Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, at the Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award – Launch of 2019 Fundraising
27 Sep 2019 Posted in Speeches
Mr Noor Mohamed Marican, President of the Association of Muslim Lawyers (AML)
Ms Natasha Liok, Main Committee Member of the Yellow Ribbon Fund
Mr Matthew Wee, CEO of Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprise (SCORE)
Vimala, Sujesh, Sunil
Esteemed Religious Leaders
Friends, many of whom are friends of the late Subhas Anandan
- Thank you very much for inviting me to this event, I am so honoured to be here this evening, to be able to share the occasion, and to be up here addressing you.
Legacy of Mr Subhas Anandan
- All of us here know of the legacy of the man after whom this bursary award is named.
- He is known as the “Second Chance Lawyer”, not for no good reason. In his lifetime, he was well known for his compassion, his faith, and his firm and utter belief in the capacity of offenders to reform. He believed in them, and what he did rubbed off on so many people around him. It drove and single-mindedly motivated his work as a lawyer. I would say he was a good lawyer in his own right, but he was really a good lawyer, because he wanted to secure that second chance for his clients. That was what drove him, drove his passion, and made him the lawyer he was. Even after his passing, he continues to inspire the Yellow Ribbon movement and what it stands for.
- Everything you have heard in the speeches today, are all hallmarks of the principles that the late Mr Anandan was known for. His last book – It’s Easy to Cry – was published posthumously. In his book, Subhas shared about how he represented a young man, Sadayan Ajmeershah, who was at that time facing a charge of culpable homicide, which had been reduced from murder. Sadayan had heard about Subhas’ reputation - obviously, who hasn’t - and asked him to represent him in the sentencing submissions before the court. The Judge was very taken and moved by the mitigation plea that Subhas had made on behalf of Sadayan, and sentenced him to 9 years’ imprisonment, when he was otherwise looking potentially at life imprisonment.
- After the case, Sadayan was obviously very grateful to Subhas for charging only a nominal fee for all the hard work that he had put in, for the time he spent on the case. In response to Subhas’ kindness, Sadayan said “Do you want a kidney from me?” How did Subhas respond? He was of course grateful, but needless to say, he declined the offer. He said he had helped Sadayan not because he was a client in the usual sense, but because he knew he was not a bad person, and that he was thrown into circumstances which caused him to commit the offences and led to the outcome. He made Sadayan instead promise to make good on his second chance, to live up to the opportunities that he had been given in the second chance, and to pay it forward.
- In many ways, I would say Subhas’ legacy lives on today, because so many ex-offenders, so many lives that he has touched continues to pay it forward. That is one of his legacies. I thought this anecdote aptly demonstrates the type of person that Subhas was: he never did things by half measures. If he decided he was in it, he was in it for the long haul. He clearly touched the lives of those he represented in a very uncommon way, because of his passion and his commitment. He often left a deep and long-lasting impression, not just on the client, but also on the family, and the social circle around the client as well.
- That is something you can really only do, if what motivates you is not first, financial or commercial considerations, or even second, what you might do as a lawyer, but because he firmly believed in the fundamental goodness of people. Even if they might have caused offence in the past, he believed that opportunities should be given to these offenders.
- To have a fund aimed at benefiting ex-offenders, giving them opportunities, giving them a second start in life, especially for those who want to pursue further studies, is really a befitting way to honour and continue his legacy.
Impact of the Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award
- The Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award was established in 2014 and as you have heard, raised about $326,000 through the various fund-raising activities in memory of the late Mr Subhas. It has been facilitated by the Association of Muslim Lawyers under Mr Noor Marican’s charge, and I understand that the proceeds from the launch of his book “It’s Easy to Cry” also went towards the fundraising efforts of this Bursary.
- From 2015 to 2018, a total of $152,200 was disbursed out of this fund. It supported 15 ex-offenders to pursue tertiary education. 10 of them have graduated and are now paying it forward, making their own difference to the lives of other people, and to impact the people around them as well.
