"We are the first drop of water..."

Commissioner of the Singapore Prison Service, Mr Soh Wai Wah, talks about the power of storytelling and why the little things matter.

Her brother had been put behind bars and her family was in tatters. But thanks to the Yellow Ribbon Community Project, the woman and her family received help.

As a result, she even landed a job, she tearfully told her audience at an event honouring the Yellow Ribbon Champions, volunteers who help the families of prison inmates and ex-offenders.

Mr Soh Wai Wah, the 51-year-old Commissioner of the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), is clearly touched by the woman’s experience as he recounts her story.

At a busy coffeeshop a stone’s throw from Changi Prison, Mr Soh, with a yellow ribbon neatly pinned to his shirt pocket, says: “In her words, she had gone through 12 years of darkness. But when the Yellow Ribbon Champion knocked on her door, she said it was like the light had returned into the household.”

Mr Soh, who became Commissioner of Prisons in 2010, gets his staff to share encouraging tales like this through weekly messages on the SPS intranet. He explains: “They give people a bounce in their step… In this story, I want to tell my staff that the programmes we do do inspire others, such as Yellow Ribbon Champions and grassroots workers.

“This is the ripple effect. We’re the first drop of water that touches the pond. We influence the people around us, the prisoners and their families, and then we have an effect that pervades through the rest of society.” Mr Soh also conducts weekly meetings with his officers, does two ground visits a month, and pens personal reflections in monthly messages on the SPS intranet.

Of his communication at work, he says: “It helps individual officers [to get to know] their leader, but it also has an impact on middle management. It’s an exercise in leadership… showing them how it’s done and creating an expectation on the ground.”

The writing is important in his personal life too. Mr Soh, who is married to a homemaker, regularly emails fatherly advice to his three children aged 12, 22 and 24.


A new narrative

Sharing these inspiring stories also serves a deeper role in the evolution of the SPS.

Up till 2000, the prisons were primarily a form of security to keep hardened criminals behind bars. After that, the prison system gave equal attention to rehabilitation and work practices to reflect that. For example, the “Captains of Lives” concept was introduced to motivate officers to make a difference in inmates’ lives.

In the last two to three years, more attention has been placed on the aftercare of inmates, says Mr Soh. A new Mandatory Aftercare Scheme allows ex-offenders who need reintegration support to be placed in halfway houses or on home supervision after their release.

Similarly, the role of Captains of Lives has been widened and deepened. Besides overseeing the inmates, an officer’s responsibilities now include being a positive influence on the prisoners, colleagues and the wider community, such as the Yellow Ribbon Champions and grassroots volunteers.

Mr Soh explains: “If you’re just a prison guard, it’s straightforward. I guard you, I keep you within bars. You misbehave, I apply the discipline process on you. “But if you say you are a Captain of Lives, it becomes emotional and aspirational. It registers to officers that ‘you are more than a guard; you are expected to have an impact on the lives of the prisoners and others’.”

We influence the people around us, the prisoners and their families, and then we have an effect that pervades through the rest of society.

Fulfilling a calling

Mr Soh endeavours to keep his staff “high on ‘Inspirational Quotient’” because their work environment is difficult and potentially dangerous.

“A prisoner stabbed an officer last year, the first in decades. Yet with all these threats, I have to tell my officers that they still have to inspire [the inmates too]. You have to make sure they are ready for life outside of prison so they don’t come back.”

With the stabbing and a recently concluded civil suit from a prisoner’s family, Mr Soh acknowledges “there have been crises in the last few years”.

But taking inspiration from the biblical story of Esther (who was asked to save her people from a massacre and was told that she was queen “for such a time as this”), Mr Soh believes that whenever a leader faces a crisis, that leader should understand that they have been placed in that position by providence to resolve the problem.

“We are appointed to do this work… so seize the opportunity and fulfil the calling because that’s what we are here for – for such a time as this,” he affirms.


Small acts matter

A 28-year veteran with the Singapore Police Force and its former Chief-of-Staff, Mr Soh has seen high-profile cases such as the Singapore Airlines Flight 117 hijacking in 1991 and the Nicoll Highway collapse in 2004.

Yet one of the most important lessons he learned was from a minor marine hijacking incident in 1993. A colleague had to go out to sea to seize a ship suspected of having armed criminals and Mr Soh had gone to the jetty to see him off. The colleague never forgot that act of encouragement even after he retired. This made Mr Soh realise that even small acts leave a mark.

For Mr Soh, who learned to play the piano at age 30 and now enjoys composing inspirational songs, another task that lies ahead is tackling complacency.

Officers today recognise the SPS as a good organisation, but this satisfaction can be “an obstacle to be greater”. For instance, although the two-year recidivism rate for inmates was 27.4% in 2011, down from 44.4% in 1998, it was still the highest since 2004.

Mr Soh says: “I inherited a well-run, disciplined organisation with committed staff who had achieved significant success. Yet, that created a challenge for me … to help them realise that much work still needed to be done to put the rehabilitation processes and programmes in place.”

Five years on, Mr Soh hopes to bring the recidivism rate down further to “20% and below”, together with the SPS and the community.


What's in your cuppa?
Strong coffee

How do you take it?
I used to drink Nescafe but now my favourite is Nespresso. I have two machines, one at work and
another at home.

Number of cups a day?
Two, no sugar, with a little bit of milk.

    Nov 26, 2014
    Denyse Yeo
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