Two "towkays" revealed sordid details of their "samseng" (Malay for gangster) youth - including how one of them was attacked with a 4ft-long parang - at Raffles Institution yesterday, eliciting audible gasps from the rapt audience.
The Straits Times senior writer Wong Kim Hoh, in a departure from the usual format of the Big Quiz talks, where journalists spoke on their areas of expertise, invited Mr Dennis Teo and Mr Harold Lee, two subjects from his " Wong Kim Hoh Meets" feature series.
The two ex-thugs turned businessmen - Mr Teo founded leading flooring specialist Evorich Holdings and Mr Lee is the founder of courier company XDel - spoke animatedly of their experiences in a panel discussion at the finale of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.
The fifth session and quiz rounded up this year's Big Quiz, jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education. Singapore Press Holdings Foundation is the presenting sponsor of the outreach programme, which includes 12 weekly primers on burning issues of the day.
When asked how a teen should react when confronted by a "pai kia" (colloquialism for a hooligan), Mr Lee said, to laughs from the students: "Count how many people there are (against you)."
He added, more soberly: "Be alert and always plan your escape route, or you die." This was one of the most important lessons he learnt from his days on the streets.
"You must always have a keen sense of danger, or you will not survive in the cut-throat world."
In the current affairs competition that followed, participants took his advice seriously, strategising and navigating their way through the schemes of their competitors.
It was Dunman High School which prevailed, beating host school Raffles Institution, Nanyang Junior college and St Andrew's Junior College, to win $600 in shopping vouchers; the rest received $150 in vouchers.
The winning team said they found ways to keep up with current affairs amid busy school schedules. Poh Bao Li, 17, one of the three members of the team, for instance, would scroll through news headlines on Twitter to ensure she had the latest updates.
Her teammate, Martin Kok, 17, referred to as many sources as he could, reading articles from newspapers, both local and foreign, including The Straits Times, New York Times and The Sun, so as to glean a wider perspective on issues.
The winners of the four previous quizzes this year were Yishun Junior College, Tampines Junior College, Catholic Junior College and NUS High School of Mathematics and Science.
The primers are published each Monday in the Opinion section of this paper till Aug 1.
•Additional reporting by Nur Syahiidah Zainal
•For more information on the quiz, go to www.straitstimes.com/tags/the-big-quiz
•For more information on ST Schools programme, go to www.straitstimes.com/stschools