Award-winning ITE student uses his tattoos to connect with youths at risk
The Institute of Technical Education (ITE) yesterday honoured 384 outstanding students at the ITE Student Achievers' Award Presentation Ceremony 2015. GAO WENXIN (firstname.lastname@example.org) speaks to two award recipients who overcame the odds
Looking at the tattoos that cover his body, one might make the mistake of thinking that he is a gang member.
But Mr Gary Lau, 24, has put his rebellious past firmly behind him.
Today, his tattoos help him connect with youth at risk so that he can serve as a role model for them.
"Some of them tell me 'I want to be just like you', but my advice to them is to just be yourself," he said.
In March, he completed his Nitec in Community Care and Social Services at ITE College East with a perfect 4.0 Grade Point Average score.
He was of one of 44 students who received the Lee Kuan Yew Award, which recognises students with consistently good results and outstanding conduct.
Mr Lau is pursuing a Diploma in Social Sciences (Social Work) at Nanyang Polytechnic and wants to work with youth at risk. But nine years ago, he was a troubled teenager himself.
In 2006, he was remanded in Singapore Boys' Home for a month and then Boys' Town for two years after being involved in a gang fight.
He was then living with his mother in a three-room HDB flat as his parents had divorced when he was three years old.
His mother, who worked at a Chinese restaurant in the day and at a karaoke lounge at night, had little spare time for him.
Added Mr Lau: "I was bullied in primary school and was often left alone."
At first, he hung out with bad company because he was curious about cigarettes. Later, he joined a gang to seek "protection" from his bullies. He also ran away from home for two weeks.
His mother found about his gang activities and beat him to discipline him.
But all this did nothing to curb his rebellious streak until he was sent to Boys' Town, where he attended CampVision, a camp held for youths there.
Mr Lau said the experience was life-changing.
"Initially, I thought the camp activities were very childish and I refused to participate. But on the second day, I became interested in a rock-climbing activity.
"Because I had a 'don't care' attitude, I only made it halfway up the wall before I asked them to let me come down."
Instead of allowing him to give up, the camp volunteers cheered him on.
At that time, he also had a crush on one of the female youth leaders and it motivated him to continue climbing.
After he managed to reach the top of the wall, the volunteers, including his crush, hugged him.
"I have never felt so loved and cared for," he said.
After he left Boys' Town, he worked hard to stay out of gang activities and learnt cooking at Eighteen Chefs, a restaurant that employs troubled youths and ex-offenders.
While serving National Service, he also decided to continue his education and sat for his N levels privately.
The ITE initially rejected him because of his poor results.
"I didn't know what to do. I asked my social worker to help me and she never gave up on me," said Mr Lau.
He was determined to help other young people who came from difficult backgrounds and appealed for a place.
Mr Lau was interviewed by Mr Tay Wei Sern, now deputy director of Health Sciences at ITE College East.
Said Mr Tay: "I asked him to promise that if I gave him a chance in ITE, he would make good with this opportunity and do well. Something about Gary made me think that he was genuine."
At ITE, Mr Lau, who took part in three CCAs, was vice-president of both the Care Connection and the Interact clubs.
He also went on an overseas industrial attachment to the US, where he volunteered with an agency that works with the homeless.
Mr Lau, who now lives in Simei, also shared how he became the top student for his course at ITE College East.
"I studied every night at Tampines East Community Centre because I could concentrate better there, even though sometimes I was uncomfortable with people staring at my tattoos," he said.
He is also grateful for his ITE education: "I was very lucky. I did not expect to have so many opportunities because of my (gang) background."
Some of them tell me 'I want to be just like you', but my advice to them is to just be yourself.
- Mr Gary Lau
Small space gives him big dreams
MOTIVATED: Mr Marcus Lim is motivated to do his best because of his humble family background. - TNP PHOTO: KEN LU
He grew up sharing a room with his divorced mother and his younger sister, but his situation only spurred him on to do his best.
Mr Marcus Lim, 20, won both the Lee Kuan Yew Model Student Award and ITE CCA Medal yesterday.
Said his mother, clinic assistant Anna Boo, 43: "Even though he comes from a single-parent family, he has never disappointed me."
"He always has an idea of what he wants to do and I will always support him," said Madam Boo, who rents the room in her sister's four-room HDB flat at Senja Road in Bukit Panjang.
Mr Lim's parents divorced when he was three and he has had no contact with his father since.
To pursue his studies in ITE, he earned a scholarship from the Building and Construction Authority (BCA). Throughout his course - Higher Nitec in Electrical Engineering at ITE College West, he took part in many competitions.
"They motivated me to do well in my course and gave me more knowledge about concepts learned in class," he said.
His team even fended off competition from local and foreign universities to take one of the top spots in Shell Eco-Marathon 2015, which challenges student teams from around the world to design, build and test ultra energy-efficient vehicles.
"We went in wanting to improve ITE's score from the previous year, but I did not imagine we could win third prize out of 42 teams, beating the university students," said Mr Lim.
He even earned a Silver medal at the 2014 WorldSkills Singapore competition where he learnt the skills of installing, wiring, and programming a switchboard from scratch.
The competition required more in-depth knowledge compared to his usual classes and he attended more than 100 training sessions in nine months, sacrificing vacation and leisure time.
Since space at home was limited, he would go to school early to study and stay there till late.
He graduated with a perfect GPA of 4.0 and is studying Electrical Engineering at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he was able to enrol as a second-year student due to his excellent ITE results.
Mr Lim has big dreams, saying: "When I serve my bond with BCA, I hope to be able to build construction sites and save enough money to go to university, to thank my mother for her support."
But he did not want to trouble his mother to attend yesterday's ceremony.
"She has to work from the morning to evening to provide for our education."