The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2016 - John Shu

Life-changing kindness

After striking up a conversation on the bus and hearing her story, technician John Shu decided to give a single mother $6,000 for her studies.
Mr Shu says he did not see Ms Tay as someone who had gone to prison before, but just as another human being who needed help.
Mr Shu says he did not see Ms Tay as someone who had gone to prison before, but just as another human being who needed help.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Mr John Shu, 50, earns just over $2,000 a month working as a mechanic for the Traffic Police.

But when he struck up an unlikely friendship with a former offender - who spoke to him about pursuing her education to better her lot in life - he did not hesitate to give her three months of his salary to pay for her school fees and other expenses.

Recalling the encounter, Mr Shu said he and two friends were on their way home from Yishun after a meal in late 2013.

Though they usually rode motorcycles, that day, they had to take the bus instead as their motorbikes were being repaired.

Ms Jaycie Tay, now 32, was on her way back to her halfway house in Sembawang - where she was finishing her 18-month sentence for drug offences - after attending a floristry workshop.

Mr Shu said: "She was carrying a big vase of flowers, and her friend had a bouquet in her hand. It looked quite out of place on the bus, and my friends started joking with her."

A friendship blossomed, and both of them started meeting regularly.

Ms Tay was introduced to drugs by her friends as a teenager, dropped out of school and was jailed twice for drug offences.

She was divorced twice and had four children. But she was determined to get her life back on track.

She knew she would have a better future with a diploma but did not have the money to pay for school.

Mr Shu, who himself has two children aged 19 and 22, was moved by her plight.

He said: "She was close to tears when she talked about her past, and she did not have anyone else who could support her. Every time I met her, she said she wanted to study.

"I did not see her as someone who had gone to prison before, but just as another human being who needed help."

When he offered to fund her studies, she decided to enrol at the Kaplan Higher Education Institute after she finished serving her sentence.

Eight months later, in December 2014, she graduated with a diploma in marketing management.

Mr Shu said: "She said she would pay me back but I told her to concentrate on upgrading herself first." He told her that he and his wife, a hawker, had enough for themselves.

Naysayers questioned Mr Shu's motives, and his wife initially misunderstood their friendship, but Mr Shu put her mind at ease.

"I see her as a sister," said Mr Shu, who saw the potential for Ms Tay to do well in life.

"I'm illiterate, and I would rather someone else take this chance to further their education."

Last month, Ms Tay started a part-time course for a bachelor's in business studies in management, with an award from the Yellow Ribbon Fund Star Bursary.

The degree is awarded by University College Dublin.

Ms Tay, an administrative assistant, said she still finds the scale of Mr Shu's generosity unbelievable.

She said: "Without him, I wouldn't know where I would be. Now my life has been transformed, and I'm living a better life."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Life-changing kindness'. Print Edition | Subscribe