Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Lease of Life

Thomas Liao (on the right) and myself during the first Yellow Ribbon Run this year
Whenever I look at my first and best friend in NYP, Thomas Liao Tian Shun, I am reminded that however undesirable our life may be, we can still make it right with sheer grit, resilience and willpower.

We were first acquainted on the first day of orientation week for the School of Health Sciences. He was in a white T-shirt and checkered Bermudas. As I was walking in front, I kept turning around to look behind at my new soon-to-be friends and I noticed Thomas was staring at me each time I turned around. Thus, I decided to break the ice and hopefully make my first new friend in NYP.

“Hi I am Matthew. What is your name?” I asked him.

“Thomas,” he replied.

Out of curiosity, especially since he looked older than the rest, I asked, “So…how old are you?”

“26,” he said.

26 and still in school? I got even more puzzled. Naturally, I asked him why did he enter poly so late.

“I was convicted before,” he answered.

Shocked, and not knowing how to react, I merely acknowledged his words.

That was in fact, the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the two of us.

After our short introduction, this new buddy of mine became my personal aide and would voluntarily help me in tasks I found difficult to manage, such as going down the stairs without railings, or walking with me to unfamiliar places as I am not very good with directions, all on the first day of the SHS orientation. As the day ended, he told me I could always approach him whenever I needed assistance in school, be it academically or otherwise.

When school started, he sat beside me all the time and rendered his assistance to me, whenever I needed it, such as when I needed help in marking out the important chapters for exams, buying lunch for me and accompanying me as I ate. I know I can count on him when I face any difficulties in my studies and integration to polytechnic life as he has proven his loyalty not by mere words, but by actions.

During my two years in polytechnic, I thought that there was certainly no indication that this awesome friend could ever have been a convict, but I was wrong.

One day at lunch I asked him about his past, and I was tremendously edified by his testimony.

Thomas was incarcerated for drug trafficking, consumption and possession (soft drugs) and he was sentenced to 10 strokes of the cane and a five and a half year jail term. In prison, he took his ‘N’ level and ‘O’ level studies, amidst all his challenges and difficulties.


Thomas came from an imperfect family. His father divorced his mother while he was very young and thus he did not receive the love and care a normal family provides. After his father remarried, his stepmother verbally and physically abused him, and his new relatives also treated him likewise. At the tender age of seven, his dad was imprisoned, which was the beginning of his “worst nightmare”.

For three years while his dad was convicted, Thomas suffered greatly in silence. The abuse got more frequent and intense and he had no one to turn to.  After his dad was released from prison, he bought a new house for his family and Thomas thought brighter days were coming.

However, he was kicked out of the house by his stepmother soon after.

“All by myself, with only two bags and a few cents, I felt hopeless. To survive, I shop lifted and hid in the streets. Moreover, I had no relatives who were close to me, and thus I was all alone. In order to survive, I was driven to shoplifting. Though I knew it was wrong, it’s what I had to do to fend for myself,” said Thomas.

Furthermore, he got into bad company and became a gang member at the age of 15.

“They accepted me and protected me. My friends in the streets were among the first to actually show concern for my wellbeing. Thus, I naturally joined them,” he explained.

The gang also introduced him to trafficking drugs as means of survival.

One day he met his cousin on the streets, and she offered him a place to stay with her family, at her place. Instead of being appreciative, he used her house to commit greater crimes. He organised drug related gatherings to support his habit.

“Even though my cousin kindly took me in to her home to stay, I was not thankful. I took drugs at her home and invited my friends over for a “high” time. Drugs brought peace and release to me, as it helped me to forget my pain and misery,” Thomas recounted.

When his cousin’s family found out about his drug activities, they kicked Thomas out, leaving him back in the streets again. Thus he went back to his “brothers”.

Thomas was lured into a life of crime soon after. He did not know what he was getting himself into.

“I was at the mercy of my fellow gang members. To get money for drugs and a place to sleep, I had to resort to drug related crimes for my own survival,” he said.

