*Alan and Rizwan Habib’s experiences show that second chances, and inspiration, can come in the most unexpected of ways.
Here, their stories – low points, unexpected achievements and hope at last – and glimpses of a school behind bars as shared by them and teachers at Prison School.
With his boyish crew-cut and thick glasses, Alan* looks like just another undergraduate, but his route to university has been more unusual than others – via Prison School.
“I am lucky I look young,” says the student of Singapore Management University (SMU), laughing. “But when I tell my schoolmates that I am 30, it does lead to a lot more questions. I have had some awkward moments, but in general what I tell them is, ‘Prison was a blessing in disguise for me.’”
That fateful day… and life after
In 2015, Alan’s world came crashing down when he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He was then 23 years old and had a two-month-old daughter.
Alan was determined to turn his life around. “I didn’t want to sit in prison and do nothing for the next eight years. “I had already taken my ‘O’ Levels, so I wanted to make the best use of my time and upgrade myself.”
He applied for the A-Level programme, missed out that round due to strong demand for places, applied again, and was accepted in his second year.
Taking classes at different levels
Each year, more than 450 inmates further their education in Singapore Prison Service’s (SPS) Prison School. They take academic classes in classrooms within the prison compound of Tanah Merah 1, pursuing programmes at various levels – from basic literacy and numeracy programmes, to Normal Technical (NT), Normal Academic (NA), Ordinary (O) and Advanced (A)-level courses, up to degree and diploma courses.
SPS has offered opportunities for education in prison since the 1960s, for inmates who wish to gain knowledge, skills and qualifications when serving their prison terms, and prepare for life after release.
As in mainstream education, the Prison School system evolved to offer more varied pathways and possibilities over the years. In 2018, the first higher-education pathway was added — a Diploma in Business Practice (International Supply Chain Management), jointly offered by the Prison School and Ngee Ann Polytechnic for students who complete their GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels while in prison. To add flexibility, inmates may continue with the course at the Ngee Ann Polytechnic campus upon their release.
Last year, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) introduced degree programmes within the Prison School. A pioneer batch of 13 students has enrolled in programmes ranging from Logistics and Supply Chain Management to Marketing and Finance.
Same syllabus in less time
The Prison School’s curriculum follows that of mainstream school, with the exception of its compressed timeframe. For instance, a full GCE ‘A’ Level curriculum that typically takes two years at junior college is covered in a year. Students may also take up to 2 years to complete the curriculum.
As in mainstream schools, students also take Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) classes which develop values, character and socio-emotional well-being.
“Prison School places a lot of emphasis on Education and Career Guidance,” or ECG, says Mr Jeffrey Lim, who has been teaching ‘O’ Level English there for more than two years, and is also the Head for CCE programmes; ECG falls under the CCE curriculum.
“We want them to study as much as they can in prison, so they can look for a job once they are released,” he adds. “Through ECG, we want them to consider where they can go after prison, and how they can make the best use of the knowledge they have gained here. We do hope they continue to upgrade themselves through education, but we have to be cognisant that some of them face financial pressures and may not have the luxury of time to pursue further education.”
Topping his cohort and bringing on a tear
Back when Alan was taking his A-Level exams, his goal was to score three As and above.
“I studied harder in Prison School that I had ever done before,” Alan declares, laughing again. He utilised every opportunity to hit the books, be it after the inmates’ daily recreation time at the yard or after dinner until the lights went off. As the exams drew closer, he even studied by the corridor lights streaming in through his cell window long after the lights went out in his cell.
When the results were released, he was jubilant — he not only scored five As, he topped the Prison School’s 2019 A-Level cohort.
Alan’s family was there with him to receive the results and award for top student.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen my father tear up,” recalls Alan. “When they presented the award to me, I think that was the first time I ever made him proud of me.”
On his father’s advice to widen his options for the future through education, Alan enrolled in the Diploma in International Supply Chain Management programme after his ‘A’ Levels at Prison School. Upon his release, he applied – and was accepted – into the Business Administration degree programme at Singapore Management University.
Breaking out of the downward spiral
Another student, who has persevered to turn around his life, is Rizwan Habib.
Ask Rizwan if life can begin at 40 and he will say a resounding “yes”.
“It’s never too late,” says Rizwan, who has spent almost half his life – 18 years – in and out of prison. Since his release, he has been pursuing a part-time Bachelor of Social Work degree at SUSS and working full-time as a Content Moderator for a video hosting platform.
Rizwan relishes the challenge of juggling both his academics and work commitments, which to him, brings about a sense of fulfilment.
Rizwan’s life started spinning out of control after his mother died when he was 13. His father had left the family when he was five. Rizwan started hanging out with gangs, dropped out of school and did a few stints in juvenile homes. At the age of 19, he was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Rizwan would go to prison seven times, serving about 18 years in total. Every time, he would ask himself: Will this be my last time? But despite his best hopes, the old habits would surface, and he would find himself back behind bars.
Over those years, he would often remember his mother and how she used to always encourage him to read.
“Whenever I asked my mother for permission to go to the playground, she would always ask me to read a few pages of a book before I go,” recalls Rizwan. “She always believed that education was very important, regardless of the circumstances.”
That message stuck and in prison, Rizwan took every opportunity to read “whatever books I could get a hold of”. The prison library has a collection of books across genres and languages; from recent bestselling fiction books, classical tales and even self-help books to motivate reading.