- One such beneficiary is in his mid-forties. He had been incarcerated several times for drug-related offences. He participated in activities in the Prisons’ Performing Arts Centre (PAC) when he was incarcerated. He had wanted to pursue further studies in Music when he finished his time in prison, but due to financial constraints, he was unable to do so. Eventually, he was awarded the Yellow Ribbon Fund Subhas Anandan Star Bursary Award and that allowed him to pursue his dream, to pursue his passion, and he completed his Diploma in Music Production and Engineering. Today, he is performing as an artist. He now regularly gives back to society by performing at various platforms to support social causes, and he himself has taken on the role of mentoring offenders who are serving in PAC. He has obviously learnt from his own experience, benefited from it, and decided that the best thing to do is really to pay it forward and to take on the role of mentor to other ex-offenders.
Rehabilitation and reintegration initiatives
- This brings me to my next point on rehabilitation. It is a core principle and a core motivation behind the Yellow Ribbon Fund. It is recognised as one of the four key objectives of our sentencing regime. Those of you who are familiar with it will know that there is also the deterrence, the prevention and the retribution aspects. They are all important.
- I will say that there is now a growing and indeed wider acceptance that offenders must be given a chance to be rehabilitated and to be reintegrated into society. We are all here really, because we believe firmly that rehabilitation and reintegration would be crucial to helping an ex-offender escape the cycle of reoffending. The video you saw earlier about unlocking the second prison gates, aptly and graphically demonstrates it. We should not cause ex-offenders to feel the stigma and the artificial glass ceiling that will be imposed on them, whether it is society or employers, simply because they are ex-offenders.
- The Government agrees with this and regards rehabilitation as one of the core principles and core considerations behind our prison regime. We have directed a lot of efforts towards rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders. Recognising that successful rehabilitation and reintegration really requires the partnership and support of multiple stakeholders. It cannot be SCORE or the Yellow Ribbon Fund alone, it cannot be the Government alone, it cannot be AML and the lawyers alone. It has really got to be a multi-faceted dynamic integration of all these various stakeholders, so that we can allow the offender to first, help himself through opportunities, like the YRF and this bursary award. Second, to help the offenders’ families to help them as well – to include the offenders’ families in this process, which I believe to be an important, if not more important part of the process of reintegration. Finally, helping society as a whole to reintegrate and help offenders. I will go a little bit further and say, perhaps we need to also take steps to embrace the ex-offenders. So that artificial glass ceiling will no longer be felt.
- Let me touch on a few recent initiatives that the government has put together.
Helping offenders help themselves
(a) Community-Based Sentences
- First, community-based sentences (CBS), which you know was introduced in 2011. It combines punishment with rehabilitation, and in fact, the rehabilitation aspect of that has grown stronger over the years. When implemented well and in suitable cases, it gives offenders a good chance at rehabilitation. It prepares them for reintegration earlier; they live and serve out the sentence in society and in the community. There are various types of CBS ranging from mandatory treatment orders to short detention orders. Mandatory treatment orders really aim at trying to treat the ex-offender, and find ways to better reintegrate him into society.
- Since 2018, the Government has made CBS available to more offenders, and for a broader range of offences than it was the case previously, so that such offenders can benefit from the rehabilitative aspect of CBS, but at the same time making sure that we strike the appropriate balance between the rehabilitation and reintegration aspect of the ex-offender, and also safety and security of the community.
(b) Becoming a Learning Prison Initiative
- Second, we have targeted programmes in our prisons which help offenders with their rehabilitation process. One of them is the “Becoming a Learning Prison” initiative.
- This initiative was launched early this year, and its key features include beginning the rehabilitation process immediately after the offender enters prison, to allow for even more time for rehabilitation. Offenders are encouraged to be active learners, to take ownership of their rehabilitation journey, to chart out goals and make plans for their own self-improvement. In other words, we try and take into account what the ex-offender himself thinks, and not try to pigeon-hole the ex-offender into programmes that may not be something they want to do, and may not be something that will useful for them after they are out of prison.
- A weekly motivational programme with prison officers and fellow offenders – known as “Looking Forward” – was also introduced. This helps the offender to plan, together with his supervisors in Prisons to curate a programme, and not to treat the offender effectively like a digit, like one of many, and get shuffled into one programme or another. Instead, we try and take some pains to curate the programmes and the learning so that more offenders will benefit from a broader spectrum of these programmes. All of these are intended to create a longer-lasting mind-set change in offenders, because overall if they feel empowered, if they feel they have a skill that is relevant and that society values, they can play a role back in society. That is half the battle won.
