Drug trafficker-turned-social worker among 30 ex-offenders in new book on how they left their past behind

The book highlights particular sentences that have helped the 30 ex-offenders in their journeys of transformation and rehabilitation.
The book highlights particular sentences that have helped the 30 ex-offenders in their journeys of transformation and rehabilitation.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - "Your start to life does not determine your destination."

This is a quote social worker Thomas Liao found inspiring during his rehabilitation journey, after a 3½-year stint behind bars for drug trafficking.

He found meaning in it during his personal reflection as he struggled to leave his troubled past behind, Mr Liao, 33, told The Straits Times.

He had a bad start in life, with his parents divorcing when he was just three years old, and he was raised by his aunt.

He took a wrong turn, taking and trafficking in drugs, mostly synthetic drugs like Ecstasy and ketamine, to numb his pain and make money. This lifestyle eventually landed him with a 5½-year jail sentence in 2008.

During his prison stint, he found hope and guidance from his Christian faith. He realised the importance of family and relationships, and upon his release in 2011, due to a two-year remission period, decided to become a social worker to help families.

His journey from drug trafficker to social worker was featured in January 2018 in a Straits Times series on millennials who defy the odds, and he was one of three people picked in 2019 for the first ST Generation Grit awards out of a field of 24.

Mr Liao’s quote is one of 30 featured in a new book launched on Saturday (Dec 5) by Architects of Life (AOL), a non-profit social enterprise focused on training and mentoring young people at risk, former offenders and disadvantaged individuals.

The book, My Sentence To Success, highlights particular sentences that have helped the 30 former offenders in their journeys of transformation and rehabilitation.

It is the second such publication from the group, following its first, From Stereotypes To Archetypes, launched two years ago, which featured stories of six former offenders.

Speaking at AOL's sixth-anniversary celebrations held at Genius Central in Far East Square, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said he hopes the new book can inspire other former offenders to make a positive change, and bring greater awareness of their rehabilitation struggles to society.

He also highlighted the critical role that community partners such as churches and help groups like AOL play, citing as an example AOL's Breakthrough Accelerator Training Programme, which helps former offenders discover their passions, talents and strengths, develop a positive mindset, and provides them mentorship.

"They come in because prison officers and government alone can only go so far. But the additional dimensions - the spiritual dimension, the religious dimension, the dimensions outside - these can only be given by additional volunteers with their hearts and their minds," he said.

In his speech, Mr Shamugam also reiterated the Singapore Prison Service's approach to rehabilitating former offenders, noting how it was "pulling in the same direction" as community groups like AOL.

"In the past, in many countries, when you have done something wrong, you are put into prison, and then you go out. Prison is seen as a place where you are to be kept out of trouble, and you are released. Very often, people come back, and that's called the recidivism rate," he said.

He said that Singapore's shift in approach towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society, saw the recidivism rate fall from around 44 per cent for those released in 1998, to 24 per cent for those released in 2017.

That recidivism rate is calculated based on former offenders returning to prison within two years of their release. Mr Shanmugam noted that the five-year recidivism rate is higher and is "a work in progress".

Mr Shanmugam explained that inmates today get counselled to identify and address behavioural issues, and undergo programmes to learn skills to get them employed upon their release.

"The second major part is when the inmates get released. The people who got them in trouble in the first place, the reason why they went to prison or are in prison, are the people waiting outside when they are coming out," said Mr Shanmugam, stressing the need for strong family and community support for them to stay on the right track.

Mr Glenn Lim, founder and chairman of AOL, said: "I commend each book subject's bravery to share their stories and identities that we all might be motivated likewise in our quests for excellence as they were.

"My challenge to you is to also start utilising the power of words to spark healing, blessing and goodness into others. You never know how your sentences can contribute to their success one day."

My Sentence To Success can be purchased on the AOL website at $20 for a copy, $50 for three and $75 for five.