S'pore prison inmate gets 4 As & 1 B for A-levels despite 3 hours of sleep daily, grieving grandma's death

On how he bit the bullet, Jason explained that this was what his grandmother would have wanted for him.

Fiona Tan | February 25, 2022, 03:42 AM

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Students from all over Singapore received their GCE A-Level (General Certificate of Education Advanced Level) on Feb. 22.

Amongst those who did was 26-year-old prison inmate, "Jason" (not his real name), who topped his prison school cohort by achieving four As and one B.

Cope with grief of grandmother's passing

Jason's stellar achievement is no small feat, as his grandmother passed away when he was sitting for his GCE A-Level exams.

The elderly woman had fallen ill two months before Jason's examinations.

Singapore Prison Service (SPS) said "news of his grandmother's passing shocked him into grief", so much so that Jason "cooped himself in [his] cell to cope with his grief".

Jason said his late grandmother was often worried about him as he was the family's eldest grandson.

She would often tell him to study hard and make something good out of his life.

Jason said: “It was really very hard for me when I got the news. As the eldest grandson, she was always worried about me, and because of my mistakes, I couldn’t be with her when she was sick."

Taking to heart the aspirations that his grandmother had for him, Jason was motivated to push through his grief and sit for his exams.

He explained he bit the bullet because doing well academically now was "what she would have wanted for me.”

Compressed curriculum

On top of coping with the grief of his grandmother's passing, Jason had only nine months to cram a curriculum that would typically take candidates two years.

Inmates go through a fast tracked education system in prison school where the curriculum is often compressed into a year.

This is to allow inmates to complete their education within their incarceration period, SPS said.

Inmates sitting for the GCE A-level exams can choose to complete the entire course in either one or two years.

Those inmates who choose to further their education with a diploma or an undergraduate degree can enrol in a roughly 1.5 year or eight-year course respectively, according to SPS.

Slept just three hours a day

Jason was left with just one year in his sentence when he decided to enrol in the GCE A-level programme.

He was previously convicted of trafficking in a controlled drug and sentenced to five years' jail, which started from 2018.

Despite telling SPS that he did not enjoy studying, Jason was committed to turning over a new leaf and wished to improve his future after his release in 2022, even if that meant sleeping a mere three hours a day.

In the days leading up to his examinations, SPS said he would study until 2am each night, only to wake up at 5am the next morning to get ready for his classes.

Favourite subject was General Paper

Out of Jason's five GCE A-level subjects, his favourite was H1 General Paper (GP).

The other four were H1 Mathematics, H2 Management of Business, H2 Principles of Accounting, and H2 Economics.

This came as a surprise, as he had scored C6 for English for his General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (GCE O-level).

He also frequently requested for books from his mother while he was in prison.

In fact, it was after reading Ernest Becker “Denial of Death” in 2020 that Jason was moved to "make the most out of his time while in prison".

Jason said he used to be myopic and immature, but GP "opened his eyes to social issues", such as psychology, political and social science, and "deepened his thinking and views of the world".

He is even able to quote his prison school GP teacher, Michelle Cheam, verbatim: "GP is about thinking deeper about the society and the world  around you."

He is also interested in the areas of psychology,  political and social science, which he discovered through the GP subject.

"One of her most hardworking and motivated students"

Cheam remembers Jason as one of her most hardworking and motivated students.

She said he never once missed an assignment, and would even go beyond what he was required to do. Instead of turning in the one essay he was tasked to do, Jason would turn in two or three essays so as to improve his writing.

Jason and Cheam. Image courtesy of Singapore Prison Service.

Besides merely using his "library time" to borrow books, the studious inmate would ensure he made full use of it to consult Cheam on his essays.

However, Jason's interest in GP was not met without obstacles as he was without access to the latest world news and happenings, something that GP students have to stay on top of.

Prison inmates are only given access to old news, some that are two weeks old.

Cheam helped to fill the gap by compiling notes and resources.

This included laboriously transcribing videos on paper just so she could equip her students with sufficient examples and knowledge to tackle their GP essays.

And Cheam's efforts to support her students showed, as Jason said his life changed under Cheam's tutelage, as well as under other prison school teachers.

Prison school inmates excel despite challenges

Jason also had to adapt to the disruptive effect of Covid-19, where SPS said only a maximum of three face-to-face lessons can be conducted each day and virtual lessons became commonplace.

All of these were obstacles in what was already a rigorous and demanding academic timetable.

However, this did not stop Jason excelling at his GCE A-level examinations, where he achieved four As in H1 GP, H1 Mathematics, H2 Principles of Accounting, and H2 Economics and a B in H2 Management of Business.

Jason's results. Image courtesy of Singapore Prison Service.

Jason was not the only one with good results, as seven other inmates from his batch had qualified for polytechnic, private degree courses, or full-time local university courses.

Minister of State for Ministry of Home Affairs Faishal Ibrahim commended prison school inmates for their "courage" to take their A-level examinations despite being incarcerated and having to deal with Covid-19-related disruptions.

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Released in February 2022

Jason was released from prison on the Mandatory Aftercare Scheme in February 2022.

Jason collecting his results after his release. Image courtesy of Singapore Prison Service.

He shared that he would would like to further his studies and attain a law degree to be a good and honest criminal lawyer to help others.

However, Jason is aware that his reintegration into society might not be the easiest as the public might not be that quick to accept him.

To avoid potential stares from the public, Jason conceals the electronic monitoring tag around his ankle with long pants.

The thought of these challenges have not squash his hopes for the future though, as he shared that he intends to change the perceptions that people have of ex-offenders through his efforts to change for the better.

“My mother is very happy, and even told me jokingly that I should have gone in [to prison] earlier!” Jason quipped.

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Top image courtesy of Singapore Prison Service