Yellow Ribbon Prison Run: Ex-gangster knows how to help at-risk teens

Above: Mr Albert Silvaraj, who is now a coach for at-risk youth, with his wife Shanthi Nila and their son Jeron Mervin.
Above: Mr Albert Silvaraj, who is now a coach for at-risk youth, with his wife Shanthi Nila and their son Jeron Mervin.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM
Left: Participants all set for the ninth edition of Yellow Ribbon Prison Run. Above: Mr Albert Silvaraj, who is now a coach for at-risk youth, with his wife Shanthi Nila and their son Jeron Mervin.
Participants all set for the ninth edition of Yellow Ribbon Prison Run. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Youth counsellor among more than 7,000 who take part in Yellow Ribbon Prison Run

The steps he took as a youth landed him in prison three times but yesterday he walked for those who, like him, want to leave their previous life behind.

Mr Albert Silvaraj took part in a 5km fun walk yesterday, with his wife - 33-year-old housewife Shanthi Nila - and their five-month-old son Jeron Mervin. More than 7,000 participants turned up for the fun walk and the competitive segments of the Yellow Ribbon Prison Run, now in its ninth year.

Speaking to the media after the walk, Mr Silvaraj, now 35, said that he was jailed in his early 20s for offences ranging from unlawful assembly to voluntarily causing hurt with a weapon.

The weapons are gone and he is now armed with a diploma in counselling psychology, and working as a coach for at-risk youth.

A self-confessed gangster from his teen years, he said: "Each time I was released from prison, I really didn't want to change. I could make a lot of money (from crime), and I didn't care how I got the money as long as it was coming in.

"My mother was always telling me to change, but I just didn't listen."

IN AND OUT OF PRISON

Each time I was released from prison, I really didn't want to change. I could make a lot of money (from crime), and I didn't care how I got the money as long as it was coming in.

MR ALBERT SILVARAJ, recounting his days as a young gangster. He turned his life around after a faith-based programme in halfway house Teen Challenge helped him overcome his addiction.

Then in 2006, in a case that made the headlines then, his father stabbed his mother to death in a rage, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The family flat was sold off and, at 25, Mr Silvaraj did not have a home. The second of four children, he would sometimes stay at his older sister's flat but disagreements with her husband meant he often slept on park benches. Mr Silvaraj has two other sisters.

Then his father died while in prison. In 2008, he turned up at Teen Challenge, a halfway house with a faith-based programme.

"After my mother's death, I still had a lot of anger in me. The Bible says to love your enemy, but how could I love my enemy when I couldn't even love myself?"

The halfway house's programme helped him overcome his addiction problems and led to his current career working with troubled youth. "I'm a Secondary 2 dropout, I have body tattoos, I come from a broken home, so I know what they're going through," said Mr Silvaraj.

The event has raised about $921,500 since the first run in 2009. The fund goes to Yellow Ribbon Project programmes, aimed at helping former offenders reintegrate into society.

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, who flagged off the run, said: "We must open up our hearts, reach out to them and also help them, in whatever ways we can, to feel back at home in the community."

Mr Silvaraj said leaving a life of crime and reintegrating into society is "not easy, but it can be done", adding that former offenders can approach organisations such as the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises and the Singapore After-Care Association for help.

Like the run, all they need is to take the first step.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'Ex-gangster knows how to help at-risk teens'. Print Edition | Subscribe