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Opening Remarks by SPS Eric Chua at Conversations on Youth 2023 on 27 September

Type: Official Speeches: Eric Chua, Official Speeches (All)

Topic(s): Rehabilitation

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
                A very good morning, and a warm welcome to everyone!
2.             First, very happy to see all of you - many of whom are familiar faces - so bright and early this morning. Some of you hail from schools, some from social service agencies and others, from government agencies.
3.             Second, I want to start by saying my heartfelt thanks to all of you for joining us today, for your on-going efforts to support our at-risk youths and if I may assume, for sharing my staunch belief that every youth has potential.
Youth offending trends 
4.             Over the last five years, the number of youth offenders each year averages 2,500. The number of arrests in 2022 – slightly more than 2,000 – is the lowest it has been in the past five years. While we are encouraged, we need to dive deeper to understand what drives what we are observing today.  
5.             The world that our youths are grappling with today is a complex and dynamic one, much more so than the world I knew when I was a youth. Youths today are digital natives. This can be both a boon and a bane. On the one hand, youths today enjoy the benefits of a highly-connected digital world: access to vast reservoirs of knowledge, access to the global e-marketplace, and access to the opportunity to forge a new friendship with someone from remote corners of the world; all within a few clicks of the mouse. On the other hand, the perils of a hyper-connected world loom large. Online excesses: sexually explicit materials; misinformation; easy access to illicit devices via instant messaging platforms. How well can our youth navigate these evolving challenges? How many of them end up a youth offending statistic? How well do we understand these emerging youth trends?
6.             Take for instance vaping. Vapes are illegal in Singapore, and vapes are harmful to health. Yet vaping is neither unknown nor uncommon amongst our youth. Why is vaping becoming more popular? Perhaps a combination of a few reasons: (a) the misperception that vaping is less harmful than cigarette smoking, (b) how vaping has been portrayed to not only be acceptable but cool, and (c) the ease with which one could purchase affordable vaping supplies via social media and instant messaging applications. All these are plausible contributory factors, but the point I’m trying to make, is that issues like this should raise our eyebrows, and issues like these should be the very fodder of our conversations today.
COY 2023 theme
7.             Organised biennially, “Conversations on Youth” is a key platform by the National Committee on Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism (NCPR) to bring together stakeholders to share perspectives on youth delinquency and offending. This year, we’re happy to have Youth Work Association Singapore (or Y-WAS) partner us in organising this symposium. This year’s theme is: “YOUths matter amidst change”. I hope our Conversations today will allow us to better understand issues confronting our youths, and how we can do better to support them and their families in finding their true north. 
Introduction to the National Committee of Prevention, Rehabilitation and Recidivism
8.             The NCPR was set up in 2018 and is currently co-chaired by Minister of State for Home Affairs, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal and myself. We are also fortunate to have the support of various government agencies, my parliamentary colleagues, national advisory councils, and self-help groups.
9.             The NCPR focuses on (a) preventing offending, as well as (b) rehabilitating and reintegrating those who have offended. This is why the NCPR looks at interventions for different profiles of individuals. For our at-risk youths, we need to intervene early. Upstream measures like school-based programmes are important to ensure that these youths do not go down the wrong path. The NCPR also steers downstream measures like strengthening post-care support for youths and adult ex-offenders after their discharge or release from Youth Homes and prison. This will help them to settle back into society and to break cycles of offending.
10.             While the NCPR was established by the Government, what it sets out to do must involve all quarters of society. Really, it is a whole-of-society effort. Much of the heavy-lifting, frontline work is carried out by our partners in the social service sector - you know who you are. Your work informs and shapes the deliberations of the NCPR. MSF has designated 2023 as a Year of Celebrating our Social Service Partners. Therefore, on behalf of the NCPR, allow me to say a big “THANK YOU” to our partner organisations, our youth workers, social workers and case workers, and all who work alongside them. Thank You for your hard work in this space. Thank You for faithfully journeying alongside offenders and ex-offenders. Thank You for your working in nurturing lives. Thank You for believing that everyone has potential!
