Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Taking the Long Road Home

Gary (centre), with his grandmother (left) and auntie
At first glance, Gary Lau Hwei is intimidating. He is heavily tattooed from head to toe, has asymmetrical eyes and 1.5cm wide ear lobe piercings. Of course, few would want to approach him. But nobody would expect that he had a perfect GPA of 4.0 for almost every semester in his studies at the Institute of Technical Education East (ITE East). 

Gary was also a recipient of 12 academic awards, including the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Model Student Award. What is more remarkable is this young man’s tenacity despite the many trials and tribulations he faced during his younger days. 

Gary’s parents divorced when he was 3 years old, and he was separated from his two elder sisters, who went to live with their father. His mother had custody of him. 

Not having a proper father figure in his growing up years was tough enough for young Gary; but he also had to live without much monitoring from his mother who held two jobs due to financial difficulties. His mother worked almost every day for long hours to in order to afford the daily necessities for them. When Gary was in primary 3, his mother allowed her boyfriend to move in with them. Her boyfriend provided them with financial assistance, but was abusive. 

Gary and his mother had to tolerate the abuse in order to sustain the family. Often, when Gary’s mother and her boyfriend argued, Gary would hide in his room and cry in helplessness.

“It was very traumatic for me, as I was so young back then,” he recalled. “There was once when I heard the clanging of knives in the kitchen. Worried, I went to take a look. That man was holding a chopper! I immediately ran to embrace mum and dared him to hack the two of us. That monster did not have the guts to do so, he glared at me before stepping out of the house.” 

The cycle of abuse did not stop. Gary’s mum continued to let him stay, as she needed him to provide for them. 

Finally, after almost 4 years, his mother finally moved to her friend’s place. They stayed there for two years. Those two years were Gary’s happiest moments.

“My mother’s friend was extremely nice. She would cook for me, give me tuition and even bring me on outings when my mother was busy at work,” he recounted. 

Two years later, when Gary’s mother was confident that her ex-boyfriend would not return, they shifted back into their home. Due to the change in environment and school, Gary lost motivation in his studies. It did not help that he was bullied at school. He could not see the point in schooling, and often played truant. Gary was streamed into EM 3 and failed his PSLE. If his mum had not pleaded with the school to let him redo his PSLE, Gary would have been expelled. 

“I stole my mother’s jewellery often and pawned it for cash. I also shoplifted. The bigger the item, the greater the sense of achievement I felt,” he said. 

When Gary progressed to secondary school at age 14, he got to know a group of youngsters doing bicycle stunts at his void deck. He approached them out of curiosity and they invited him to hang out with them. 

“They knew seniors from my secondary school, who treated me to meals and played soccer with me. They gave me my first sense of belonging, and showed me the meaning of loyalty. I could call them anytime I encountered problems in school, my new friends protected me.” 

One day, Gary’s new buddies brought him to the void deck, and told him there was a surprise waiting for him. There happened to be a sparring session that day, and he witnessed two fighters exchanging blows. Gary was frightened, but he hid his fears. He saw how much admiration the winner received from others, and yearned for that respect. 

“I felt that the better I can fight, the greater my reputation would be,” he said. 

The days went by with Gary witnessing more sparring duels at the void deck. With time, he got desensitized to fights. Very soon, his biker buddies decided to tell him that they were part of a gang, and invited him to join them.

“Without any second thoughts, I agreed. They were the only ones I could connect with and I wanted to follow them,” he said.

Thus began Gary’s gang exploits. He joined riots and fought those who threatened his gang; he also tattooed most of his body and pierced his ear lobes.

“During my time in the gang, I felt carefree and invincible. There was no trouble, no stress, and I liked it very much,” he said.

However, his life of liberation ended with a near death encounter. One night, his gang leader told him not to leave his house as they were having trouble with a rival gang. Gary naively defied his orders and went to play LAN games with a friend. Someone identified him as a rival gang member and dragged him out of the gaming shop. He was then beaten up with several weapons. 

The ordeal left some permanent defects on Gary. His right eye is now partially blind, his right ear has an auditory defect; and the 7 stitches on the right of his head are still visible. He also walks with a slight limp.

Instead of learning from his mistakes and quitting the gang, Gary started to invite his fellow gang members to his home to smoke, gamble and consume alcohol. When his mother caught him in the act, he treated her rudely and argued with her. Then he walked out of his home, and began to stay at his friends' homes, but that period of freedom did not last long. 

“On one occasion, my pals told me to go watch a ‘cat fight’ (girls' fight) that was going on at the void deck. We were all curious to see what happens during an actual cat fight, so we went to watch the show. The big scene caused the police to arrive shortly, and they examined everyone at the scene,” he recounted.

What Gary did not know was that the police were also looking for him. His mother had made a police report as she felt that Gary was Beyond Parental Control. He was sent to Boys' Home for a month while he waited for his sentence, and eventually sentenced to stay in Boys’ Town for two years.

Influenced by the other boys at Boy’s Town, he took up glue sniffing and joined other boys in rioting. When his term was up, the assistant director of the Boys’ Home interviewed him.

“He asked me if I think he should give me a second chance. Somehow, I felt I could trust him; I shared my life story for the first time, and broke down. This man understood my pain and shed tears too. He assured me that he will be my father since I lacked a father figure all my life,” Gary shared.

Because Gary did not do well at Boys' Town, he was transferred to the Boys’ Home with some behavioral problems. Gary was, in his own words, “forced” into a 3-day 2-nights camp organised by Camp Vision and the “dictator” assistant director of the Home. He did not want to sacrifice 
his weekend, but had to go, as he was one of the “naughtiest boys” in the Home.

“On the first day, I hid near the campsite, and did not want to join my group as I didn't know any of them. Though I showed attitude, the youth leaders and volunteers still encouraged me, and did not give up on me," he said.

"Touched by their sincerity, I took part in Day 2, where we had rock climbing! I agreed to take part as I felt I could do it, but as I reached the half way mark, my strength was gone. I wanted to give up," he elaborated. "However, everyone still cheered for me; I obtained strength and motivation from their cheers and with effort, did it! When I got down, everyone embraced me. That was the first time I truly felt loved. I even got chosen to be a youth leader!”

When Gary lost interest in being a youth leader, one of the committee members of Camp Vision visited him and managed to persuade him to return to the group. One month before Gary’s discharge from the Boy’s Home, he was attached to 18 Chefs restaurant.

“Everyone there was so nice to me! That was the final turning point for me," he said. "I knew I had to strive hard for my new future, for them, if not for myself.”

Upon his successful discharge from Boys’ Home, Gary finally turned over a new leaf. He got enlisted for two years, and then sat for the private ‘N’ levels examination, before progressing to ITE and then NYP. 

“I studied hard because I wanted to prove to others that even someone like myself can succeed,” he said.

Today, Gary is 24 years old, and is currently pursuing his Diploma in Social Science (Social Work) in NYP. He aspires to help youngsters who face similar situations as his and hopes to make a positive impact on them.

By Matthew Tan Ser Yung, Diploma in Social Science (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. Wonderful article about Gary. Also, Kudos to Mathew for finding another path in life :)

  2. Awesomeness for both and is truly aspiring~ :)

  3. both Gary and Matthew are truly inspiring. stay strong guys :D