Sometime in January 2008, Thomas was arrested by the police and was sentenced to jail. However, his family managed to bail him out for 14 days. However, he did not change, he went back to drugs. The final straw was drawn when Thomas was caught by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) officers.

“My shame was further prolonged when I came face to face with my family members in handcuffs again. I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame,” he said.

In prison, and without the temptation of drugs, Thomas started to realise the consequences of his own actions. He knew what he did only led to self-destruction.

“I remember questioning myself over and over again, what is it that I need? Why am I doing all this? What is it that I am searching for? Why did I bring myself to this state?” he said.

It was during that moment of despair and contemplation that he finally felt truly remorseful and deserving of his punishment.

“Initially I was afraid of the caning as I had no idea how I was going to bear the strokes, but when I realised the harm I had been inflicting on people’s lives was much more severe, permanent and unforgiveable, I felt that the punishment was justifiable,” he recapped.

While Thomas was serving his sentence, some of his fellow inmates advised him to take up studying again. Initially, he was reluctant, as he had failed most of his subjects in secondary school. However, he decided to go for it, since there was nothing to lose.

 It was not an easy decision to make, being required to study for ‘N’ levels and subsequently ‘O’ levels in prison school. Nonetheless, he was not deterred as he found a new motivation.

With a smile on his face, Thomas said: “One of the primary motivations for me to want to change was because I was introduced to a religion that gave me strength and purpose – Christianity.”

Indeed, hitting the books again after such a long period of absence was a struggle. Thomas was promoted to ‘N’ level after nine months of hard work in prison school. He counted this breakthrough as something he would always treasure.

“It really built up my self-esteem. I came to realise that everything is possible as long as I don’t give up hope, no matter how arduous it may seem to be initially. I may have had a lot of failures in my past, but that does not determine my future,” he explained.

Thomas did make it in the end. He passed his ‘N’ levels with flying colours! He had an aggregate of 9 points for the 5 subjects he took!

However, he failed his English for the ‘O’ levels the following year, but that did not stop him from wanting to achieve in life.

“I was crestfallen, but that did not deter me from trying again and therefore I retook my ‘O’ levels the second time in 2012,” he said.

Thomas stayed in a Christian Home for young offenders, for 13 months after his release from prison for rehabilitation. It was during this time when he took his ‘O’ levels again. He passed his English finally and he was elated!

“Though the results were not exceptional, I was very happy and satisfied,” he recounted.

After going through so much, Thomas is finally back living a normal life and carving a bright future for himself by striving to be a social worker in the future. Like me, he is doing his Diploma in Social Sciences (Social Work). He hopes to impact the lives of delinquent youths by guiding them to make the right life choices, instead of taking the path he once took.

Thomas now heads the Social Work Associate Network for Students (SWANS) committee. Being the President of the committee, he hopes to bond the different cohorts of students through organizing course chalets, and meaningful campaigns such as the Toy Project, created to distribute toys to the needy children.

Today, Thomas is nothing like his past. He is a personal role model to me. Though life was not easy for him, he never gave up, nor did he wallow in self-pity. Instead, he took control of his life by always standing up stronger, again and again. His resilience and courage in overcoming so much in life is truly inspiring.

Brother, I am proud of you.

By Matthew Tan Ser Yung, Diploma in Social Sciences (Social Work)

Matthew is 20 and pursuing his Diploma in Social Sciences (Social Work) at NYP. He may have suffered a traumatic brain injury in a judo competition and may have lost his hopes of becoming a judo champion, but he has found new passion and interest in writing. He is happy to share how he feels and thinks, and hopes to encourage his readers with his writing


  1. Amazing article Matt! Really did give me so much inspiration and motivation! Wishing you and Thomas all the best in your studies! :-)

  2. Both Matthew and Thomas can do it.

  3. Peter Kiong Xiang YiOctober 28, 2014 at 8:37 PM


  4. Truly can see the hand of God working mightily in both of your lives!! May yall continue to be used by Him to touch other lives!!

  5. Kudos to both! I like the details in your story, Matthew - keep it up. Thomas - you are the role model for many NYP students. All the best!

  6. Thank you for sharing this! Really so inspiring! :)