“I went to prison from 1997 to 2005. I can’t remember how many times I was in and out during those years, but I can tell you there were no structured plans to rehabilitate people like me back then. You leave prison and feel even more lost than before; that’s the cruel reality. 

Compared to how it’s like now, prison life was much tougher back in my days. I was jailed for drug consumption and had to share a room with 44 other inmates. All of us ate and slept in that tiny cell. It was a tough environment, but I adapted. Survival is just part of my nature. 

At that time, there was no programme to teach us how to cope with life after prison. When you’re out, you’re out of touch with society. You also become fearful and have no confidence to go for job interviews.  

The only thing on my mind after the release from prison was to stay away from drugs. I needed to change my lifestyle, so I went to a three-quarter house started by my pastor. I actually met him during my last year in prison when I turned to Christianity to change my ways. 

 My intention was to stay there for three years and catch up with the times, but my pastor wanted me to find work instead. After a month of working at a bak kut teh stall in Changi, I told my pastor that this life wasn’t for me. We eventually parted ways. 

After leaving the three-quarter house, I stayed at my sister’s place for a while, but by the third week I started to feel bored. Knowing that boredom could trigger a relapse, I decided to get a job to distract myself from the temptation to consume (drugs) again. 

Through ISCOS, I found a job as a kitchen helper. The pay was low and the job had many challenges, but I was grateful for it because the hard work kept me busy. It was so important that I didn’t turn to drugs again, and I was glad I didn’t. It was a truly humbling experience. 

Today, I work at a consultant firm. My job basically is to encourage people to use their SkillsFuture fund for knowledge or skills upgrading. Work has been my therapy and very important for my self-esteem. I really enjoy what I do because I get to help other people; it’s very fulfilling. 

One person I managed to help was an IT Engineer whom I met through ISCOS. He had been in prison for 15 years and was quite hesitant to attend a course after he was released, but I persuaded him to meet my boss for a consultation.  

I said he needed to be realistic as things were not the same as they were 15 years ago, so he would benefit from going for the course while seeking a job.

After he was employed, his company discovered that he had upgraded his skills and raised his salary by $400. Since then, he become more confident and grew less cynical of people too.  

I think people with records don’t like to be persuaded or told what to do. Many of them are very proud and sensitive by nature. I know this because I’m like that too. The truth of the matter is, they just need someone whom they can trust and talk to. 

That’s the beauty of what I do; I bring people from two different worlds together. When I put a degree holder who has never been to prison with someone whose background is similar to mine, they’re able to sit down and help one another.

It’s all about spending time with someone and finding out their concerns. People are not as bad as you think.” – Terence, 62

Terence Tan is a member of ISCOS.


Humans of ISCOS is a collaboration between The Everyday People and ISCOS, a co-operative that helps ex-offenders in Singapore. Read more here.


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Arman Shah

A former travel writer with fond memories of solo adventures in Southeast Asia, Arman is now Founder of The Everyday People. He's also the co-host of Channel Empathy, a podcast about the marginalised in Singapore.