Couple lost son, but save his friends

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 23, 2014

It was hard enough attending the wake of his 19-year-old son Darren, who was hacked to death in one of the most vicious gang attacks here in recent years.

But Mr Francis Ng's anger grew when a group of tattooed youth came to pay their respects to their dead friend. They were partly to blame, he thought.

Now some of these same young people, and others like them, call him and his wife Joyce Tan "Godpa" and "Godma".

The couple have become akin to foster parents for 30 or so troubled young people, hosting dinners twice a month, listening to their problems, helping them stay in school and keep on the right path.

In their new apartment, they converted a room, which had been meant for Darren, into an entertainment centre for them.

Mr Ng, together with a friend, is also organising a golf tournament on July 18, at Seletar Country Club, to raise funds for troubled young people.

"I had already lost my son. I didn't want other parents to lose theirs," said the 53-year-old businessman.

"At first I wanted to find out more about Darren from them. But as I spent time with them, I realised they were vulnerable and on the brink of getting into gangs. I felt a need to reach out to them."

Still, it took several months after the killing for the bitterness to start to fade.

At 5.30pm on Oct 30, 2010, the Republic Polytechnic student suffered 28 injuries to his head, neck, chest and limbs caused by choppers, knives and a screwdriver in a gang attack outside a restaurant in the Downtown East mall in Pasir Ris.

Darren, who was himself armed with a retractable baton, died in hospital about five hours later.

That such a brazen attack could take place in full view at a suburban centre in modern Singapore shocked the country, and put the spotlight on gangs and how a "staring" incident was all it took to spark a fight.

A dozen youth were charged and eventually sent to jail.

As Mr Ng and his wife, who also have a daughter, struggled to cope, they started to share their grief with Darren's friends, got to know them and stopped judging them.

"I used to frown at youth with tattoos," said Madam Tan, 51, who works as a secretary. "When I found out my son had one, I screamed and cried. I couldn't bring myself to look at it.

"Now I am at ease with this group. And I have the privilege of having them open up to me. They have shared things with me which they probably wouldn't have told their parents.

"Even my son didn't share so much with me."

They would talk about relationship issues and problems at work and school. Besides gathering at their home, the couple would take them out individually for a dinner or a movie, and give advice.

Madam Tan said: "Now that I treat them like my own children, it is hard not to have expectations of them. Like when they promised me how they would quit smoking and didn't manage to - those things will upset me."

From seven of Darren's friends, the group has grown to about 30 youth. "We let them bring their friends to our house. Some are from good families, some are from broken families. But they get along very well," said Mr Ng.

For the young people, Darren's parents provide the attention they crave.

"They filled the need for us to be loved and be cared for," said one youth, who used to be close to Darren but asked not to be named. "They are very generous and kind. Godpa even paid for a degree course for one of my friends."

For some, Darren's death was a wake-up call.

"It could have happened to me or any one of my friends," said another youth.

"I saw how his family struggled with the crisis. Me and the other boys, we tried our best to be with Godma.

"She sees Darren in us. That really allowed the beginning of the healing process."

Said Madam Tan: "They are still so young and have many challenges ahead of them. I have come to love them like I loved my son."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 23, 2014

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to