'You must give yourself a second chance': former convict turned NTU graduate

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
Sunny Swee, 37, who has been jailed three times, will graduate from Nanyang Technological University at the end of July. PHOTO: NTU

SINGAPORE — Come the end of July, Sunny Swee, 37, will attend his convocation ceremony at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to receive his Bachelor of Science with Honours (Distinction) scroll.

Now working as a part-time data scientist while giving tuition to at-risk youths and those from lower-income families, Swee has travelled a longer road than most of the 9,000 students who will graduate from NTU this year.

He was jailed three times for gang and drug-related activities, spending a total of nine and a half years behind bars.

The younger of two children peddled drugs like ketamine and ecstasy, as well as illegal VCDs, and was once hospitalised after being stabbed in the back during a gang fight. At one stage, he racked up debts of more than $20,000 after getting addicted to online gambling.

“I was just disappointed in life. I had nothing to work towards. I wanted to take the easy way out to earn more money through illegal activities.”

Swee comes from a troubled family background - his mother committed suicide when he was five, while his father was a compulsive gambler.

Asked how it feels to be a graduand now, the mathematical science major took a long pause before replying, “I wouldn’t have thought this was possible 10 years ago. It’s something that is surreal to me.”

When asked how many students with criminal records are currently studying at NTU and how many such students are accepted each year, an NTU spokesperson declined to reveal the figures.

There are always consequences

Swee took the fast track to his scroll - he finished his studies a semester early, having taken one additional module per semester. Besides wanting to graduate earlier, Swee also had a higher purpose in mind, “My studies were funded by a Yellow Ribbon (bursary). I also wanted to graduate earlier so that these funds could be channelled to other people.”

Swee told Yahoo News Singapore that he eventually hopes to start a tuition centre at home. He is currently giving free tuition at Beacon of Life Academy, which helps at-risk boys, as well as his home church, Victory Family Centre.

With a passion for teaching such students, Swee said he wants to continue having an impact on their lives.

“I want to show them the correct attitude to go into their studies, and I hope that they can use this attitude in other areas of their lives. It’s more about developing the attitude to strive for excellence. They must be willing to put in the work.”

Having previously mentored troubled youths aged 12 to 17, Swee found he had a lot in common with them. These youths get very distracted easily and they don’t realise the importance of studies, according to Swee.

“They just want to hang out with their friends instead of focusing on studies. Fun is more of a priority to them, and I also had this issue (previously). Some of them are angry with their families, the lack of a lot of things as compared to their better off friends.”

Asked what advice he gives to these youths, Swee said, “I always try to tell them the consequences of what has happened to me. I tell them about my lifestyle in the gang and what it all led to.”

Given his experience in transforming his life around, Swee is in a position to guide those who have run foul of the law and wish to start afresh. He advised, “I hope that they will understand that people will give them a second chance, but they must first give themselves a second chance. They must be willing to change and not go back to their old habits.”

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