A particularly memorable paragraph from a novel he read in the Prison Library stood out to him – The Grapes of Wrath – where the main pro
tagonist Tom Joad was released from prison. “The book’s description of the hot weather and immediate aimlessness upon his release resonated with me,” he says.
Rizwan desperately wanted to get out of his life of crime, and understood that education was his only ticket out of the downward spiral.
“You never know when you are going to get out of this. I didn’t like being in prison, but when you are in there for so many times and years for each time, it’s difficult to say ‘alright, this will be my last time’ with certainty.”
Every incarceration was taking a toll on him, demoralising him and robbing him of hope. But that trajectory changed when he met Mr Ng Loke Koon, who was teaching English at the Prison School then.
Mr Ng, whom Rizwan calls “a walking encyclopedia”, had a tremendous impact on him. After taking his PSLE in his 20s, Rizwan took the N- and O-Level examinations, studying English with Mr Ng.
“He could answer any question you threw at him,” recalls Rizwan, still sounding impressed after all these years. “I asked him how he could possibly know so much about the world. He told me to just keep reading – books, newspapers, magazines, whatever I could get my hands on.”
Whenever there was time, Rizwan would talk to Mr Ng about books, history and philosophy. Rizwan recalls, “He was so proud of me when I took my A-Level exams.” He did well, scoring an ‘A’ for his General Paper, and like Alan, joined the inaugural batch of the Diploma in International Supply Chain Management.
When he was released in 2019, he worked at a social enterprise as a youth mentor. This experience confirmed his desire to work in the sphere of social work and he enrolled at SUSS last year.
Power of peer support
For Alan and Rizwan, school behind bars was at first a very steep learning curve.
When he enrolled at Prison School, it had been five years since Alan had dropped out of polytechnic, and now he had new subjects like Management of Business, Principle of Accounts, and Economics to contend with.
“And there was no Google in prison,” he adds wistfully. “All we had were the notes and assignments given by our teachers and whatever resources they used to teach us. We just did our best.”
Teachers support them by weaving in real-world examples to help contextualise their learning. Mr Irwin Kang, who has taught ‘N’ Level Maths at the school for more than three years, shares, “If I am teaching them concepts like Mean, Median and Mode, I can show them articles about the mean salary in Singapore, to help them relate better to the topic.”
Peer support is a key aspect of learning in Prison School. Since students do not have access to teachers after school hours, the stronger students help their peers who may need additional support. Eight classmates share a cell, so it is easier to collaborate and learn together.
Mrs Michelle Yee, English Language Teacher at the school for the last four years, advocates peer learning in her General Paper classes, citing the need to get everyone involved regardless of their strengths. She usually assigns pre-readings for her students, and uses mind-maps or spider diagrams to facilitate the class discussion.
In so doing, “there’s no need to go through the whole stack of notes in class again. Those who can grasp the content have much to contribute and they can lead the conversation. For those who may have some difficulty understanding what they have read, they ask questions of their peers and teacher and learn from there”, she shares. “It’s a win-win situation for both groups.”
The students are very supportive of one another, she adds, helping to vet their classmates’ essays and occasionally even reworking them.
Mr Lim says he can tell when work has been corrected before it reaches him. “I am actually alright with that since there are other modes of assessment we use to track the students’ progress,” he explains. “At least the student has initiative and sought help. He knows what a ‘good’ essay looks like. I’m glad he did not hand in a blank piece of paper.”
“I like to say that we have teachers in the classroom, and we have teachers in the cell,” says Rizwan with appreciation. “There will always be someone who is better at a certain subject, and everyone is willing to share his knowledge. We are all there [in Prison School] for a reason, we are there to learn.”
Prison School Awards to affirm effort, instil confidence
Earlier this year, Mr Kang and Mr Lim spearheaded the inaugural Prison School Awards, where students are recognised for their efforts in their academics.
Certificates, along with monetary incentives are presented to the top 20% of classes at a ceremony. The school hopes that this will go a long way in motivating and validating the students’ efforts.
Mr Kang observed how the award winners “wore pride on their faces…we can see them glow in excitement”.
Even students who may not be necessarily strong in their academics are recognised. The STARR Award is given to those who exhibit values in Self-Discipline, Tenacity, Aspiration, Respect and Responsibility both in class and prison.
Says Mr Lim, “Quite a few of them never really performed in school outside; some of them even dropped out of school. Now that they have seen for themselves that they can improve and do well, it is an immense source of pride.”
Looking back, Rizwan believes his Prison School experience did more than earn him study chops.
“I am very disciplined in studying and finding answers for myself,” he says with a smile. He picked up useful skills such as making presentations and working with others on collaborative projects.
His choice of degree course in Social Work fulfils his newfound purpose in giving others a hand in life, which was motivated by his own life journey. “I didn’t experience much of my youth since I was serving time. But if I had someone I could look up to, who knows?” Rizwan shares. “We didn’t have the kind of support for youths that is present now, and I want to be a part of that.”
“At the end of the day, when I am old and I look back on my life, I want to be proud of something.”
On a similar note, Alan says Prison School showed him that second chances are out there for the seizing. It was then up to him to do his part. “I am not sure if there will be many opportunities given my record, but I know eventually someone will open a door to me.
“I think the best decision I made was to go to Prison School. It made me realise that I am in control of my actions, and I don’t know what my life would be like now without that.”
*Names have been changed for confidentiality.
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