It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Ex-convict helps others stay out of trouble

Former drug pusher makes it to university and does good by mentoring at-risk youth

Sunny Swee is sitting in the corner of a coffee shop in Bukit Batok Central, regaling me with the story of his life.

He speaks quietly, his even voice at odds with the drama and turbulence of his checkered past.

The 34-year-old has not always been so unobtrusive.

In fact, he was a menace in Bukit Batok. For more than 10 years from the age of 16, he was a hellraiser, running wild with a gang, taking delight in fights and activities illicit and illegal.

A gambling addict, he sold pirated VCDs and peddled drugs which he also consumed.

Mr Swee started a tuition programme for young people in Taman Jurong, He rushes from classes at NTU twice a week to give free mathematics tuition. In addition to giving tuition, Mr Swee organises activities to keep young people away from bad influenc
For more than 10 years since he was 16, Mr Swee ran wild with a gang, taking delight in activities illicit and illegal. He was sentenced to more than nine years in jail for gang and drug activities. Now he is a mathematics undergrad at NTU who gives tuition to youths twice a week. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He was thrown in the slammer three times, the last for eight years. That was when reality finally hit: He was hurtling towards disaster and he needed to change.

So he did.

Today, Mr Swee is a second-year student reading mathematics at Nanyang Technological University. Twice a week, he rushes to Taman Jurong after classes to give free tuition to youth at risk and children from underprivileged families. He also counsels and mentors troubled youth, steering them from the rocky path he once followed.

Mr Swee started a tuition programme for young people in Taman Jurong, He rushes from classes at NTU twice a week to give free mathematics tuition. In addition to giving tuition, Mr Swee organises activities to keep young people away from bad influenc
Mr Swee started a tuition programme for young people in Taman Jurong, He rushes from classes at NTU twice a week to give free mathematics tuition. PHOTO: SUNNY SWEE

Mr Swee has an interesting presence, his aggressive build and chunky biceps - tattooed with dragons and samurais - softened by a blemish-free complexion and a pair of glasses that gave him a studious appearance.

He is the younger of two children of an odd-job worker and a factory hand. When he was five, his mother leapt to her death from a block of flats. "She probably couldn't take the stress. My father was a gambler who owed a lot of debts, there was always not enough money. He also had another family," he says.

He has only vague memories of the tragic episode.

"My mother left us in the care of our aunt in the day and took us home after work. One night she didn't come. The next day, we were told that something had happened to her. I remember going to her funeral."

His stepmother - who has two children of her own - took him and his sister in. "It was the first time I discovered I had another mother," he says.

He did well in Dazhong Primary but his grades suffered when he went to Dunearn Secondary School.

There was never enough money at home because of his father's gambling habit so Mr Swee started working part-time in a fast-food joint when he was 14.

"I worked four or five days a week, from 5pm to 11 pm after school. On weekends, I worked 12 hours. I was always sleeping in class," says the former school prefect.

Three months before his O levels, he quit to concentrate on his exams. But by then, it was too late.

He failed.

Overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, he started mixing with members of a gang he met at a games arcade in Bukit Timah. They would hang out in coffee shops and drinking places, spoiling for trouble.

"Since I could not make something of my studies, I might as well do something completely opposite," he says sheepishly.

Moreover, they understood him and helped him forget the woes at home: the debt collectors who came knocking on their door late at night and the frequent fights his parents had over money.

"When you don't see any hope in your life, you just want to bond with these people who seem to be enjoying life. I felt needed, something I'd never felt before."

Brawls were almost a weekly affair. Once, he and five of his friends were set upon by nearly 20 members from a rival gang.

He was stabbed in the back with a broken bottle which pierced and punctured his lungs.

"I had to be hospitalised for a couple of days," he says.

To earn their keep, he and his friends got involved in the illegal VCD business.

"If you worked as a lookout, you could earn $50 to $100 a day. If you sold, you could make as much as $200 a day," says Mr Swee, who was caught when he was 18.

While out on bail, he was caught for the same offence again and was sentenced to five months in Admiralty West Prison.

The experience, he admits candidly, was not a deterrent.

"At night, you could watch TV, and in the morning, you could do your workout. It wasn't as bad or as scary as I thought it would be."

National service beckoned next, and kept him out of trouble for a while. But once it was over, he went back to his old ways. In fact, he became worse because he got addicted to online gambling.

He chalked up debts of more than $20,000.

"I had no choice but to sell drugs - Erimin, Ketamine, Ecstasy and Ice," he says, rattling off a list of synthetic drugs.

It was lucrative; he could make as much as $10,000 a month.

"But I didn't save. I just gambled more and drank more. It was about having fun, letting people know you have this sort of money, letting them know you have connections with drugs. It was famous for the wrong reasons," he says with a sigh.

The law caught up with him again in 2005, when he was 23; he was charged with possession and sentenced to 15 months in Selarang Drug Rehabilitation Centre.

