A New Recipe for Life

From witnessing his father's struggle with drugs to facing his own battles, Syed is determined to reverse the cycle and build a better future for his daughter - by forging a new path through culinary arts.

Early Life 

Syed is no stranger to the burden of drug misuse on families. When Syed was 9 years old, his father was arrested for drug consumption and sent to the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) for treatment and rehabilitation.  

With his father in the DRC and his mother working long hours, Syed had to move in with his sibling so that he could receive care. However, the arrangement fell through as they could not get along and Syed eventually moved back in with his mother. 

On school days, after dismissal, Syed would head to the airport where his mother worked 16-hour shifts. He hung out at the viewing gallery, often falling asleep while waiting for her. On non-school days, Syed also had to follow her to work, since she was the sole caregiver. 

After six months, Syed’s father was released from the DRC. He emerged a changed man and made amends by working hard to support the family and abstaining from alcohol and smoking. “My dad is a changed man, and he is the best father for me. He worked hard for the family, and whatever I wanted, he would give me,” Syed shared. 

Rebellious Season 

Though Syed’s father worked hard to provide him with everything he needed, Syed shared that he still had a rebellious and wild streak in him. This stemmed from Syed being the youngest of four children, growing up with little to no attention from his family.  

He would often roam around the void deck, finding a “family” he could play and hang out with. This continued even as he entered secondary school, where Syed was introduced to drinking and drugs under the influence of his peers.  

At age 30, the law caught up with Syed; he was arrested for drug consumption and sentenced to eight months in prison.  

The Turning Point 

However, Syed was assessed to be eligible for Singapore Prison Service’s Community-Based Programme (CBP) – which offers inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, by allowing them to serve the tail-end of their sentences in the community, such as in their own homes or in halfway houses.   

During this time, Syed learnt about the WSQ Higher Certificate in Food Services (Culinary Arts), a five-week course that is offered at HCSA Academy. The programme aims to provide ex-offenders and other at-risk individuals with a new lease on life and a level playing field to support themselves and their families. 

Although unsure if he could enrol in the course due to a lack of funds, Syed decided to reach out anyway. After the Academy team assessed his suitability, he was informed that he could join the course and would receive sponsorship support for the fees. 

His Core Motivation 

Though Syed had prior experience as a hawker, he approached the course with an open heart, ready to absorb new knowledge. Syed speaks highly of his father, who worked as a commis cook at an army camp, and aspires to follow in his footsteps as a great cook. 

His motivation? His 4-year-old daughter, whom he is raising alone, following his divorce. Syed is determined to ensure that his daughter does not experience the same hardships he faced as a child.

One of the reasons why I put myself down for this programme is because I want to cook for my daughter. I want to show my daughter that I can have a career. I want to show her the graduation certificate, to make her feel proud of me so that she can feel more confident.

Reflecting on his release from the CBP, Syed expressed his resolve to stay away from drugs. He emphasised that he would not risk being separated from his daughter again, as he deeply loves her and wants to provide her with a better future. 

Lessons from The Kitchen 

A standout moment for Syed during the course was learning from the Chef Trainers at the  Academy. “The chefs are not scared to share everything they know. They want people to know what cooking is truly about,” Syed expressed. The in-depth explanations and humble demeanour of the Chef Trainers left a deep impression on Syed, teaching him not just culinary skills but the value of generosity in sharing knowledge. 

Another significant learning experience for Syed was building better bonds with fellow Academy students in the kitchen. Students are expected to clean as they go after preparation of a food item. He admitted that he often wanted to be done with the cleaning task quickly so he could move on to the next assignment but realised that not everyone moves at the same speed.  

He recounts the advice of Norie, the Academy’s Administrator – who suggested that he offers support to those who may need assistance with certain tasks. This perspective showed Syed the importance of accommodating others’ strength and weaknesses and putting himself in others’ shoes. 

Moreover, the course has taught Syed how to communicate more effectively – something that he initially struggled with. His previous hawker experience had ingrained in him a brash way of talking. “It was hard for me to talk nicely. I’m a bit rough in the way I present myself,” he confessed. However, through the course, he learnt to provide explanations and suggestions to fellow students in a manner that helps them understand his point without belittling them. 

He also credits his daughter for his improved communication skills. “With my daughter, I also had to talk nicely,” he remarked, emphasising the need to be understanding of diverse personalities and to communicate with empathy. 

 Advice for Other Ex-Offenders 

For other ex-offenders hoping to join the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry, Syed believes this course is an essential first step. “I recommend they go through this course first so they can experience the workflow in a commercial kitchen,” he shared, noting that the course will help them to determine if they are suited for a demanding kitchen environment.  

What’s Next 

As a recent graduate, Syed will undergo job placement with Academy’s employment partners. This will help reintroduce him to the F&B industry, allowing him to assimilate into a restaurant environment.  

He is determined to work hard and secure a stable job with Central Provident Funds (CPF) benefits, so that he can purchase a bigger Housing Development Board (HDB) flat which would provide separate rooms for his parents and his daughter, improving their living conditions and offering them more privacy. Currently, they reside in a 2-room HDB flat which belongs to his parents. 

Syed also dreams of owning his own hawker stall, specialising in Western food. He wants to show his daughter what working life as a hawker is like, and how he is striving to secure a better future for his family. 

Gratitude 

When asked if he had any words of appreciation or encouragement for the Academy team, Syed expressed his heartfelt gratitude for being accepted as a student. Completing the WSQ Higher Certificate in Food Services (Culinary Arts) at the Academy has equipped him with new culinary techniques and significantly boosted his confidence in the kitchen. 

“I want to assure them that I will never disappoint them, because they have been so good to me and assisted with the sponsorship of this course for me. I know that I can make them proud, and when I open my hawker stall, I will invite them to see what I have achieved,” he concluded.”

Help support ex-offenders like Syed upgrade themselves and secure employment in the F&B industry

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