Speech by Henry Kwek
At the Yellow Ribbon Community Project Annual Appreciation Luncheon
1. There is a lot of idealism in this room today.
2. Many of us believe that:
– Justice can be tempered with mercy.
– We must unlock ex-offenders from their second prison.
– And the families of the guilty are innocent.
3. Talking to fellow Singaporeans, I can confidently say that many Singaporeans share the same ideals.
4. So why do some of our ex-offenders face a discriminating eye, even after finishing paying their dues, and why do families of offenders face so many difficulties?
5. The answer is simple: It is a non-trivial task to scale up our individual idealism, into collective compassion and rehabilitation at a societal level.
6. That is what I am invited to share about today: building collective compassion and rehabilitation at a constituency level.
7. Because of my personal experience, Yellow Ribbon always had a special place in my heart.
My childhood was spent in a crowded flat at Beach Road within Jalan Besar, a neighborhood that few would mistake as gentrified. Growing up, my father was a Visiting Justice at the Drug Rehabilitation Center. Because he was Chinese-educated, I was naturally his note-taker, and drafter of his appeals.
As a young civil servant later on, I taught Economics and GP as a volunteer tutor at the Kaki Bukit prison school. I was close to and fond of my students.
As a MPS appeals writer in my 30s, I began to see, in an unfiltered way, the full force of the impact of an imprisonment to not just the offenders, but also their families, for years to come.
8. So when I was elected in 2015, naturally, I wanted to start Yellow Ribbon at my constituency.
For a year or so, I tried without success to convince my existing grassroots volunteers to form a YR team. So I reflected on why they said no.
My conclusion was this – in their heart of hearts, they did not have the confidence to walk through the doors of the families of both the offenders and ex-offenders, to be able to deliver solutions and hope.
9. Making a house visit is not hard, but fixing broken families is not easy.
10. At the same time, when I began to build up social work programs serving other needs, I quickly noticed how intertwined social issues were:
– Helping young parents fight out from the poverty trap is not just able helping them find a good job, but also giving them hope that their children can and will do better.
– Helping seniors is not just about financial assistance or free meals, but also nesting them within a network of love and care.
11. That makes sense: After 3 generation of successful uplifting of Singaporeans through sheer meritocracy, our success has paradoxically made it harder and harder to help families that are left behind or have fallen into hardship. For these families, including families of ex-offenders, their needs are varied and intertwined. Therefore, our solution must also be varied and intertwined.
12. So to advance the cause of Yellow Ribbon and other social causes, I gathered all the change-makers within Kebun Baru to form Hope Collective. When I head the Hope Collective, I think about the 3Ps-
14. People: In the Hope Collective, our change-makers meet regularly. They comprise of activists, grassroots volunteers, agency officers, and social workers. Because they are all sitting on the same table, focusing on the same goal of helping needy residents, they quickly build up strong bonds with one another. It’s quite common to see that after our 730-10pm meeting ends, these change-makers continue to speak to one another for another 45 minutes or so.
This peer-to-peer relationship is very important. Because if the information always have to go through me, as the Grassroots Advisor, then I will become the bottleneck.
We have also rapidly grew up our Yellow Ribbon team from zero to 12 committed volunteers. Thus far, they have reached out to more than 50 families.
15. Perspective: As dedicated and connected as the programs and people are, making impact is a long-term affair involving many helping hands. As such, it is important to build up detailed case files for our beneficiaries. Having databases and case files not just allow us to gather the full range of perspectives for people, but at the program level, it also injects discipline. Because when we are tracking progress made, we are encouraged to clarify what real impact is.
At Kebun Baru, we have built a series of database containing detailed case files for:
– At risk and needy youth,
– Vulnerable seniors (socially isolated)
– Needy families
– Our community directory also notes where are the families with special needs, dementia, and cancer.
Such back-end data analysis and capturing work is unseen, but tremendously important.
16. Now that I have spoken about the 3 Ps, let me share on 2 case studies on how our Hope Collective has been able to support our Yellow Ribbon recipients.
Case Study 1: Madam E
17. Madam E is in her 70s lives alone in a one-room flat. Her youngest son and his girlfriend were caught and incarcerated for consuming drugs.
When volunteers visited, Madam E was shocked and unaware that her son was incarcerated. She was of course saddened to hear this, and was wondering why her youngest son had not been visiting her. Her only wish is to be able to see her son turn over a new leaf before she dies.
She live on her own and has to move about the house with a walker. She has several children but only one daughter will visit her occasionally. She leaves her door open all the time in case she requires help. Her neighbor living opposite will help her to get food sometimes.
Madam E was referred to Project Starfish, our local seniors befriending program. Since then, our volunteer befrienders visit her regularly. She has participated in several outings and activities. Because she is on a wheelchair, our volunteers would go to her house and push her down to take the transport. She has become a much cheerful person and is always looking forward to participate in any community events or activities. She has expressed her gratitude that she can get to mingle with the other seniors and an opportunity to leave the house.
Case Study 2: Madam A
18. Similar to the example of Madam E is Madam A, a lady in her 70s staying alone in her rental block. Her elder son, the sole bread-winner was incarcerated. And both her 2 younger children are not in contact with her. Our YR also referred her to Project Starfish for senior befriending. Project Starfish was able to just about to visit her, but also build a support network around her. Firstly, they got the local RC to actively invite her for activity. The local RC chair Mr Wong, RC member James and RC manager Yati visit her regularly and invite her for events. She is also given extra food rations.
Secondly, the Project Starfish volunteer was able to check with our CDWF to ensure that she was having the appropriate government assistance from MSF and MUIS, and when we realized she urgently needed a bed, our volunteers bought her one as well.
Therefore, the success of our YR efforts in reaching out to Madam E and Madam A is also due to our ability to deliver community level social service to help our seniors.
Next Steps for Kebun Baru
20. Let me share a final story of a family. This family did not go through the Yellow Ribbon project formally, but we assisted them.
I met an ex-offender at a house visit. His wife left him and he had difficulty holding his job. He was depressed, and both his young daughters were not going to pre-school. I helped him out at MPS, and settled both his children at Child@St11, a preschool that’s used to dealing with challenging backgrounds.
Both girls are doing very well. One of them even wrote an essay that was compiled into a book that was given to Madam President, who visited their childcare. The kids doing well gave this resident a lot of hope.
21. It is stories like this that gives our volunteers to energy to move on. So what is our next step at Kebun Baru?
22. Moving forward, we also want to encourage recipients of Yellow Ribbon to become volunteers. Today, we already have a few volunteers who are ex-offenders. But it will be nice to able to convert our local recipients into role models.
23. We would like to strengthen our eco-system of support to ex-offenders, especially by curating employers who are willing to give ex-offenders a chance.
24. Our group of volunteer lawyers is also working on proposals on how we can adjust the threshold of offences that, under the Registration of Criminal offense, can be struck off.
25. Let me now conclude. Singapore’s approach of justice – in the law, and the prison system – is designed to be rehabilitative. Our prison officers see themselves as Captains of Lives, rather than mere wardens of good behavior.
26. But when it comes to Rehabilitation and Hope for our ex-offenders and their families, it must stretch beyond our laws, beyond the prison wall, and reach out into the community, and into the hearts of our people.
27. And hence I would like by thanking all of you here today, for being that bridge of Rehabilitation and Hope from our ex-offenders to society.
a. Your work is inspiring, and important.
28. I look forward to meeting you and learning from you over lunch today.
29. Thank you.