Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat at the Yellow Ribbon Community Project Annual Awards and Appreciation Luncheon on 23 November 2019.
Fellow Grassroots Advisors,
Mr Desmond Chin,
Commissioner of Prisons,
Mr Chng Hwee Hong,
Chairman of SCORE,
Dr Jade Kua,
President of the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association,
Volunteers, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good afternoon, I am very happy to join you for this year’s Yellow Ribbon Community Project Annual Awards and Appreciation Luncheon.
Today’s occasion is particularly meaningful because we are celebrating a significant milestone.
I am happy to announce that since October this year, all 89 grassroots divisions have come on board the Yellow Ribbon Community Project.
This is a significant achievement, considering that when the Project started in 2010, only eight grassroots divisions were on board. Well done!
This growth would not have been possible if not for you, our volunteers and partners.
Thank you for your hard work in reaching out to families of inmates, and supporting our ex-offenders to reintegrate into society.
To all our newly appointed Yellow Ribbon Champions and award recipients – congratulations too! I hope the award encourages you to continue giving your time and effort to this worthy cause.
Your commitment has a big impact not just on the individuals and families you help, but also in keeping our society safe and secure.
The high human cost of recidivism
The safety and security that we enjoy today is underpinned by our commitment to uphold law and order.
Singapore has been ranked first in Gallup’s Global Law and Order Report for six consecutive years.
We also rank first for order and security in the “Rule of Law Index” by the World Justice Project.
However, while the vast majority of our population are law abiding, a small minority run afoul of the law.
Among inmates released in 2013, about two in five re-offended within 5 years.
Although our recidivism rate is better than a number of other countries, we can and must do better.
Recidivism is a challenge, for the re-offenders and their families.
Re-offenders may become more cynical each time they are sent back to prison.
Often, their spouses and children may also lose hope, and family relationships break down.
This exacerbates an already-difficult situation, and reduces the support and motivation for ex-offenders to stay out of prison.
This can turn into a downward spiral.
For each offender caught in this spiral, many more lives will be affected – both the victims, and their own families.
Focusing on rehabilitation and reintegration
As a society, we must do our best to help offenders and their families break this cycle of re-offending.
Prison sentences are not just meant to punish and deter. Just as importantly, they serve as an opportunity for inmates and their families to get help to address the underlying issues, and turn their lives around.
We know from experience and research that the key factors that influence whether someone will re-offend are:
First, whether he or she has the will and self-belief to lead a crime-free life, second, whether there is strong family support, and third, whether he or she can find meaningful work.
This is why the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) has given strong emphasis to rehabilitating inmates.
In prison, inmates undergo counselling and other programmes to identify and address behavioural issues and problems related to offending, and help them to develop the motivation to change.
Inmates also have the opportunity to upgrade their skills, so that they can better find work after release.
To support the families of inmates, SPS partners social service agencies1 to provide assistance and referrals through the Family Resource Centres set up within our prisons compounds.
Before their release, inmates go through preparation programmes to help them adjust to life outside. After their release, SCORE helps ex-offenders with job referrals.
And the CARE network partners ensure inmates receive integrated support after they leave prison.
For instance, offenders assessed to have a higher risk of re-offending are emplaced on the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme (MAS) and in the halfway houses, with a structured aftercare regime.
Community support and shared ownership is key
But on their own, even the best efforts of the SPS and their CARE network partners will not be enough.
All the support provided will be of no use if former inmates find themselves rejected at every turn after their release.
Many face difficulties finding jobs that provide decent prospects, which dampens their motivation to turn their lives around.
This “second prison” – the invisible bars of stigma – can be more punishing than the prison sentence itself.
Mr Chng, Chairman of SCORE, earlier shared with me that what the Yellow Ribbon Community Project is doing is similar to what I said in my speech yesterday, at the ST Global Outlook Forum, about building bridges and not building walls.
While prisoners are behind walls, we must build bridges for them to their families, so that they are able to come out successfully and be with the family after their sentence.
So it is important for us to try and ensure that, when they get out, there is no wall or second prison around them.
To reintegrate our ex-offenders into society, the support of the community is paramount.
My experience working in the Police has showed me how powerful the community’s role can be.
When I started my career in the Police in the early 80s, crime rates had actually been going up for several years.
We sought out best practices from police forces around the world, and eventually landed on the Japanese model of community policing.
By bringing the community on board, we built a strong sense of ownership for crime prevention in the neighbourhood.
Our efforts bore fruit. By the late 1980s, crime rates started to fall, and have stayed low since.
Much like crime prevention, the reintegration of ex-offenders requires a sense of shared ownership by the entire community.
As a society, we believe in personal responsibility, and we will punish individuals who commit crimes.
But having paid their dues, ex-offenders and their families are a part of our community too.
They can be productive members of society, if we give them a chance.
This is why the Yellow Ribbon Project is so important. Since its launch fifteen years ago, you have sought to advance the three “A”s of Awareness, Acceptance and Action.
The Yellow Ribbon Community Project – Growing from strength to strength
The Yellow Ribbon Community Project is a manifestation of how these three “A”s are put into action.
This is an upstream intervention initiative, led by the grassroots, to reach out to the families of newly admitted inmates in times of significant stress:
Spouses have to make up for the loss of income, and shoulder the responsibilities that the inmate used to bear.
Children have to cope with the absence of one parent, and potentially being stigmatised at school.
Often, the family also has to deal with anger, guilt and shame.
Your presence reminds the family that they are not alone, and that the community still accepts and cares for them.
On a more practical level, by providing families with access to financial support and community resources. You help stabilise the family situation, allowing family members to pick themselves up and continue with life.
Inmates can focus on their rehabilitation journey, knowing that their families have been taken care of. Because of your commitment and hard work, the Yellow Ribbon Community Project has grown from strength to strength.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the first year that all grassroots divisions have come on board.
Alongside this expansion, you have many more volunteers helping offenders and their families today.
From less than 100 volunteers in 2010, there are now more than 1,000 of you trained to carry out this important work.
Through your combined efforts over the years, you have reached out to more than 10,000 families.
You have made a difference to countless lives, so well done!
I am also glad that you continue to find new ways to provide practical support to these families.
For instance, for the second year running, you will be distributing “booster packs” containing grocery vouchers to 1,200 families.
For families with children, each child will receive a school bag and stationery items, to give them a good start to the new school year.
The children will also receive a hand-written letter from their incarcerated parent, to keep family ties strong.
Thank you to all of you who will be involved in packing and distributing these booster packs,
And thank you to the Heartwarmers Volunteer Group, Inmates’ Families Support Fund (IFSF) and the Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF) for sponsoring these packs.
The Yellow Ribbon Project is a very powerful example of what we can achieve when we work together.
This reflects the spirit of our Singapore Together movement.
All of us will face challenges in life. But none of us should have to carry our burdens alone.
The Government plays a big part in providing support to those who suffer setbacks.
But the community can play an even more important role by providing care, support and encouragement.
By working together, we can help those around us to overcome challenges, regardless of their circumstances, and emerge ready to build a brighter future.
On this note, let me once again thank all our advisors, volunteers and community partners.
I wish you a very pleasant afternoon ahead. Thank you!
 Formerly known as Voluntary Welfare Organisations (VWO)
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