SINGAPORE - About one year into serving his jail sentence for drug-related offences in 2019, George (not his real name) resolved to turn his life around after realising that his parents were getting older.
The inmate recounted how his mother, who is in her 60s, worried that no one would visit him after she and his 70-year-old father are no longer around.
"When she said this, I realised that both of them could just leave (at any time) and then, I'd have nobody. I don't even have a home," said the 27-year-old, who has an older sister.
Last year, George enrolled in a Diploma in International Supply Chain Management course at the prison school and achieved a 3.88 grade point average out of 4 points.
On Wednesday (Nov 17), he was the master of ceremonies at the National Youth Achievement Award (NYAA) as well as one of 33 inmates who received the gold award at the event, where Education Minister Chan Chun Sing was present.
The NYAA programme, which aims to help young people between the ages of 16 and 30 develop personal qualities such as perseverance and responsibility for themselves and the community, was introduced to prison school inmates in 2000.
Participants spend up to four hours weekly on activities such as outdoor survival skills, and voluntary service and fund-raising projects. Those awarded gold have participated in activities over a minimum of 18 months.
In his speech, Mr Chan said more than 2,000 inmates have since completed the NYAA programme, which has been extended to other prison institutions, including the Women's Prison and the Reformative Training Centre.
Said George: "I never knew that from just participating and putting in effort, I can actually give back to society."
A total of 82 inmates from the Changi Prison Complex and Tanah Merah Centre finished the NYAA programme this year and received gold, silver or bronze awards - the three achievement levels in the programme.
Superintendent of Prisons Wong Jin Wen noted that fewer inmates completed the programme than in previous years because many activities had to be postponed or adjusted due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Some inmates were released before they could finish all the activities, said the officer-in-charge of the prison school.
In the past, more than 100 inmates finished the course each year.
At the awards ceremony, the Education Minister commended the creative changes made to this year's NYAA programme, which included a vertical marathon, to adapt to the pandemic.
The event saw Sport Singapore donate a pair of new running shoes to Be Kind SG for every participant who climbed 40 floors.
A total of 32 pairs of new shoes were given to young people from Thye Hua Kwan Home for Disabled @ Sembawang.
For George, sacrificing his free time on weekends to train for the marathon taught him the value of persevering through hardship to achieve his goals, something he wish he knew before entering prison.
He said: "Previously, I would give up easily. If I wanted to do something that I could not get, I would find the easy way out."
Another inmate, Isaac (not his real name), who has served one year of his sentence for housebreaking and received the NYAA gold award, was especially touched by his experience creating jigsaw puzzles for children with disabilities from social service organisation Rainbow Centre.
The 19-year-old said: "It was touching to see a video montage of the children receiving what we did for them."
Rehabilitation officer N. Balakumaran, 29, who coordinated this year's NYAA programme in Institution Tanah Merah 1, noted a change in Isaac. He said the youth was initially very quiet but, over time, grew confident, helping fellow inmates in knot-tying, an activity under the programme.
Isaac has decided, for his mother's sake, to avoid crime when he is released and hopes to help in his parents' business.
He said: "My mother was very supportive (of me joining the programme). She said all these little acts of kindness will impact lives."
Citing George and Isaac as people who have benefited from the programme in his speech, Mr Chan urged the recipients to strive on and continue pursuing their dreams.
"You should all be very proud of your acts of kindness," said the Education Minister.
"Kindness strengthens our communal bonds, and will build bridges with the society that awaits your return."
On returning to society, both George and Isaac hope to continue giving to the community, regardless of any stigma they may face.
Said Isaac: "Even if some people in the community may not accept me because of my criminal record, I will not choose to dwell on it. I will choose to spread my positivity to people who should deserve it."