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Rehabilitation through empathy: Her personal key to turning inmates' lives around
By Bryant Chan

On top of enforcing discipline, impacting those behind bars also comes down to making meaningful connections, says this MHA Uniformed Scholarship (SPS) holder

Friendless. Uncooperative. Verbally abusive. 

To put it lightly, one of the first inmates assigned to Superintendent 1A Ng Kailin was not the easiest to deal with. 

Fresh out of training school as a Housing Unit Officer (now known as Senior Correctional Unit Officer) at the former Changi Women’s Prison, it was Supt1A Ng’s job to rehabilitate the inmate – a job easier said than done. 

The foreign inmate’s behaviour was challenging. Defensive and hurtful, she was a constant drain on the morale of other prison officers and fellow inmates. Rehabilitating her required a different approach. 

Choosing to respond to her hostility with kindness and firmness, Supt1A Ng found opportunities to talk to her and remained patient when the inmate did not reciprocate.

After three months of persistence, Supt1A Ng finally got a breakthrough. 

Currently seconded to the Ministry of Home Affairs as deputy director at the Policy Development Division, Supt 1A Ng Kailin collaborates with the Central Narcotics Bureau and the Singapore Prison Service to develop policies governing drugs and drug offenders. PHOTO: SPH MEDIA

While there were still moments when she would despair over the inmate slipping back into old habits, the progress made was evident. 

“We persevered and she started to become more compliant, as she realised the attention she wanted was better achieved when she worked with us and not against us,” says Supt 1A Ng, 38. “I think that helped not just myself, but also my whole team.”

The heartwarming twist to this story: After the inmate’s release and return to her home country, Supt1A Ng’s team received a letter from her, thanking them for their support during her incarceration.

“It felt so awesome,” says Supt1A Ng. “You never know when you can impact someone. It’s what makes this job rewarding.”

That is what it means to be Captains of Lives in the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), she says. 

“As prison officers, we help inmates take ownership of their own rehabilitation, by positively influencing them to renew their family bonds and reintegrate into society – all while ensuring we enforce discipline.”

Finding balance in a tough job 

Initially, Supt1A Ng did not want to be a prison officer. 

Her keen interest in psychology had her torn between a teaching scholarship and one with the SPS. She was eventually swayed after attending scholarship talks given by SPS officers.

“I decided it would be especially meaningful to make a difference in the lives of inmates and their families,” she recalls. 

This led her to apply for the Local Merit Award under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) Uniformed Scholarship scheme, allowing her to study psychology as an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore.

Her career path as an MHA scholar also led her to pursue a fully sponsored nine-month Master of Science in Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States.

“As prison officers, we help inmates take ownership of their own rehabilitation, by positively influencing them to renew their family bonds and reintegrate into society – all while ensuring we enforce discipline.”

Superintendent 1A Ng Kailin , recipient of the Ministry of Home Affairs Uniformed Scholarship (SPS)

Even with this relevant knowledge, Supt1A Ng is aware of the challenges that come with being a prison officer.

In fact, when she first told her mother about her intended career path, her mother discouraged it as she was worried for her safety.

“SPS officers can expect to be subjected to verbal abuse and high amounts of mental stress,” she says. “It is rare, but inmates can also occasionally get violent.”

Sure enough, in her first month on the job, Supt1A Ng was so overwhelmed that she found herself losing her temper with her family at the slightest provocation.

It was only with support from colleagues in her team, initiatives organised by SPS’ Psychology Branch promoting mental resilience, as well as implementing a routine of self-care – in her case, running – that helped her deal with the emotional pressures of the job.

The mother-of-four also tries her best to weave her work schedule around family dinner time – which happens daily between 5pm and 8pm – so she can have uninterrupted time with them.

“It is very important to learn how to manage emotional stress and compartmentalise the baggage that we deal with on a daily basis,” says Supt1A Ng.

It is a tough work environment, she admits, “but if you want an organisation that cares for you, and if you believe in the mission just like we do, then this is the place to be.”

More on this topic:
From showing empathy to planning policies: He aims to break the cycle of crime
Helping inmates break the cycle of crime

On a mission of transformation

Today, Supt 1A Ng is on rotation with the MHA as a deputy director overseeing rehabilitation in the Policy Development Division. Working closely with SPS and the Central Narcotics Bureau, she is an integral driving force behind the recent tightening of drug laws.

While it is a significant departure from the ground work she did as a prison officer – collaborating with inmates and like-minded colleagues – Supt 1A Ng says she is grateful for the opportunity to work on policies aimed at keeping Singaporeans safe. 

The mission continues to be meaningful to Supt 1A Ng, especially having witnessed first-hand the impact drugs can have on both inmates and their families.

“I have seen how addiction tears families apart,” she says, referring to an elderly mother whom she used to see visiting her son regularly in prison. 

“She told me she visited her son when she was young and healthy, and now she’s using a walking stick and still visiting him because he’s been in and out of prison seven times,” she says. “It is heartbreaking.”

This is why Supt 1A Ng is most passionate about being on the ground and working directly with inmates to make a difference in their lives, which she will continue to do once her secondment ends.

“I love my job as a prison officer, there hasn’t been a single day in my life that I haven’t said with passion, ‘I love my job’,” she says. 

“Fifteen years ago, if you’d asked me then, my answer would remain the same as today: ‘I love my job’.”

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