They took O levels amid pandemic, while in prison

Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim speaking to an inmate at Tanah Merah Institution 1 on Tuesday. Inmates Azly (seated, left) and David (not their real names) received their O-level results on Monday
Inmates Azly (seated, left) and David (not their real names) received their O-level results on Monday after sitting the national exams last year. With them in the Tanah Merah Institution 1 library are senior chief warder Ewen Thai (standing, left) and Mr Jeffrey Lim, who teaches English at the prison school. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim speaking to an inmate at Tanah Merah Institution 1 on Tuesday. Inmates Azly (seated, left) and David (not their real names) received their O-level results on Monday
Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim speaking to an inmate at Tanah Merah Institution 1 on Tuesday. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Expelled from Queensway Secondary School a decade ago, then sentenced to eight years' jail in 2018 for drug-related offences, David (not his real name) could not stop the downward spiral.

All that changed when he was given a shot at taking the O-level exams while in prison. On Monday, the 25-year-old received his results - 12 points in five subjects, including As in principles of accounts, business studies and mathematics.

"I wanted to try to do something with my time here," said David.

He plans to take a diploma course in supply chain logistics next, but has not yet decided on what to do when he is released.

He was one of 53 inmates across three prison institutions who received their results after sitting the national exams last year.

Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim visited Tanah Merah Institution 1 on Tuesday to congratulate and encourage the student inmates.

"Their circumstances without Covid-19 were already tough. With Covid-19, it was even tougher, yet they persevered and are able to achieve what they have today," said Dr Faishal.

The inmates have only one year to prepare for the national exams, compared with students in mainstream secondary schools who have at least four years.

It became even tougher for them amid the pandemic, especially during last year's circuit breaker period from April to June, when teachers were not allowed into prison facilities and lessons were conducted via videoconferencing.

While waiting for the officers to set up the equipment needed for remote learning, such as projectors and speakers, the inmates had to study in their cells.

"It was challenging because sometimes there were technical faults, and there was also no face-to-face interaction," said David, who was booted out of school as a Secondary 3 student only to end up in the Singapore Boys' Home multiple times over various offences.

  • 80% of student-inmates pass at least 3 subjects

  • Of the 53 student-inmates across three prison institutions who sat the O-level exams last year, about 80 per cent attained three or more passes.

    Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim visited student-inmates at Tanah Merah Institution 1 on Tuesday.

    He said the rate is comparable with 2019 and 2018, adding: "They achieved this in spite of Covid-19 and the difficulties they faced... It is commendable."

    In 2019, 58 student-inmates sat the O-level exams, and in 2018, 61 took the exams.

    At prison school, O-level students study five subjects, with English, mathematics, and principles of accounts as core subjects.

    They can choose to study combined sciences (physics and biology) or business studies and one other subject as an elective, choosing from mother tongue, additional mathematics or humanities subjects.

    Across Singapore, 96.8 per cent of students who sat the national exam last year attained three or more passes.

    Jolene Ang

During the circuit breaker, a class representative was appointed as a proxy, to collate and ask questions.

The teachers also sent the inmates assignments to be completed in their cells, though they needed special authorisation to use pens and pencils, because in the wrong hands, these could be used as weapons.

Senior chief warder (SCW1) Ewen Thai, 39, who works closely with student inmates, said: "The challenges were unprecedented during the pandemic. A lot of things are controlled in prison."

Prison officers had to act as social distancing ambassadors and explain what was happening in the world outside, he said.

Without the teachers they usually tap for guidance, the inmates helped one another complete their assignments.

Before the pandemic, prison school days would typically begin at 8.30am and end at 3pm, five days a week.

Said David: "It was up to us to decide how much we wanted it (to do well). No one was chasing us or asking us to do the assignments, but I finished everything I was given."

Inmates like Azly (not his real name) did not give up either.

Incarcerated in 2015 for drug-related offences and serving a 13-year sentence, the 35-year-old scored eight points in five subjects.

"I was overwhelmed when I received my results. I could not believe I was holding an O-level certificate, it was long overdue," said Azly, who is divorced and has two children aged eight and 13.

He plans to take the A levels this year and pursue education in an institute of higher learning when he is released.

Mr Jeffrey Lim started teaching English at the prison school last year. The 42-year-old said he was surprised by how hard the inmates worked to do well.

"Some had not been studying for the longest time, and they had to take the exams in a year. But they tried their hardest. The results are secondary to their journey."

SCW1 Thai said that some who attend prison school may not be doing it for the certification.

"Sometimes, it is just to show their family that they can persevere - to redeem themselves after the mistakes they made in the past."

Correction note: The Singapore Prison Service previously provided enrolment figures for the years 2019 and 2018. It has since clarified that these numbers may differ from the number who eventually sat the exams.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2021, with the headline They took O levels amid pandemic, while in prison. Subscribe