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Couple lost son in Downtown East gang fight in 2010, but now save his friends

Parents of teen hacked to death in gang attack open their home to troubled youth

Published on Feb 23, 2014 10:10 PM
 

It was hard enough attending the wake of his 19-year-old son Darren, who was hacked to death in one of the most vicious gang attacks here in recent years.

But Mr Francis Ng's anger grew when a group of tattooed youth came to pay their respects to their dead friend. They were partly to blame, he thought.

Now some of these same young people, and others like them, call him and his wife Joyce Tan "Godpa" and "Godma".

The couple have become akin to foster parents for 30 or so troubled young people, hosting dinners twice a month, listening to their problems, helping them stay in school and keep on the right path.

In their new apartment, they converted a room, which had been meant for Darren, into an entertainment centre for them.

Mr Ng, together with a friend, is also organising a golf tournament on July 18, at Seletar Country Club, to raise funds for troubled young people.

"I had already lost my son. I didn't want other parents to lose theirs," said the 53-year-old businessman.

"At first I wanted to find out more about Darren from them. But as I spent time with them, I realised they were vulnerable and on the brink of getting into gangs. I felt a need to reach out to them."

Still, it took several months after the killing for the bitterness to start to fade.

At 5.30pm on Oct 30, 2010, the Republic Polytechnic student suffered 28 injuries to his head, neck, chest and limbs caused by choppers, knives and a screwdriver in a gang attack outside a restaurant in the Downtown East mall in Pasir Ris.

Darren, who was himself armed with a retractable baton, died in hospital about five hours later.

That such a brazen attack could take place in full view at a suburban centre in modern Singapore shocked the country, and put the spotlight on gangs and how a "staring" incident was all it took to spark a fight.

A dozen youth were charged and eventually sent to jail.

As Mr Ng and his wife, who also have a daughter, struggled to cope, they started to share their grief with Darren's friends, got to know them and stopped judging them.

"I used to frown at youth with tattoos," said Madam Tan, 51, who works as a secretary. "When I found out my son had one, I screamed and cried. I couldn't bring myself to look at it.

"Now I am at ease with this group. And I have the privilege of having them open up to me. They have shared things with me which they probably wouldn't have told their parents.

"Even my son didn't share so much with me."

They would talk about relationship issues and problems at work and school. Besides gathering at their home, the couple would take them out individually for a dinner or a movie, and give advice.

Madam Tan said: "Now that I treat them like my own children, it is hard not to have expectations of them. Like when they promised me how they would quit smoking and didn't manage to - those things will upset me."

From seven of Darren's friends, the group has grown to about 30 youth. "We let them bring their friends to our house. Some are from good families, some are from broken families. But they get along very well," said Mr Ng.

For the young people, Darren's parents provide the attention they crave.

"They filled the need for us to be loved and be cared for," said one youth, who used to be close to Darren but asked not to be named. "They are very generous and kind. Godpa even paid for a degree course for one of my friends."

For some, Darren's death was a wake-up call.

"It could have happened to me or any one of my friends," said another youth.

"I saw how his family struggled with the crisis. Me and the other boys, we tried our best to be with Godma.

"She sees Darren in us. That really allowed the beginning of the healing process."

Said Madam Tan: "They are still so young and have many challenges ahead of them. I have come to love them like I loved my son."

joycel@sph.com.sg

 

Background story

From grief to concern

"At first I wanted to find out more about Darren from them. But as I spent time with them, I realised they were vulnerable and on the brink of getting into gangs. I felt a need to reach out to them."

MR FRANCIS NG, on his new "godchildren"

Outpouring of affection

"They filled the need for us to be loved and be cared for. They are very generous and kind. Godpa even paid for a degree course for one of my friends."

ONE YOUTH, who used to be close to Darren but asked not to be named


POLICE PROBE INTO FATAL GANG FIGHT CONTINUES

More than three years after polytechnic student Darren Ng Wei Jie, 19, was killed in a gang fight at Downtown East, police investigations are still ongoing.

The Sunday Times understands that at least one witness was recently called up by police to give his statement.

Of the 12 youths charged, five were jailed for between eight and 12 years and ordered to be caned between 10 and 12 strokes in 2012 for their roles in the attack.

Ringleader Stilwell Ong Keat Pin, who was 20 when sentenced, received the heaviest sentence of 12 years' jail and 12 strokes. He had started the fight and slashed Darren with a chopper.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan, who represented Chong Rui Hong and Ng Wei Lun, two of the 12, said that it was not unusual for criminal cases to stretch for years.

"Unlike civil cases, criminal proceedings have no limitation rule," he explained. "It is also possible that the youths involved have other cases pending investigations."

Both his clients had their charges reduced to rioting.

Ng, who was 19 at the time of the assault, received the lightest sentence - three years and three months in jail, plus three strokes of the cane.

Chong, who was jailed for four years with three strokes of the cane, was released last July. His sentence was backdated to November 2010 when he was remanded.

Chong, now 23, told The Sunday Times in a phone interview on Friday that he has found a job selling popcorn and is determined to start life afresh.

"I am studying part-time and I plan to re-sit my O levels this year," he said.

Asked how the incident had changed his life, he replied: "It was only when I was in jail that I started thinking of the kind of future I wanted for myself.

"I want to get my O levels and get into a local polytechnic. I believe that is the route to a good future."

A witness to the incident, who cannot be named, told The Sunday Times that the incident had also changed his life drastically.

"I have not gotten over it. I just keep working, keep myself busy and try very hard to lead a normal life," he said. "I work hard to support my family, whom I cherish and spend more time with now."

He still thinks about his friend Darren.

"I have his photos in my mobile phone," he said.

"I've thought of helping take care of his parents, yet I don't want them to feel sad when they see me as I will bring back memories of that day."

Joyce Lim