Three areas of current concern
11.             Over the last two years, the NCPR, together with community partners, have identified three areas where support for our youths is most needed.
(I). Preventing substance abuse among youths
12.             First, preventing substance abuse. We are now seeing a more permissive attitude towards drugs amongst our youths. Some ask: Why can’t we legalise cannabis just like other countries? The government’s zero-tolerance stance on drugs? Too harsh!
13.       When chillaxing recently, I chanced upon a Netflix series which essentially was an expose on the life-sapping economics of drugs. After watching that, my conviction that, “there’s nothing lit or slay about drugs” was reinforced. Drugs destroy lives, and Drugs destroy families. I remember when I was younger, as part of fire safety education, we were taught, “Fire is a good servant, but a bad master.” Drugs are the same, only worse, much worse! We must therefore strengthen our messaging to our youths and the general public. A new anti-drug campaign will be held in 2024, to raise awareness on the severe impact of drugs on abusers and their loved ones. Community partners will also be roped in and we hope that this campaign will increase our youths’ conviction in staying away from drugs.
14.             On a related note, we are seeing a disturbing rising trend of vaping among youths. The number of offenders caught for purchase, use or possession of vapourisers by the Health Science Authority increased almost four-fold from 1,266 in 2020 to 4,697 in 2022. Those under 18 accounted for about 20% of these offenders. Apart from misinformation on social media and the accessibility of vapes, their appeal also lies in their affordability. Anecdotally, a youth I met during a Night Drift with our colleagues in Youth Go! told me a disposable vape costs just $16, looks aesthetically appealing, and depending on how ‘heavy’ a user you are, can potentially last several weeks!
15.             Some research shows that teenagers who have never smoked before but have used e-cigarettes, are at least twice as likely to smoke cigarettes later in life. There is also the risk that youths would experiment with other forms of substances, including drugs, after trying vaping.
16.             This is why we need to move; and we need to move fast! We must raise awareness on substance abuse. Educate our youths on the harms of drugs and vapes, and make it clear that they are illegal for good reason. For instance, you might find the line, “Vape is the toxic friend you don’t need” familiar. This was the key message of the vape-free campaign that leveraged various public transport and social media platforms. Targeted at youths, the message is simple: Vaping is illegal and harmful for your health. Socialising our young ones to the realities of substance abuse is one key way to help them stay away from these substances.
(II). Breaking the cycle of intergenerational offending
18.             Our second area of focus is breaking the cycle of intergenerational offending.  This is a perennial challenge, but one that we must keep our eyes trained on. Local studies have found that children exposed to parental criminality are three times as likely to engage in crimes themselves.
19.             We can and must do more to mitigate the risk. For families where the parent has been incarcerated, we must identify if there are other risk factors present in the family, stabilise the family, and address the areas of concern. Stable families are pivotal in motivating offenders to change, and supporting their reintegration.  A study we did locally found that youths with high family supervision were almost 3.5 times more likely to complete their probation orders than those with low family supervision. Another study that looked into drug desistance found that participants who desisted from drugs for 5 years or more reported stronger familial bonds, and cited these relationships as sources of motivation and inspiration for them in their desistance journey. It is therefore an imperative for us to look into how we can better support families of at-risk or in-risk persons, so that we can turn vicious cycles, into virtuous ones.
20.             To be sure, there are many such efforts in place today. For instance, there are family bonding programmes, such as the Kids in Play programme by The Salvation Army, where inmates and their families or children can spend time together in meaningful activities during the period of incarceration. This helps to promote a positive parent-child relationship by allowing the children to interact with their incarcerated parents without physical barriers.
21.             But more can be done to expand existing support touchpoints and improve coordination so that inmates’ families can benefit from more comprehensive and timely support. In 2020, Singapore Prison Service piloted a collaboration with Family Service Centres to identify inmates who have young children, whose families need support. These families were then referred to the Family Service Centres so that they could be supported by social workers.
