On 5 September 2014, the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) held its third Volunteers Awards Ceremony in recognition of the tireless efforts of 269 individuals and partner organizations. Four volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) attended the event and received recognition in five award categories; two volunteers also received their “Certificate of Appreciation for Pioneer Generation.”
As Singapore reaches its 50th year of nation building, the contributions and welfare of the pioneer generation of Singaporeans have become the focus of the society and government. Apart from the Three Year, Five Year and Ten Year Long Service Award, the Singapore Prison Service acknowledged the contributions of 117 pioneer generation volunteers with the first ever“Certificate of Appreciation for Pioneer Generation.” Dr Maliki Osman Minister of State for National Development and Defence as the event’s Guest-of-Honour, pointed out in his speech that the selfless contributions and wisdom of the pioneer generation has inspired many others to follow in their footsteps and volunteer time and resources towards helping former inmates begin a new life.
Volunteers Ooi Hooi Cheng (71 years old) and Chee Meng Yan (67 years old), who are about the same age as the fathers of youth offenders, were commended for their efforts during the ceremony. Chee had undergone surgery for a cranial vascular affliction last year and was touched when he received handwritten well-wishes from the inmates he was helping while recuperating in hospital. Emotionally moved, he said that just as the inmates are concerned for volunteers, so too, the volunteers should never give up on these inmates.
Ooi, who visits the inmates about once or twice a month, makes it a point to remember every inmate’s name and family background. In a friendly manner, he finds out if they are keeping up with their medical requirements and how their interactions with family are like. A pat on the shoulder, a handshake—though small, these gestures help convey the sincerity of volunteers to the inmates who have been shunned by society.
“Some inmates are only in their early twenties, they still have a long road ahead of them. Hopefully, they can change for the better and find their way back onto the right path,”says Ooi.
When the inmates feel down, he would encourage them to look on the bright side. “Though one cannot do much while serving out a sentence, yet the long period of time gives one the opportunity to rest and reflect.”
Ooi received the Five Year Long Service Award for his work, together with Deputy CEO of Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) Lo Hsu Hseh Yu and social worker Lim Zu Hui Karen.
In 2014, the SPS initiated the “Conditional Remission System” and the “Mandatory Aftercare Scheme.”With this two-pronged approach,and together with the support of partnering organisations, former inmates are given assistance to reintegrate back into society. The SPS views volunteer services as an important component, and has conducted various training to equip volunteers with more knowledge and skills that they can better assist these inmates.
Since 2009, Tzu Chi has been providing financial aid for inmates’ medical bills in addition to regular care visits. A recent development is that Tzu Chi now extends its care to those former inmates who have completed their sentences. By providing short-term assistance for their daily living expenses, former inmates are able to look for a new job free of the burden of financial worries. In addition, Tzu Chi encourages these individuals to mend ties with their family. In this manner,the concern of volunteers extend beyond the prison gates.
Social worker Lim Zu Hui Karen hopes to accumulate more experience in this area through following up on the different case files of each individual. “If we do not follow up (on former inmates’ lives after their release), we will never know the real problems that they face.”
Dr. Maliki also shared the case of a former inmate who had received financial assistance and care from Tzu Chi volunteers, and how it had resulted in a positive outcome. A month after his release, the former inmate found a job. He vowed to donate money for Tzu Chi’s charitable endeavours so that the cycle of love could continue. Over the past year and a half, this individual was able to lead a life of normalcy. Dr. Maliki said, “He consistently donated to those organizations that had helped him in the past, and in this manner started to help those in need, in the hopes that other former inmates could also benefit just as he had.”
To encourage inmates to open their hearts and reflect on their past while treasuring the present, Tzu Chi volunteers share the teachings of Master Cheng Yen and the wisdom of the Jing Si Aphorisms through interactive means and simple story-telling, that inmates may be inspired to turn over a new leaf in their lives. Many former inmates have taken the initiative to contact Tzu Chi and share their joy at having found new jobs, and some have donated money towards charitable causes or even joined the ranks of volunteers. In this way, these individuals pay it forward in society and hope to repay the caring warmth they had once received from Tzu Chi volunteers.