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The Majulah Series: Second Chances

August has come to an end, and so too our Majulah Series of posts, celebrating some of the things we love best about Singapore and its art. I thought it would be fitting to end with the Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) exhibition in conjunction with the Yellow Ribbon Project.

This is the 7th year that SAM’s collaborated with the Yellow Ribbon Project. The show’s called “From Night to Light” and “has been curated to highlight the rehabilitative journey that the inmates have embarked on through their involvement in the making of art.”

What’s the deal with the Yellow Ribbon? It references a folk song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” which is about someone who’s been released from prison but unsure whether his loved one will welcome him home. So, he writes to her and asks her to “tie a yellow ribbon” around an oak tree which his bus will pass by – if he sees the ribbon, he’ll get off, and if he doesn’t he’ll stay on the bus, understanding that she doesn’t want him back. When he finally arrives, he sees a hundred yellow ribbons tied around the tree and realizes that he’s still very much loved and wanted. (Here’s a great retro rendition of the tune, if you fancy a giggle)

The Yellow Ribbon Project is therefore a movement in Singapore which seeks to reintroduce former prison inmates into society, and follow through on successful rehabilitation of these ex-offenders.

Singapore’s a notoriously difficult society when it comes to failures and mistakes. While things are certainly changing, it’s not easy to step back into the swing of the mainstream when you’ve been tarred with having made the ultimate societal mistake –  conviction for having committed a crime. Hand to heart, how many of us would welcome an ex-offender into our homes, offices or businesses?

In our former lives, we at Plural used to work in the legal profession, and so the law is something close to our hearts. I’ve personally worked both as a government prosecutor, and in pro bono legal assistance — I have to say my initial exposure to the criminal justice system is not something I’ll easily forget.

It’s simple to dismiss offenders as being deserving of every last bit of comeuppance  – whether in the form of their actual prison stints, or the stigma which may continue to follow them throughout their lives, but the reality is this: sometimes people get just caught in unfortunate cycles which are near- impossible to break out of. The privilege walk goes some way to explaining it, as does this brilliant comic, which made its rounds on the internet some time ago (with thanks to Upworthy):

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Of course whether someone breaks the law or not, is a question of choice, and nobody’s making blanket excuses for that kind of behaviour, regardless of latent issues of privilege. However, the recognition that wider socio-economic issues often form the backdrop to such acts being committed in the first place, is truly an important step in us becoming a kinder and more accepting society. To be more pragmatic about things (and Singaporeans are nothing, if not pragmatic!), once you’ve done your time and been punished, you should be allowed to get on with your life. Right?

Preconceived notions : Never a good thing  (credit: goodreads)

And that’s where the Yellow Ribbon Project steps in. To help former offenders overcome the stigma of their stints in jail and usefully reintegrate into society.

As part of its initiatives, it’s organized a community art exhibition together with SAM,  of works produced by inmates under the guidance of artists Edwin Ho, Kim Whye Kee, Stellah Lim and Barry Yeow. The themes of the show are simple enough to understand – “home”, “hope”, “reconciliation” and “transformation”.

You might dismiss it all as a bunch of liberal hogwash – why should these people be cut any slack just because they can produce some art? Well, I like to think there’s something quite poetic about folks who have made missteps in life, channeling their energies and emotions into the production of beautiful things, which the rest of society can step out and enjoy.

See if you feel the same way, looking at these pieces?

Cinderella Dreaming, by Yazril – who thinks about reuniting with his family; especially his daughter who loves Cinderella and wants to visit Universal Studios.
A Batik piece, Good, Bad or Ugly by Gani – who feels as though he’s the only one who can make decisions about his life, in the same way that a horse can be led to water, but not be forced to drink.
Another Batik work  Living the Colourful Spirit by Ami – who wishes to feel the same sense of pride as these macaws with their outspread wings.
The Struggle Within by Farhan- who’s painting here about his inner conflicts and conviction towards breaking free from the shackles of his past.
An installation on which visitors can write messages for the artists.
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Some of the notes that were left behind.
Reunion Dinner by Chee Keong – my personal favourite – these gorgeous ceramics signify the artist’s longing to be with his family again, with the empty bowl representing his place at the dinner table.

If you’ve enjoyed any of this, you still have a bit more time to catch the show, before it closes on 4 September.

My thoughts? Singapore’s had an excellent half-century run, and initiatives such as this one certainly prove that we’re made up of more than just cold, hard dollars and cents. If this continues, we’re surely well-placed to take on the next 50 years with style, grace and most importantly, compassion.

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