Seasoned jailbird's lawyer: All he needs is a job
Over the past 27 years, he has been in and out of prison for theft at least two dozen times.
While he had mostly stolen petty items, his 24 offences were enough to put the recalcitrant thief away for nearly 18 of those 27 years.
On Wednesday, the jobless M. Mahalingam, 63, found himself back in jail for 16 months, but not before some harsh words from Community Court judge Lim Keng Yeow, who also asked to meet him privately after sentencing him.
His latest crime: Stealing two cans of beer from supermarkets in March.
On March 7, Mahalingam was at Prime Supermarket in Tampines Street 81 around 11am when a supermarket employee saw him behaving suspiciously at the beer section.
When Mahalingam realised he was being watched, he put down a can of beer at the vegetable section and left.
Around 3pm that day, the same employee saw Mahalingam at the beer section again.
He put a can of Tiger beer into his left pocket before leaving.
Another employee stopped him outside the supermarket, took back the beer and called the cops.
On March 26 at 9.30am, Mahalingam was in NTUC Finest at Marine Parade when he was spotted by a loss prevention officer, who recognised him as a beer theft suspect from the week before.
At the chiller section, Mahalingam took a can of Kirin beer and left without paying, but was stopped by the officer.
He admitted to stealing the beer and paid for it.
He was back two hours later and took a can of Heineken beer. The loss prevention officer confronted him again and called the police.
These offences were the latest in a long list that took Deputy Public Prosecutor Chee Ee Ling nearly five minutes to read out.
Lawyer Amarick Gill, representing Mahalingam pro bono, said his client was remorseful after spending almost 18 years in jail for a string of theft-related offences.
Despite his past convictions, Mahalingam has no psychiatric issues, he said, repeatedly bringing up the point that his client hopes to find a job so he can stop offending.
"Hopefully, he will find the discipline in himself (to turn his life around). The important thing is that he finds work," Mr Gill said.
But Judge Lim pointed out that despite his multiple prison sentences, including a stint at corrective training, Mahalingam was still re-offending.
"Your sentences haven't caused you to wake up... I know through Mr Gill, you have expressed remorse, but to what extent can you be taken seriously?" the judge asked.
Mr Freddy Wee, the deputy director of Breakthrough Missions, which runs a halfway house for ex-offenders, said that jobs are available for ex-convicts, but they have to be humble and not be choosy. (See report right.)
Mr Gill told The New Paper on Thursday that Mahalingam's case stood out because of his repeated insistence on wanting a job.
On each of Mr Gill's five prison visits to Mahalingam, the latter would end the meeting by saying he wanted to get a job when he got out of jail, saying that he used to work at a foodstall and made very good roti prata.
Mr Gill said: "I was surprised because most (in Mahalingam's position) would say they are down on their luck, and hope for someone to come along to help them.
"For Mahalingam, I think it's to keep himself motivated and busy, so he won't go back to his old ways."
Mr Gill was representing him through the Volunteer Counsel for the Community Court, a group of 34 lawyers who take on referral cases from the Community Court for free.
Mahalingam's sentence was backdated to March 27, when he was first remanded.
For Mahalingam, I think it's to keep himself motivated and busy, so he won't go back to his old ways.
- Lawyer Amarick Gill
Swallow pride and get job, say experts
I would hire M. Mahalingam, said Mr Benny Se Teo, the founder and director of Eighteen Chefs, a chain of Western food restaurants.
He hires ex-convicts.
"His age doesn't matter. It doesn't matter even if he is a former drug addict. As long as he is willing to work, I am willing to hire," said Mr Teo.
With five outlets islandwide and plans to expand, Mr Teo said 45 per cent of his 120 employees are ex-convicts.
There are many jobs available for ex-offenders, including recalcitrant ones.
But it is up to them to swallow their pride and approach organisations such as the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score) for help.
Score is a statutory board in charge of enhancing the employability of offenders and preparing them for reintegration into the national workforce.
About 4,145 employers are registered with the agency, up from 2,459 in 2010, reported The Straits Times in July.
Deputy director of Breakthrough Missions Freddy Wee said some ex-offenders had told him that the jobs offered by such agencies are low paying.
Mr Wee, whose organisation runs a halfway house for ex-offenders in Yew Siang Road at Pasir Panjang, said: "It is not difficult for them to find jobs if they approach agencies such as Score. But some ex-offenders prefer to look for jobs on their own.
"This can be a bit more difficult as some industries, like security, don't accept ex-offenders. Ex-offenders need to be humble because becoming gainfully employed is more important."
Counsellor John Vasavan shared the same sentiment.
He said: "I think more companies are now willing to employ ex-offenders. It is up to these people to approach agencies such as Score."
Mr Vasavan also felt that the more educated ex-offenders, such as diploma holders and graduates, tend to be more picky when looking for jobs.
He said: "They may not be able to work in air-conditioned offices like how they used to before they were jailed.
"But they should get a job, even less glamorous ones, to earn a living."
The prisons release about 9,000 inmates a year, with more than half having served short sentences of less than a year.
The attitude of ex-convicts also counts, said Mr Teo.
"There are two categories of people who are released - those who think the whole world owes them a living and those who want to make something out of their lives.
"I have a staff who used to be a hardcore drug addict and trafficker, but he has risen up the ranks from service crew to manager after working with me for seven years."
Mr Teo stresses the importance of an ex-offender being employed.
"Counsellors can give all the advice in the world but without a job, ex-offenders will go back to their old ways in no time because they will need money to survive."