Barely one week after his release, he was peddling narcotics again.

That resulted in another arrest more than a year later.

"It was an ambush. The police were tailing the courier, and after he passed the drugs to me, they arrested me."

Found guilty on several charges of trafficking and possession, he was sentenced in 2009 to more than eight years in Changi Prison.

"It was a real wake-up call. My mother told me, 'If you get caught again, you won't have a future any more.'"

He adds: "For the first time, I felt scared. I felt there was no meaning in life. I cried."

Mr Swee applied to continue his studies while he was in prison.

"I wasn't thinking about the future but how I could pass the time and make it useful," he says.

He took one year to prepare for his O levels and his results surpassed his expectations: four A1s and a credit.

"I guess my mindset was very different then. My classmates and I were very motivated. There was no distraction; the prison is actually a very good place to study," he quips.

Prison school changed his life in more ways than one.

"Education really broadened my perspectives. For the first time, I felt that my options were not limited. I felt I could do other things, things which are more meaningful."

Mr Swee went on to do his A levels in 2013, and obtained two As (maths and accounts) and a B (business studies).

"The teacher asked me what I was going to do when I was released. I said, 'Work lor.' He told me I should continue with my studies," he says.

With the help of a fellow inmate who was released earlier, he applied successfully for NTU which agreed to keep a place for him until his release from prison. "I was very emotional when I got my acceptance letter."

MINDSET CHANGE

Education really broadened my perspectives. For the first time, I felt that my options were not limited. I felt I could do other things, things which are more meaningful.

MR SUNNY SWEE, on how prison school changed his life in more ways than one.

He spent the rest of his sentence in Changi Prison teaching O- and A-level maths before he was released early last year for good behaviour.

"Teaching made me feel I was doing something useful, and it was very encouraging for me. I developed a strong bond with many of the students in prison because they knew I was there to help them. We still keep in contact," he says.

Upon his release, he sought the blessings of his stepmother to continue his studies. "I asked her if she needed me to help support the family. Mum said she could manage," says Mr Swee, whose stepmother runs a noodle stall and who divorced her husband in 2009.

"It was important for me so that I could focus on my studies for the next four years instead of thinking about the family. My mum is so happy that I now lead a very different life and she doesn't have to worry about me any more."

The Lee Foundation helped him with his course fees in the first year.

This year, he became a recipient of The Yellow Ribbon Fund-Singapore Academy of Law Skills Training Assistance to Restart Bursary. The bursary, started in 2014 with donations mainly from the legal community, helps financially disadvantaged ex-offenders get an education and skills training at local universities and private institutions.

Life as an undergrad, says Mr Swee, is interesting.

"My classmates are much younger and have very different lives. Some asked me how come I went to uni so late, and why I have so many tattoos.

"I tell some of my better friends about my past. With others, I just say that I have had some setbacks in life and am now starting anew."

Occasionally Mr Swee has lunch with his old buddies, some of whom have also turned over a new leaf.

"We are friends although I don't necessarily agree with what they do now and don't join them in their activities. In fact, I'm now tutoring one of their daughters," he says with a grin.

Whatever free time he has is spent helping out at Beacon of Life Academy, an outreach initiative to help at-risk boys and those from difficult family backgrounds in Taman Jurong. Beacon's founders are ex-offenders Darren Tan and Kim Whye Kee, now a lawyer and artist respectively.

Mr Swee says of the founders: "They advised me and taught me a lot. They helped me realise that my past could be used to inspire other people."

He started a tuition programme for young people in the neighbourhood, and counsels and mentors them. He also shares his experiences and his struggles, organising activities to keep them away from bad influences.

Mr Swee started a tuition programme for young people in Taman Jurong, He rushes from classes at NTU twice a week to give free mathematics tuition. In addition to giving tuition, Mr Swee organises activities to keep young people away from bad influenc
In addition to 
giving tuition, 
Mr Swee 
organises 
activities to 
keep young 
people away 
from bad 
influences. Here,
he is seen 
(seated, fourth 
from left) with 
some of the kids 
he tutors after 
a futsal 
competition in 
Tampines earlier 
this year. PHOTO: 
SUNNY SWEE

Teaching, he believes, is his calling.

"It's very fulfilling. I enjoy seeing people learn. I hope to open a tuition centre eventually. I don't think the Ministry of Education will hire anyone with a criminal background," he says with a shrug.

Mr Swee hopes to change perceptions of ex-offenders.

"Initially I was scared about letting people know about my past but I realised I shouldn't be affected and limited by other people's perceptions. How people choose to perceive me is their issue.

"My part is to do my best and be an example of changing for the better."

VIDEO

Sunny Swee got a second chance through education http://str.sg/4g4S

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Ex-convict helps others stay out of trouble'. Print Edition | Subscribe