Yesterday, Justice Tay Yong Kwang sentenced twenty-year-old National serviceman Dave Teo Ming to nine years and two months in jail and 18 strokes of the cane for having a rifle, eight bullets and a knife.

But before passing the sentence, the judge, moved by the boy’s troubled childhood, gave a touching speech directed at him, which made me cry:

“MY HEART hurts for you that so young a man will have to spend some of the best years of his life in prison and have to undergo so many strokes of the cane, but I trust that you understand a deterrent sentence is unavoidable in the circumstances.

Dave, you have had a very hard life. I hope that this unfortunate and traumatic wrong turn in your life will make you much more mature and a whole lot wiser and that you will spend the next few years reconstructing your young life.

I hope that you will pursue your studies, listen to good advice from counsellors and learn many skills while in prison and that, upon your release, you will have a life full of meaning and purpose to honour the memory of your grandmother and your beloved younger brother.

It has been written, ‘To everything there is a season’. There was a time when you loved, there came a time when you hated. There was a time when you felt you wanted to kill, now is the time for you to heal. There was a time you were broken down, now is the time to build yourself up. There was a time when you were at war in your being, now is the time to restore peace within.”

What does an innocent young child deserve? In my opinion, nothing but a warm happy family with parents who know how to shower love, care and concern, because a child has done no wrong in the first place. Unfortunately, not every child has the fortune that you or I have. Dave Teo is a clear example. His father is constantly in and out of prison for various offences. At the time of Dave’s arrest, his father was in jail for drug trafficking. His mother was a gambler who would cane him and his younger brother whenever she lost money. Sometimes she beat them for no apparent reason and would even throw chairs at them. His parents divorced when he was seven, and his mother walked out on them, taking his younger sister with her and leaving Dave and his brother in the care of his grandparents. One might even feel glad for the boys thinking that the beatings would finally stop following the departure of the mother but Dave didn’t live a blessed life. His uncle who lived with them, would punch and slap him if he misbehaved.

I think one of the greatest and most devastating blows to Dave’s life came when his brother, two years younger than himself, was killed in a road accident at the year of Dave’s fourteenth birthday. The two brothers had been close and I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Imagine having a non-existent father and an abusive mother, both who walked away when he was so young, taking away his sister as well. I would think that his younger brother would be his only and best companion in life. For a fourteen-year-old teenager, stressed down by daily workload and having to deal with other issues that come with teenagehood like peer pressure and identity crisis, the sudden death of a loved one would no doubt be a killer. I think whatever grip Dave had on his life at that moment, no matter how little and weak that had been, broke away almost completely that very day.  

Perhaps he hasn’t really been able to accept or deal with the loss of his brother. He missed his brother so much that while he was serving NS, he pasted a photograph of his brother in his cupboard at the camp so that he could always look at him. But that didn’t help. He began to spiral downwards with disciplinary problems. He was angry and hated everybody. I can never relate to that but I think I understand how he felt. For a child who has done no wrongdoing and yet leads a suffering life, to have everything important taken from him, he must have felt that life is absolutely unfair. I wish that he could have found help earlier but you need to have someone who cares in the first place to look out for you. Well, he didn’t. He ultimately became depressed and isolated himself from the family. He played truant and dropped out of school in Secondary Three.

As if life hasn’t been cruel enough, his girlfriend of four years broke off with him. Four years. I think that’s freaking long for youths these days. He must have loved her a lot. With nothing to hold onto in his lonely life, she must have been the only life buoy which he firmly holds his grip onto, the only anchor of his sanity, the only torch of fire in his darkness. Maybe that’s why he turned so possessive, which was the reason for the break-up. No one should blame the girlfriend for initiating it. Her stand was understandable. He was sometimes abusive towards her as well, both verbally and physically. The only regrettable thing is that Dave didn’t have more which he could rely on, someone whom he could pour his sorrows to, lay his head on the shoulder to cry on. Hence the break-up completely snapped him. I suppose it didn’t help that his ex-girlfriend fell for another girl.

That was why he hatched a plan to sneak out of Mandai Hill camp with a Sar-21 assault rifle and ammunition, and murder on his mind. His main target? Of course, his ex-girlfriend whom he wanted to punish for dumping him. However, he also said that he wanted to kill five people whom he hated and planned to use the weapon in a robbery as well. He did mention suicide using the rifle too. I think he was just very hurt and confused. But would he have done the deed if he hadn’t been caught in time by the police at a toilet in Cathay Cineleisure? His rifle was already loaded and ready for firing. We would never know but this is something we are all glad not to know for ourselves.

Are the judge, the media or even I myself trying to victimize Dave Teo and put him in a more favourable light so that the public can sympathize him? Are we trying to make it appear that he was indirectly pushed to commit the crime because of his situation? No, we are not. He IS the perpetrator and the sentence is just, considering that he had committed a very grave offence. But should we wish to tackle any problem, we need to take it down by its roots. Like many others, I would think that Dave’s predicament has stemmed from his disturbed upbringing.  

This brings to my point: I AM VERY ANGRY AT IRRESPONSIBLE PARENTS. I think people who are not capable of giving their children the attention and love that they need should never be allowed to have children in the first place. The child does not ask to be born. If you bring the child to this world, then it is your responsibility to do all you can to ensure that your child will grow up to be happy and balanced, someone who can love, someone who can lead a more or less fulfilling life, someone who can contribute usefully to the society in one’s own ways, no matter the amount.

My sis recently half-jokingly, half-seriously commented that parent-wannabes should undergo some kind of assessment to check if they are suitable to be parents and could only conceive if they passed and got certified, otherwise it being illegal by law. Now this would be mighty tough and is enough to discuss in a separate entry by itself. Will it be a violation of human rights? Isn’t procreation written in our genome since the cavemen’s days? If we really carry this out successfully, will our Homo Sapiens population dwindle down to eventual extinction because I’m pretty sure many people won’t qualify?

I feel that love forms the foundation of the pyramid of life. Sounds cliche, I know, but you know it’s true as well. I was tempted to say “family” in place of the L-word but I realize that love can come from anyone from anywhere, let it be family, friends, teachers, counsellors. Of course, I will think that family is especially crucial because you are mainly surrounded by your close family in at least the first decade of your life, at a stage of life when you are inquisitive and impressionable, quick to pick up anything from your parents, grandparents or elder siblings. Love is vital because one doesn’t know how to love anyone unless one has been loved by others. And there’s the other saying that one needs to know how to love onself before knowing how to love others. I think it’s all true and as mushy as this may sound, I think love is incredible. There’s perhaps no true meaning in life if there’s no love for anyone or anything.  

That said, it seems like our poor Dave Teo had little of the love he needed and craved all these years. Perhaps none after his girlfriend left him. Even more so after his grandmother, a liver cancer patient, died late last year while Teo was in remand. No family members were in court yesterday except his mother who turned up briefly but left before he was sentenced. What kind of life has it been for him? Something I can’t imagine and definitely won’t be able to take well if I am in his shoes. I have been blessed with a lot and am fortunate enough not to understand the loss, but I can imagine what will happen if I lose any part of it. It will be pure hell.

I have no words of comfort for the boy. Only tears of grief. I hope that he can find solace in the quiet days spent in his cell, rediscover the true path and meaning to life in the nine years of imprisonment, and come out as a whole new man who can take everything in life, no matter how cold and cruel the world can get, in his stride.