SINGAPORE - It was in prison school, while spending 12 hours a day preparing for his O and A levels, that Mr Mohammad Azahari Abdul Razak realised studying was something he could be good at.
The 38-year-old did well enough to enrol in a chemical engineering course at Singapore Polytechnic. He did this after finishing his prison sentence in 2014 for drug-related offences.
Mr Azahari also received support from a Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) bursary programme, which fully sponsors low-income ex-offenders pursuing a tertiary education after their release.
In 2018, he secured his diploma, before gaining full-time employment as a service technician in a water treatment company.
On Friday (May 17), Mr Azahari attended the fund's Charity Gala Dinner 2019, which raised over $1.8 million.
The record sum will benefit more than 3,000 inmates, ex-offenders and their families, by providing rehabilitative and aftercare services for the ex-offenders, which include the bursary programme.
In 2017, the biennial gala raised over $1.1 million for the fund.
Over 600 corporate and individual donors attended the event at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel. The guest of honour was Mr Teo Chee Hean, Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security.
Ms Charlotte Yew, 55, who sits on the Yellow Ribbon Fund board, said tertiary education is "a key missing piece" in allowing ex-offenders to get better jobs through better credentials and training.
CIMB Bank Singapore was the largest donor at the gala event.
The bank's country head and chief executive Mak Lye Mun, 61, said: "Everyone starts at different levels in life. We need to give ex-convicts a chance to make it and, to me, education is the best way for someone to move up."
In 2018, the fund also introduced career coaching for bursary applicants, where they receive practical advice and resources to help them define their career goals and to prepare them for their intended field of study.
Mr Azahari shared that it was through this coaching that he decided on the career path he took.
He said: "When we leave prison, most of us want to change. But a lot depends on our circumstances. Community support plays an important role."
After serving a 13-year sentence, Mr Azahari was contacted by friends on the wrong side of the law upon his release in 2014.
Had he not received support, he believes he would have had fallen back onto the wrong path.
The fund also supports the family and children of offenders through the Yellow Brick Road programme, which provides parenting workshops, tuition classes and social enrichment workshops for families and children among others.
To date, more than 80 families have benefited from the programme.
Ms Yew said this Yellow Brick Road programme aims to break the "generational effect" of a prison sentence.
"We want to prevent them from going into the same negative cycle," she added, referring to the environment that many children of ex-offenders grow up in, as well as the stigma they may face due to their parents' sentence.
Since last year, Mr Azahari has decided to pay forward the help he received.
He is now a Yellow Ribbon Community Project volunteer, visiting the families of newly-admitted inmates and channelling them to agencies that can provide assistance.
To ex-offenders who are struggling, he said: "It's never easy but you must believe in yourself and have the willpower to change. Finding positive surroundings is also very important."
At the gala dinner, Mrs Wong Ai Ai, chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Fund, said: "We are grateful for the continued backing of our donors, which has allowed YRF to develop impactful programmes.
"YRF relies on community support to achieve collective impact in making a difference and giving ex-offenders and their families a second chance."