Helping offenders families to help them – Supporting families of offenders
- Third, helping the offenders’ families to help them is one of the key pillars that we want to encourage, and over time, strengthen. We recognise that families of offenders also need support and very often, helping the offenders also means helping the families of the offenders. Prisons has various programmes to help offenders build stronger relationships with their families, during the period when they are in prison and also after the period when they are released from prison.
- We have introduced a trial to strengthen bonds between offenders and their families known as the ‘Family Interventions & Reintegration Support Team’ (‘FIRST’). Family Case Managers work also with officers and experts from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) – they have the domain expertise in this aspect. They also work with community partners to stabilise offenders’ families and to address their needs. Very often, the dislocation between the family and the ex-offender while he is in prison causes a strain on the family, and these officers from MSF and the community partners help to manage that tension.
Helping society to help offenders
- Finally, helping society to help offenders. That is where the Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP) plays such a big part, to create awareness, generate acceptance, and inspire action to give offenders a second chance at restarting their lives. The numerous YRP initiatives have helped raised a high level of awareness and support for the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-offenders.
- The Government at our highest levels have been very supportive of these initiatives. Many of the most senior members of our Cabinet, such as Prime Minister, Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam have regularly graced events organised by the Yellow Ribbon Project over the years.
- The Government also set up the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprise (SCORE) in 1976, to support inmates in finding jobs so that they are better prepared ahead of time, and can come back into society with their feet touching the ground and running immediately.
- I am pleased to see that SCORE has grown from strength to strength. In 2018, SCORE assisted over 2,300 ex-offenders to find employment before release. That is a significant milestone. To know and to look forward to reintegration into society before you are released from prison, to know that that is your objective, and that is what you work towards. This makes a big difference to their mindset.
- Through the YRP and SCORE, we have helped change public perception of ex-offenders, and assisted them with obtaining jobs, which also gives them a sense of purpose and belonging in the society, and also a degree of financial security and independence. I would say that is crucial in helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society, but I would add that it really takes the whole of society’s effort to do so.
- Perhaps more than just the financial considerations, more than just what the bursaries can offer, more than what the awards, the scholarships can offer, it is really the acceptance of society and the seamless reintegration back into society that matters the most to ex-offenders. Money, they can make over time. Acceptance, not so easy.
- It behoves us as a society to work together, not to let the ex-offenders feel that when they come out of prison, they still have to win over society, and to feel the stigma and albatross around their neck that they cannot get rid of. That is the one part of the Yellow Ribbon Project that we can do better in, and we will do better in.
- At the end of the chapter in Subhas’ book on Sadayan’s story, Subhas wrote the following: “I always feel that society at large is very judgemental about ex-inmates. Some of them are genuinely eager to turn over a new leaf. It is very sad when, in all reality, it becomes hard when they try to get back on track but fail to do so as they have already been ostracised by society. Inevitably, without proper guidance and support, many fall back into a life of crime to survive. I hope that sometime soon, society will become more understanding and compassionate, and welcome them back into the fold.”
- These years on since Subhas wrote these words, I would like to think that he would be pleased with the progress that we have made, not just on the Yellow Ribbon side, but all of us as a society. Can we do more? Yes, I think we can. These steps show that we have matured as a society, and developed as a society, as we rehabilitate and reintegrate our ex-offenders.
- Seeing the impact of this Bursary programme, which has been made possible by the relentless efforts of the AML, I am certain Subhas himself would have been heartened by these efforts. I urge everyone here today to continue to support the fundraising activities. This is the start, not the end of the fundraising efforts. As Mr Marican said, he had only sent out 10% of the letters. There is a lot more to go, and I hope that we look beyond our day- to-day needs and see what we can do for this fund.
- I think Subhas would agree that today that with these steps – through the efforts of YRF, SCORE, AML and so many of all of you here, we have come a little bit closer to becoming the compassionate and understanding society that he had written about and that he had envisioned. On that note, I thank you very much once again for being here, and for the contributions that you made to these programmes. I look forward to the day where we can effectively say that ex-offenders will seamlessly, and without any stigma, reintegrate into society as if they were one of our own.
- Thank you very much.
Last updated on 27 Sep 2019