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He grew up 'fatherless', but never felt a lack of love

Mr Benjamin Yeo, who grew up in a single-parent household, found love and support in family of father figures

Mr Benjamin Yeo with his wife and daughter
His personal experiences growing up in a single-parent family led Mr Benjamin Yeo (seen here with his wife and daughter) to help guide youth at risk. PHOTO: THARM SOOK WAI

Growing up without a father, Mr Benjamin Yeo’s life became shaped by a community of fathers – from his grandad, his uncle, to teachers and church leaders.

If it takes a village to raise a child, they were, along with his mother, his “village”. Together, they influenced his formative years and inspired his passion – at 16 – to pursue a career in social work.

Together, they became his family, one that holds special meaning in this Year of Celebrating SG Families.

Even as his peers at East Spring Secondary School wondered about their paths after their O levels, Mr Yeo knew he wanted to help youth at risk, as this group tends to come from single-parent families like his own.

“I spent most of my childhood without much parental supervision, playing football on the streets, where I interacted with gang members,” says the 35-year-old, who is now married and has a five-year-old daughter.

He is currently studying for a Master’s in Youth Development from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“When I look back, I realise how fortunate I was that I didn’t get into serious trouble.”

Teased for being ‘fatherless’

Mr Yeo’s parents divorced when he was four years old. He, his older brother Francis, and their mother Mdm How Mei Kuen, moved out to his maternal grandparents’ three-room Housing Board flat in Tampines.

“For the first few years I was crying a lot, because I was very upset that my parents were not around,” Mr Yeo says.

Mdm How, a clinic assistant, worked long hours to buy a home of her own to live in with her sons. She achieved this after four years of saving.

Mr Yeo’s father kept in touch from time to time, but only took his children out once every few months.

So to ensure he grew up well, Mr Yeo’s extended family stepped in. “My grandfather took over the role of father figure in my life,” he says. “He taught us to ride bikes, bought stuff for us and made time to spend with us.”

Grandad How, who was a taxi driver, would ferry his grandsons to school and take them on joy rides around Singapore at night to soak in the sights.

“We were young then, so we found it very fun,” Mr Yeo says. “We would drive around and then have supper, or go play at the playground.”

Meanwhile, his grandmother would cook his favourite foods – ABC soup and curry chicken – while his uncle helped with school-related administrative tasks, such as signing forms for educational bursaries.

Thanks to such gestures of love, Mr Yeo says his self-esteem soared: “I had adults who loved and believed in me.”

He recalls how he was once teased in school for being “fatherless”, but didn’t get upset.

“Youth turn to bad company because they do not feel a sense of belonging and recognition. So when gangs offer them that, they go for it,” he says. “But my needs were met. That helped me stay out of trouble, and even gave me the confidence to pursue a career that contributes to others.

Support from his family helped Mr Benjamin Yeo reach his full potential
Mr Yeo says support from his family and community, including his mum (centre) and elder brother Francis (left), helped him realise his potential. PHOTO: THARM SOOK WAI

School, church bolstered his confidence

Beyond his extended family, Mr Yeo credits his teachers and religious community as key sources of support during his adolescence.

He joined his secondary school’s Chinese martial arts team with the encouragement of its teacher in charge, who knew about his family situation. Mr Yeo eventually became the team leader.

Mdm How had also connected her sons with a church community, where they could be mentored on concerns like study stress, romantic relationships, and career. “She knew we might not feel comfortable sharing our thoughts with her,” says Mr Yeo, whose brother is now working as a project manager with a family of his own.

In church, he was given responsibilities such as ushering church-goers, and mentoring the younger youths.

“Church shaped my values, so when I was on the streets and met bad company, who for example wanted to introduce me to smoking, I didn’t want to be affiliated with them.”

It was also in church that Mr Yeo met young people who had previously joined gangs.

“I realised that there were other youths coming from challenging family backgrounds, but who were not as fortunate because they didn't meet the right people earlier on,” he says.

He admits there were “many times that I could also have gone that way”. Once, following a quarrel with his brother, he wanted to leave home for good. Other times, he found himself upset about his circumstances and wanted to give up.

But his mother or church mentors would sense it, and counsel him.

“All these contributed to my development of a positive worldview, and helped me believe that the best way to live my life is actually to pay it forward,” said Mr Yeo.

Today, it is hard to believe the gentle, cheerful father came so close to becoming a hardened gang member.

Instead, he now works alongside his mother at social service agency Fei Yue Community Services. Mdm How, who also pursued further studies, now holds a double diploma in counselling and family education.

Mr Yeo, a senior social worker, also received the Promising Social Worker Award from President Halimah Yacob in 2018.

“This isn’t a personal achievement. Many adults in my life contributed to helping me to reach my potential,” he says. “I never imagined I could do so well.

“To build self worth, it’s important for children to know that there are adults that care for them. Mum tried her best by bringing in our grandparents and church community to support us through our childhood,” he says.

He adds: “Even for single-parent families and other types of family structures, as long as the care and concern is there, it can be a protective factor that creates a healthy environment for children to grow.”

His takeaway, from work and his own life experiences, is that family structures are not the be-all and end-all; it takes a village.


Help on hand for families

The Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships (AFAM), a cross-sector group formed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in August 2021, is working to provide Singapore’s families with resources and support programmes, no matter their situation.

Support for single-parent families is one of the AFAM’s focal areas. Among the initiatives are:

  • Enhancing the one-stop portal SPIN (Single Parents INformed, Involved, and Included), which is operated by HCSA Dayspring, part of social service organisation HCSA Community Services. It contains information and resources curated for single parents
  • A series of focus group discussions with single parents, to understand more about their pain points and the support they need
  • Working to reduce the social stigma faced by single parents, by raising awareness and featuring their stories in the media

Visit www.msf.gov.sg/afam to find out more.

This is the last of a two-part series in partnership with the Ministry of Social and Family Development

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