Hope writ large for project to help ex-offenders

Mr Wu, (in dark blue shirt) and Mr Yeow at the Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh stall at Timbre+. The two teamed up with social entrepreneur Jabez Tan to pilot a project that will help marginalised groups in society, such as former offenders.
Mr Wu, (in dark blue shirt) and Mr Yeow at the Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh stall at Timbre+. The two teamed up with social entrepreneur Jabez Tan to pilot a project that will help marginalised groups in society, such as former offenders.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

For more than 20 years, entrepreneur Philip Wu was racked with guilt for neglecting a friend with whom he had struck up an unlikely connection in the army's detention barracks when they were going through national service.

But a serendipitous reunion, sparked by a Straits Times article about 49-year-old Barry Yeow's remarkable journey from a drug-addled convict to artist, prompted him to team up with Mr Yeow and social entrepreneur Jabez Tan, 42, to pilot a project that will help marginalised groups in society.

Started in April, Starfish Home aims to reach out to inmates who are due to be released by getting volunteers to write letters to them. When they re-enter society, the ex-offenders will be trained and then employed at pork rib eatery Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh's fourth outlet, at one-north eatery Timbre+.

They will be able to live together in a community, with rental costs paid for through profits from the stall and sponsorship.

Mr Yeow, who was released from prison last year after a 10-year sentence, said the pilot was mooted as they had identified a gap in the social support available for ex-offenders. "The main cause for the relapse of inmates is because they do not have a shelter. There are halfway houses available, but they may not suit those who are not inclined towards religion. When you're in prison, everything is covered, but when you're out, you're like a Nemo facing the ocean... I've been through it, and I understand how it feels."

There are already two beneficiaries living with two other workers in a three-room flat just 10 minutes' walk away from the stall.

The founders of the initiative have, with the help of prison counsellors, identified five inmates whom volunteers can start writing to before their release. So far, $5,000 has been raised for the project - half of their $10,000 target.

The idea for the letter-writing programme came from the history of their friendship. Mr Wu was an army lieutenant assigned to supervise a drug addict in the detention barracks; Mr Yeow was serving time for heroin offences and threatening his officers with a machete.

They kept in touch through letters during the time when Mr Yeow was in the detention barracks.

"(Barry)'s letters were beautiful manuscripts, written in ballpoint ink... I was impressed by his talent," said Mr Wu, 48, who has a degree in social work and sociology from the National University of Singapore.

These frequent exchanges drove home an important message for Mr Yeow - even when he received no family visits, there was somebody outside who cared.

"The objective is to get them to open up. When they see that someone cares, they will relate more to you. We will be able to see their potential as well as identify risks."

This trial will run till October. They also hope to reach out to people with disabilities.

In a nod to a famous story - about a boy who was intent on rescuing starfish washed up on a beach by tossing them back into the ocean, motivated by his confidence that his actions make a difference to each one despite detractors' comments about the futility of the exercise - Mr Yeow has painted a mural of the starfish scene on the stall's exterior.

Timbre+ stall chef James Giam, 48, has been working at Soon Huat since he was released from prison three years ago. He said that having a place to live allowed him to start leading a more stable life.

"There have been many times in the past when I've managed to find work but still remained homeless, and ended up going back to jail. People may have thought of me as being beyond repair.

"But I now have an ATM card and a mobile phone. It may seem like no big deal to everyone else - but I was really so happy when I registered for them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2016, with the headline 'Hope writ large for project to help ex-offenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe