Rebuilding lives from scratch

The Singapore Youth Award (SYA) is Singapore’s highest accolade for youth, conferred on inspirational individuals who have displayed courage, resilience, leadership and a spirit of service, making a positive difference in the community around them. This five-part retrospective revisits previous recipients of the Award, and how they continue to change lives and touch hearts.

Singapore Youth Award recipient Mr Glenn Lim and his staff like to joke that they go back to prison regularly to recruit for their "gang". PHOTO: GLENN LIM
Singapore Youth Award recipient Mr Glenn Lim and his staff like to joke that they go back to prison regularly to recruit for their "gang". PHOTO: GLENN LIM

Ex-offender Glenn Lim still goes back to prison to do what he does best: recruit gang members. 

This has been an inside joke among the Singapore Youth Award recipient and his staff for years. 

The founder and chief executive of Glenn Lim Consultancy (GLC), Mr Lim regularly holds motivational talks and outreach sessions at prisons — during which a team of his mentees — also ex-offenders — share how they rebuilt their lives after incarceration. 

At one of these sessions 10 years ago, he realised that a significant portion of the audience began to sit up and take notice when he began talking about his mentoring relationship with his mentees, which heartened him. 

But as it turns out, the audience was interested for very different reasons.

“They thought I was recruiting gang members,” he laughs. “After the talk, quite a few of them actually came up to me and asked, ‘How can we join your gang?’”

It was then that Mr Lim realised that he could leverage on this misunderstanding. “We think the way they do, we speak their lingo, so why don’t we make use of this?”

So he changed tack. From then on, he and his team started every talk with that startling statement: that they were “recruiting for a gang”. 

Actually, they were being roped in to join Architects of Life, or AOL — Mr Lim’s latest social enterprise aimed at equipping youth-at-risk and ex-offenders with the necessary skills to integrate into society. 

Mr Glenn Lim (standing, far right) and the other founders of Architects of Life in 2008. PHOTO: SHAHRIYA YAHAYA 

The initiative was only registered as a social enterprise four years ago, although it informally existed since 2009 under the banner of GLC.

“We are not a charity,” Mr Lim stresses. “What we really want to do is position ourselves as a business model.”

Having spearheaded multiple initiatives focussed on rehabilitation, motivation and emotional support for ex-offenders, Mr Lim wants AOL to go a step beyond his previous work. 

Its upcoming flagship initiative, the Archepreneurship Programme (AP), will focus on pairing ex-offenders with social enterprises to grow and nurture fledgling businesses. 

The idea for the AP came to Mr Lim as he listened to several of his mentees talk about their struggles on re-entering the workforce. 

A common theme running through their stories was not just the difficulty in finding work, but also the inability to move beyond their current social situation. 

“There is limited mobility for them,” he laments. “Our institutions only equip ex-offenders with technical skills, which only prepares them for low-wage jobs. Why do we do this, when they could be destined for greater things?”

It was then he had his epiphany: what if he could equip them with the entrepreneurial skills to succeed in their own right, and help them start businesses of their own? 

“If our education system is in the 21st century, why shouldn’t our prison system be too?” he points out. 

Mr Lim (far right) with a group of youths from St. James Church in 2008. PHOTO: SAMUEL HE

To truly move forward, Mr Lim says, Singapore needs to redefine the way it approaches mentorship of ex-offenders.

That is why AP mentorship needs to start in the institution: Mr Lim and his team will help potential Archepreneurs shape and define their business ideas, even while they are still incarcerated.

Upon their release, those who have shown the most promise and drive to succeed will be taken under the wing of AOL’s business mentors, which include ex-offenders Benny Se Teo, founder of restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs, and Shaw family scion Howard Shaw.

Under their mentorship, Mr Lim hopes to develop Archepreneurs’ entrepreneurial spirit, and provide financial support for their early-stage startups, up to the first six months of their establishment.

He is quick to reassure that it is not a pipe dream; it is definitely possible, he says, pointing to social enterprise F&B outlet The Caffeine Experience, as an example. 

The cafe in Tanjong Pagar was founded by ex-offender Matthew Poh and his prison officer Hilary Lo, with AOL support. 

“One thing I learnt in prison is that a lot of prisoners already have an entrepreneurial mindset,” he says. “But if their business acumen is not developed, then they become a wasted resource.

“That is why I started the Archepreneurship Program. I want to fill that gap, to equip ex-offenders not just to survive, but to thrive in this disruption economy.”

Mr Lim (front row, centre) at the signing of the memorandum of understanding ceremony for the Mentoring Alliance in July this year. PHOTO: ARCHITECTS OF LIFE

The AP is slated to go into full swing by the first quarter of 2019, but already, Mr Lim has had his hands full rolling it out on smaller scales. 

Next month, he and the AOL team will be exploring the option of running a mentorship programme for ex-offenders with Member of Parliament Louis Ng in the Yishun constituency.

These Archepreneurs will hold their day jobs, and be mentored during night classes and weekend seminars — a hybrid model that Mr Lim is currently experimenting with. 

“AOL has always been about turning social liabilities into assets,” he says. “We want them to succeed — not just for their own good, but for the good of society as well.”