No Holds Barred

A member of SPEAR shares his experience of working behind bars and being a Captain of Lives in SPS, one of Singapore’s premier employers.

By Joyce Lin

Whenever Yeo Bo Li tells people that he works behind bars, their first reaction is to ask why.

The 23-year-old made the choice to work in the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) a year ago when he was still in the army.

A friend encouraged him to take up the challenge when he chanced upon an SPS advertisement in the newspapers.

He was initially apprehensive at first. “I remember visiting Changi Prison before I joined and looking at the outside of the prison walls, thinking I would never want to come here,” admits Bo Li.

“But now I know that I want to carve out this path in correctional services for my future career.”

Bo Li is a member of the elite Singapore Prisons Emergency Action Response (SPEAR) Force. The SPEAR Force is called upon to handle high-risk situations that occur both within and outside of prison.

These include quelling riots and escorting high-risk inmates to attend court sessions outside of prison.

An elite force

The Nanyang Polytechnic alumnus knew right from the start that he wanted to be part of the SPEAR Force the minute he joined the SPS.

“I knew I wanted to feel special and part of an elite team in my career choice, which was why I chose to join SPEAR.”

The challenges of being in such an elite task force appealed to the former commando, who was looking for something similar.

“I really enjoyed my stint in the commando forces. It was a challenging experience but I got to do what most army regulars could not do – such as sky diving and travelling to different countries in the region,” says Bo Li.

As a member of SPEAR, Bo Li undergoes constant daily training throughout the whole day even when he is not “activated” in times of emergency.

This includes both tactical and physical training, where all trainees have to experience some of the control and restraining methods first-hand, such as the use of pepper spray.

“This is to encourage officers to have a sense of empathy and to think twice before resorting to the more severe methods,” he says. “We need to be able to know how it feels for the person being restrained too.”

Although all prison service officers carry batons and are trained to use them, these alternative methods may come in handy when the situation calls for it. Officers also abide by a buddy system so that they are never left alone to deal with things.

Rehab, renew, restart

Unlike the gritty, rowdy depictions of prison life that is shown on television, Singapore’s prison institutional system is technologically advanced, secure and provides a humane condition for its inmates.

While keeping potential menaces away from society to maintain law and order, the point of imprisonment is also to rehabilitate offenders.

“There is so much humanity and personal experience behind those walls. In my six months as a personal supervisor overseeing inmates serving long sentences, such as drug offenders or inmates who have been there for more than ten years, I experienced more than I ever have (in my life),” Bo Li shares.

There were certain trying moments when inmates tried to “test” the limits seeing that Bo Li was a newcomer, but he stood his ground.

He recounts an incident: “All inmates have to follow house rules to maintain security, law and order here. For example, when they are escorted from point A to point B in the prison institution, they are supposed to squat down when not moving. On a particular occasion, an inmate tried to stand instead of squat, until I told him firmly that he had to abide by the rules. He did.”

Taking up a challenge

Now that he has completed a six-month stint as a prison officer, Bo Li is in the midst of his SPEAR training and will go on to a three-week attachment where he will assist a senior team member of SPEAR.

Witnessing a SPEAR activation first-hand – where a team swooped in to quell a disturbance – left a deep impression on Bo Li. “We are expected to leave within two minutes of hearing the alarm,” he says. “So when an incident occurs, we have to be very alert and quick-thinking. There is no time for you to stall and not know what to do.”
Despite his age, there is an unnerving steely nature that surrounds his seemingly quiet demeanour, a quality that most young men his own age would seldom possess.

It is this trait that pushes Bo Li to greater heights. He hopes to become a SPEAR trainer – something that will come with years of experience – and to further his studies in a degree course related to crime and security in the near future.

For polytechnic graduates who wish to pursue a career similar to his, he has this advice. “It is a very challenging job and you must be able to handle stressful situations. You need to have leadership qualities and be a good example to others.”

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