SINGAPORE – Having been involved with gangs since he was a teenager, Albert Silvaraj has been in and out of prison thrice in his early 20s for offences ranging from unlawful assembly to voluntarily causing hurt with a weapon.
He “did not have any self-worth” at the time, he said.
“Each time I was released from prison, I really didn’t want to change. I could make a lot of money (from crime), and I didn’t care how I got the money as long as it was coming in,” said Mr Silvaraj, now 35.
“My mother was always telling me to change, but I just didn’t listen.”
Then in 2006, in a case that made the headlines, his father stabbed his mother to death in a fit of rage, and was sentenced to 10 years’ jail.
Just 25 at the time, Mr Silvaraj’s family flat was sold off, and without a place to call home, he spiralled into substance abuse.
“The gang let me down when I needed them,” he said.
In 2008, he was persuaded to go to halfway house Teen Challenge, though he was initially resistant as it was a faith-based programme.
“After my mother’s death, I still had a lot of anger in me. The Bible says to love your enemy, but how could I love my enemy when I couldn’t even love myself?”
But his time at Teen Challenge helped him to overcome his addiction problems and led him to his current career as a coach for at-risk youths.
His life experiences help him better empathise with their problems, he said.
“I was a Secondary Two dropout, I have body tattoos, I came from a broken home, so I know what they’re going through,” said Mr Silvaraj, who has a diploma in counselling psychology.
He was speaking to the media at the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run on Sunday (Sept 17). He took part in a 5km fun walk, with his wife, 33-year-old homemaker Shanthi Nila, and their five-month-old son Jeron Mervin.
Now in its ninth year, the run – which took runners past historical sites such as the Changi Chapel Museum and the gates of the Old Changi Prison Wall – attracted more than 7,000 participants this year (2017), and raised $123,500.
About $921,500 has been raised since 2009, when the run first took place, and this amount goes to programmes run by the Yellow Ribbon Project, aimed at helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society.
“We must open up our hearts, reach out to them and also help them, in whatever ways we can, to feel back at home in the community,” said Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, who flagged off the run.
“By opening up our minds and our hearts, we’ll become a better society, which will enable every one in Singapore toalways have an opportunity to make good in life and to be a contributing member of society.”
Leaving a life of crime and reintegrating into society is “not easy, but it can be done,” said Mr Silvaraj, adding that ex-offenders should not be afraid to approach organisations for help, such as the the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises or the Singapore After-Care Association.
“People might not know you need help. All you have to do is ask.”
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