Singapore ex-offenders, free, but often still in chains

By October 17, 2016Current

TL;DR – Let’s help unlock the second prison.

Did you watch this CNA Insider clip when it came out earlier this month?


I’d bet many of you didn’t, but hey, it’s such an important one to watch on so many counts. Here, let us share the stats with you.

Did you know that Singapore has the third highest prisoner-to-population rates in the developed world? Not sure about you, but I was shocked. I mean, isn’t Singapore supposed to be one of the safest places to live in?

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

12,394 people were put behind bars in the year 2015. Before you go panicking over the high number of criminals amongst us, you might want to know that some 70% of these are drug-related offences.

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

In fact, in May this year, Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said this,

“80 per cent of our local inmate population are either drug addicts or have drug antecedents.”

Curious about how many of the inmates in other countries are doing time for drug-related offences? Low, really quite low. I guess the result of such strict laws on drug trafficking and drug use is that Singapore has one of the lowest drug use rates in the world.

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Unfortunately, despite the tough laws and all, the number of people being admitted to drug rehabilitation centres is on the rise. Relapse rate, or what they call revidivism, is also on an upward trend.

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Some believe that this is contributed by the fact that more and more young people have been able to gain access to methamphetamine, more commonly known as just ‘Meth’, or ‘Ice’, Glass, Crystal, Speed, ‘Quartz’, ‘Ice Cream’, ‘Hirropon’, ‘Ya ba’, Shabu or Syabu. You can read this interesting article about meth addiction.

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Some young people I know had their first taste of Ice when they’re overseas, yes, you can get them quite easily in nearby cities like KL, Bangkok and Bali. It makes them feel happy, and once back, they may try to relive those heady feelings of happiness. So they will try all means to buy them, be it online or through runners. Once you’re hooked on it, it can be hard to kick the addiction. Here’s a story of a Singaporean undergraduate being sent for drug rehab in Chiangmai, Thailand. It costs his family approximately S$20,000 per month, and each stay is usually for three months. You can read more here.

While the debate on whether we should do away with the death penalty completely is still on, I think all of us will agree with the Singapore government taking a tough stand to clamp down on drug trafficking, sale of drug and use of drug.


Intrigued? You can go watch the entire CNA programme here.

But today, what I want to touch on is the cost of incarceration to the society.

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Info source: IT Figures, CNA

Every person in prison is a cost to Singapore. It costs about $28,000 a year to keep a convict in prison. That is, apparently, as much as the basic household expenses of a four-member household! But beyond the monetary costs, perhaps the greatest cost of incarcerating a person is the social cost. Every person in prison represent a lost opportunity. Why?

We often hear that we do not have any natural resource. We are often told that human resource is our greatest resource.  Each person convicted and sent to prison is one less to contribute to our economy. And often, even after these convicts are released, they are unable to participate fully in society.

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As Robin Tay, program manager of New Charis Mission (a half-way house), mentioned on the show, many ex-offenders often have to settle for working as general workers, cleaners, or movers. Not particularly high-paying jobs. Not particularly productive. No real upward mobility. No real chances of improving their lives.

And this is a huge problem. For the ex-offenders, for their families, and for Singapore.

Minister for Manpower, Lim Swee Say, has been repeating recently, our economic growth is the sum of the growth in our labour force and the growth in our productivity.  Since the growth of our labour force is stagnating (low birth rate and slower inflow of foreigners), we need to have higher productivity growth to have higher economic growth. Otherwise, we should expect lower economic growth.

This is where the relatively high proportion of prisoners presents both a problem and an opportunity. If we are able to train and upskill every single prisoner, we have a chance to improve their economic productivity. Considering that about 80% of prisoners have secondary school education or lower, this is highly doable.

Stats from Singapore Prison Service via Straits Times

Stats from Singapore Prison Service via Straits Times

But beyond training and education, societal attitudes need to change. What Robin mentioned in the show is a good reflection of reality for many ex-offenders. They just can’t get good jobs that allow them to properly take care of themselves and their families. Many are then trapped deeper in poverty. Are we then surprised if they reoffend?

Of course, the Singapore Prison Service will say that only 25.9% of ex-offenders reoffend within 2 years of being released (also known as the recidivism rate). But if we extend the time period to three years or more, that proportion will go up (though there aren’t any publicly available data).

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And even if the recidivism rate was indeed stable at around 30%, are we satisfied? Can we truly live with ourselves if, as a society, we continue to punish ex-offenders even after they have served their prison sentence? What sort of society are we if we condemn ex-offenders to a life without proper opportunities for upward mobility?

As Amolat Singh, a prominent criminal lawyer in Singapore, said in the show, it is not that we should tolerate criminal behaviour. We shouldn’t treat criminals with “kids’ gloves”. But we can indeed be more compassionate. And being compassionate, unlocking the second prison for ex-offenders may go some way in helping to grow our economy too.

Yes, the Yellow Ribbon Projcet (YRP), initiated in 2004, is an organisation that supports ex-offenders in their reintegration back into society. They have a fantastic slogan,

Help unlock the second prison.


[Featured image: Singapore Prison Service File Photo via CNA]


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Author CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.

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