boy had no contact with his mother.

First sent to the Singapore Boys' Home at 15 for rioting, he was eventually allowed back to school on a day-release scheme and won an award for topping the English language exams.

"I had never felt so happy before, but the committee decided to withdraw the award because I had missed half a year of school. That was so disheartening."

Behind bars, he did well enough to continue into Secondary 5, but when he was released in 2007, he decided to work rather than go to school. But working at nightspots in Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, he got into more fights in clubs and soon landed in jail for two years.

At the Kaki Bukit Centre prison school, he studied for his O levels, taking five subjects in nine months, including several that were new to him.

"This time, the atmosphere was really good, everyone was studying and very supportive. I never worked so hard in my life," he said.

He scored nine points, among the top five at the centre that year. But the day the results were released was bittersweet.

Exam candidates were allowed visitors, but no one came to see him. "I wanted to prove to my father and grandmother that I could do well, but he didn't turn up and she had washed her hands of me," he said.

When he was released for the second time, he was accepted into Temasek Poly, but soon got into trouble again for fighting. "This was when I totally gave up on myself," he said. It was his poly teachers who stood by him and he was eventually released in February last year after a four-month sentence.

Now back in school, he has finally learnt to rein in his temper. "My main weakness is anger, and I have learnt to deal with it, partly by using a punching bag at home, and partly by focusing my whole life on school," he said. "I have adopted a new mindset and set myself goals that I work towards."

Mr Singh has reconciled with his family and keeps away from his old haunts, spending time instead on adventure, running and National Youth Achievement Award activities as well as giving free tuition to needy Primary 6 pupils.

His school fees are sponsored fully by the Yellow Ribbon Fund's Skills Training Assistance to Restart Bursary, which means he has the luxury of not having to work.

He admits he is still a work in progress. "I'm not there yet. I haven't met the expectations I've set for myself, but if I make it to university, maybe I can be a role model," he said. "I want to be a lawyer because when I was in trouble I got help. This is about giving back to society, not just taking and taking."

Roles for Judges, Lawyers in fund-raising concert

Judges, lawyers and former prisoners will be dusting off their songbooks and donning dance shoes at a concert to raise money for the Yellow Ribbon Fund to help former prisoners get back on their feet.

The event on Sept 12, which also marks the Singapore Academy of Law's 25th anniversary, aims to raise at least $100,000 for the fund's bursary.

"The Yellow Ribbon Fund helps to give a second chance to offenders, to train them and allow them to return to mainstream society," said Justice Lai Siu Chiu, who chairs the academy's membership and social committee which is in charge of organising the concert.

"People tend to forget how important the rehabilitation process is in the administration of criminal justice, and society should not be so unforgiving as not to give ex-offenders a second chance."

Proceeds from the concert will go to the fund's Skills Training Assistance to Restart (Star) Bursary which provides bursaries to financially needy ex-offenders for vocational and skills training.

Since the scheme started in 2010, 20 of the 46 bursary recipients have completed their qualifications - mainly in business or food and beverage-related courses. All have found jobs.

Last year, more than 1,122 ex-offenders and their families received assistance through initiatives from the Yellow Ribbon Fund.

Funding comes from donors and about $300,000 has been given out to Star bursary recipients so far.

Those who would like to volunteer or make a donation towards the event can look up or call 6332-4388.

* Two former inmates get second chance, graduating with NUS degrees
By Alice Chia, Channel NewsAsia, 11 Jul 2013

Life offers a second chance as the experience of two men has shown.

Both of them graduated from the National University of Singapore after spending time in prison.

It was a proud moment for the parents of 35-year-old Darren Tan Tho Eng, who will join a law firm as a practice trainee. He received his law degree on Thursday morning.

But he found it tough in his first semester in university.

Darren said: "When I first started school in NUS, it was more of a culture shock. I had a hard time getting used to school life because I spent the last 10 to 12 years of my life in another setting, in prison, and finances were bad. I also had to get used to using technology in the course of school. Also managing my relationship with my peers in school."

Apart from more than a decade in jail, he was also caned for drug and gang-related offences.

Prof Simon Chesterman, Dean of Faculty of Law at NUS, said: "We look at everyone on the basis of their results and their other achievements. And he had good enough results to be interviewed. This was some time ago, but we made, in the end, special provision to interview him. I think one of my colleagues went down to prison to interview him.

"But from our perspective, he had been convicted of an offence, but he was in the process of concluding, serving his time, he paid his debt to society. We don't believe that that should be a barrier to someone to turning over a new leaf, and having an opportunity to pursue an education, which he has clearly demonstrated he's passionate about."

As for 34-year-old So Weng Kei, he completed his studies in prison and graduated with an economics degree.

Weng Kei, who was jailed twice for burglary charges, has since found a job as a marketing executive.

"After lights out, we have this, we call the maintenance zone light. It's not really bright, but it's bright enough for me to read my textbook, so even after lights out, I will still be reading my textbook," he said.

Both men shared their experiences on what kept them going.

"Hope. I know that although a lot of people might not give us a second chance or for my case, a third chance, in life. But I feel that there is still someone out there who will be willing to give us this chance," said Weng Kei.

"I will use my knowledge, to the best of my ability, to ensure that people have access to the law, regardless of how much resources they have, to use my knowledge for the good of others," said Darren. 

And their efforts have paid off. They were among some 10,282 graduates from the National University of Singapore this year. Of these, 393 are graduates from the Faculty of Law.

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