22.             The pilot has yielded good results. In particular, it allowed new families impacted by incarceration to access support services in a more timely manner. Prisons will mainstream the collaboration to cover all newly-admitted inmates with young children by the end of this year. This partnership will benefit around 1,200 inmate parents every year.
23.             The Singapore Prison Service will also collaborate with the Strengthening Families Programme @ Family Service Centre, or FAM@FSC for short to establish a referral process inmates with marital issues to receive counselling services. Building and restoring stable marriages will go a long way in helping our youths receive the necessary care and guidance from both parents.
(III). Preventing youth sexual offending
24.             The third area of focus for the NCPR is preventing youth sexual offending. Today, responses to youth sexual offending mainly involve criminal sanctions after the offence has been committed. This is not enough. We must go upstream, before an offence is even committed. We also need to strengthen downstream measures to better support the rehabilitation and reintegration of youth sex offenders to prevent them from re-offending.
25.             Take the example of ‘Adam’ (not his real name), who was 17 years old when he was placed on probation for offences related to Outrage of Modesty. His initial curiosity about pornography at the age of 13 turned into a habitual and monstrous stress coping mechanism that eventually consumed him. The lack of guidance subsequently led him to act on his thoughts and commit sexual offences. Youth sexual offending is an issue I am deeply concerned about; so much so I’d asked to speak with some of our offenders personally, in my attempt to understand the motivations behind why these offences were committed in the first place. What became stark to me from these conversations I had, was how excessive consumption of pornography - and the insatiable thirst for a high, which perversely only got blunted with increased consumption - was ever so often, the precursor to sexual offending. This is deeply concerning. Thankfully, not all’s doom and gloom. With early identification and intervention, youths can be guided to lead a prosocial lifestyle and be steered away from offending.
26.               To tackle this issue, we must strengthen community support to address the scourge of sexual offending from a young age. We need to build up the capabilities of our professionals so that they can deliver more effective interventions. Thus, we will be developing an Early Identification and Intervention Resource Package for Youths with at-risk Sexual Behaviours. This will help our professionals in the early identification of inappropriate behaviours. Professionals will also be guided on how they can intervene, with tiered responses to manage these youths with at-risk sexual behaviours. We are targeting for half of all school and community counsellors to be trained by end-2024 in using this resource package, and the remaining to be trained by end-2025.
27.             Going back to ‘Adam’, his rehabilitation journey was not an easy one. For his parents, there was hurt and disbelief. For Adam, he was filled with shame and a poor sense of self-worth. Adam’s probation officer and psychologist focused him on identifying and managing his stressors and sexual arousal in healthier ways. With the close involvement of his parents, the family progressed from a sense of hopelessness to a place of hope and recovery. Adam learnt to open up to his parents and they in turn learnt ways to support Adam’s progress. He eventually completed probation and remains motivated to keep improving himself.  Stories like ‘Adam’ remind us that we can do more to reach out to youths before their risk-taking behaviours become entrenched.
28.             My friends, issues confronting our youths are constantly evolving. Our deck of cards today are very different what we had to face five years ago, and we can be sure too that the situation five years on will not be static. What anchors us then, will be:
                - Our common belief that every young life is brimming with potential, waiting to be uncovered;
                - Our common passion that no matter how winding this path might be, our hearts are with our youth; and
                - Our common commitment to journey with and grow alongside each and every youth we serve.
29.             To dish out the proverbial cliche once again: we will have no hope of succeeding in what we set out to do, unless we do it wholeheartedly, and whole-of-society. This means everyone needs to get our hands dirty – families, community organisations, individual volunteers, Government, and corporates, so that our youths can be supported holistically. I would like to urge to join hands in our work to prevent offending and reoffending, support offenders, and meet the needs of families impacted by incarceration. Collectively, we can help break the cycle of offending and help our youths reach their fullest potential.
30.             Thank you for your attention, and I wish everyone a fruitful day ahead.