Inmate aces O levels, aims for degree

Inmates studying at the Tanah Merah Prison School.
Inmates studying at the Tanah Merah Prison School. PHOTO: ST FILE

He had duped many into putting millions in an investment scam he came up with, and was later jailed 14 years for cheating.

Now 37, Paul (not his real name), who is still serving his sentence, hopes to get his life back on track by excelling in prison school, and eventually pursuing a mathematics degree after his release.

He took the O-level examinations at Tanah Merah Prison School last year and did well, scoring five points and A1s in all five of his subjects, including English, elementary mathematics and additional mathematics. "Now I have a clear target," said Paul, who will be sitting his A levels at the prison school next year. "I want to get good results for my A levels and, hopefully, get into the National University of Singapore to study maths."

When asked about the choice of a degree, Paul, who hopes to become a data analyst, explained: "Maybe it is because I am pretty good with maths. Some people find it tough, but I find it easy to understand."

His life has not always been this focused. Two decades ago, Paul managed 18 points at his first attempt in the O levels, and barely got into the electronic and computer engineering diploma course at a polytechnic. He dropped out of the course after the first year, and went to a private school to get an advanced diploma in IT and business management. Later, he pursued a degree at a private institution, but again dropped out after a semester.

"I was drifting in life, and taking it one day at a time," he said. "I kept playing and wasted money."

He could not hold down a job after leaving school and got into the wrong trade, and eventually landed in jail. "Looking back, if I had put in more effort, it could have been a different result now. I might also have a different life," he said.

It has been challenging picking up the books again. Until last year, Paul had stopped studying for some 20 years. "It's a stretch because I'd forgotten a lot of things," he said, adding that now, he would summarise topics into a few pages of notes and revise them in his cell.

He stops revising at 10pm as he cannot see well in the dark. "I try to cram in as much as possible before they turn off the lights," he said. "But I will start revising again in the morning, once I wake up."

For Paul, prison school has given him a second shot at education, providing a path to a better future. "To study here is a privilege," he said. "Hopefully, I can secure a good job and take care of my parents in their golden years."

His parents are in their 60s. He has two siblings aged 28 and 35, both of whom are working.

"I've learnt not to take my family for granted," said Paul, adding that his family still visits him despite his past wrongdoings. "My family comes first. If my income can only sustain them, then I would have to postpone my further education."

Calvin Yang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Inmate aces O levels, aims for degree'. Print Edition | Subscribe