SINGAPORE: The four tattoos on his hand and ankles are a reminder of his chequered past as a gang member in his teenage years.
And when patients react to these symbols, especially the three stars on his left hand and the triangular emblem on his left wrist, nurse-in-training Muhammad Azerael Azhar, 23, is affected by it.
“Some don’t have confidence in me,” this young man, burly in size but soft in his ways, said regretfully. Having tried to conceal his tattoos behind skin-coloured plasters, he is now saving for laser treatments to remove them.
What his patients do not know, however, is that those tattoos are in a way a testimony to the odds and personal demons he has had to overcome, to reach a path now that seems to give him a sense of purpose and worth.
Mr Azerael is a second-year nursing student at the Institute of Technical Education College East, where he is making the most of a second chance. The series On the Red Dot gained unprecedented access to the ITE classrooms, showing what life is like for students like him and their lecturers.
ROUGH START IN LIFE
Mr Azerael has always been a bright enough student; in lower primary, he was frequently top of his class and used to be placed in grade bands one and two – until his parents divorced when he was in Primary Four.
The divorce hit him hard, and his grades started slipping to bands three and four. “My mum used to be the one who (helped) me with my subjects,” he said.
“(After) the divorce, she had to work two jobs, and then she didn’t have time for me, and it affected my studies.”
Though he managed to get into the express stream in secondary school, the trauma of the divorce hung over his head, affecting his motivation to study.
“I was very defiant, I didn’t pay attention in class, I didn’t complete assignments,” he recounted.
I’d sit at the back of the class, put on my earpiece, listen to my songs and do my own things. I got into a lot of trouble because of my grooming and attendance.
Despite his nonchalant attitude, he was appointed a councillor. But that invited a host of problems, as he had to report misbehaving students to the teachers.
“Nobody likes that, so I didn’t have many friends. I became a victim of bullying,” he said, adding that he was also teased for being fat.
IN A GANG, FOR PROTECTION
Feeling boxed in, he started mixing with bad company along with his older brother when he was in Secondary Two, joining a gang for protection.
As he was still young, he did not partake in most of the gang-related activities but hung out with them until late.
“They gave us entertainment, company and protection. It made me feel more confident. Some of us were being bullied at school, but we were now in a gang, and that boosted our confidence,” he said.
To maintain that tough image, he got his tattoos when he was still 14, following in his older brother’s footsteps again. After one of his friends was arrested and sent to the Boys’ Home, however, the youngster left the gang.
“That was an eye-opener. Some of the gang members would hang out at night, make a lot of noise and disturb others. And that was when the police got called in, and some (members) were found glue-sniffing,” said Mr Azerael.
The gang slowly broke up, but his involvement with them took its toll on his grades. Out of his seven O-level subjects in 2010, he was absent from three examinations and took only four.
In the end, he passed only three subjects, and so did not qualify for polytechnic. He did not consider enrolling at the ITE then.
I could get (into) almost all the courses in ITE. But at that point, I didn’t want to … because there was a stigma (surrounding) ITE from my family and friends saying that ITE ‘Is The End’.
Angry and disappointed with his results, he could only think how he had wasted four years of his life.
AIMLESS IN JOHOR
Before he could decide what to do after his O levels, his mother dropped a bombshell: They would be relocating to Malaysia.
“I didn’t believe that. I thought it was just a long-term plan – after maybe 20 years – for my mother to retire. It was so short and sudden that about a year later, we moved to Malaysia,” he said.
His mother had remarried and wanted to relocate to Johor owing to its lower cost of living. And as Mr Azerael put it, “She didn’t want to have anything to do with Singapore.”
He asked her about the plans for his brother and him, and her answer was disappointing: “Oh, both of you can think of ways to help yourselves.”
Cutting off ties with his friends here, he spent most of his time in Johor cooped up in his room, playing online games as his mother left him to his own devices.
“I was so isolated. I didn’t socialise much at that point of time; I didn’t do anything. I felt really stressed and very sad,” he said.
SUFFERING FROM DEPRESSION
After a year, he returned to Singapore for his National Service (NS), only to be reminded of his secondary school days, when he was ostracised.
He stuck out like a sore thumb because of his obesity, his unwillingness to train and his inept social skills.
“I was still travelling from Johor to Singapore just for NS. I had to wake up early every morning, and I came home very late at night,” he said.
I felt stressed. I was bullied because I didn’t join many of the activities, and my friends teased me, saying I was fat.
He even went Awol (absent without leave) thrice and was sent to the detention barracks, for 30 days each time, for his offences. Depressed and feeling hopeless, he contemplated suicide once.
At home, no one helped him, he said, as his complaints about being bullied went largely ignored. Finally, his mother took him to the Institute of Mental Health, where he was referred to a counsellor after being diagnosed with depression.
“I got better and was able to cope with my emotions,” said Mr Azerael. “I started to think about my plans for the future too.”
With a year of NS left, he decided to make the best of it, ignore the bullying and focus on his vocation. As a medic, he had to attend to recruits who reported sick or were injured during training.
What inspired me was when we were able to treat the injury, and they’d just smile and say thank you. That really warmed my heart.
For the first time in a long while, he felt good about himself.
'WHY WASH PEOPLE’S BACKSIDES?'
After his NS, he thought of studying nursing at the ITE, but money was an issue. “My family wasn’t that supportive. They said to me, ‘Why waste time just to wash people’s backsides?’” he said.
“I felt really demoralised – that’s why I didn’t apply to ITE then.”
He found work in an ambulance service instead, to get insight into the healthcare industry from ferrying diabetic patients to and from National Kidney Foundation centres.
An encounter with a patient receiving dialysis who was a former drug addict was the turning point that strengthened his resolve to study nursing.
“He was really young, around my age, and he said to me that if (he) had a chance, (he’d) go back to school,” said Mr Azerael.
"He also said to me, ‘I’m going to go (die) soon, why not do it for me?’ So that’s when I thought maybe I should … continue my education while I still can."
Mr Azerael knew that without further education, he would not make progress in his job and that he would “be earning just enough” for himself.
Without his parents’ knowledge, he applied for the National ITE Certificate course in nursing, and was accepted after an interview with the school.
When he shared the news with his parents, they were vexed at how he was going to finance his studies.
“I told them that I’d try ways to find money and sustain myself … I didn’t want to depend on anybody else,” he said.
ITE was my last chance at further education because I had no other options at that point.
He knew he had to be independent, as his mother “didn’t even have time to talk to us”.
KICKED OUT OF HOME
As life at ITE College East began, he faced a series of challenges: Trying to fit in with younger classmates, commuting from home in Johor and struggling financially because his mother was retired and his stepfather was doing odd jobs.
As with about half of the ITE students, Mr Azerael received financial aid from the school, but it barely covered his fees, books and school supplies.
He found part-time work as a food delivery rider in Singapore, earning up to S$600 a month, which went towards his phone bills, transport, food and savings.
However, he often got home late, given the long commute to Johor, and this affected his concentration at school.
“If I was lucky, I could get about six hours of sleep, but if I was very busy with my school assignments, then I’d sleep only for about three to four hours,” he said.
“That affected my studies – made me lose focus in class, made me very tired.”
To make matters worse, he quarrelled with his parents, was beaten up by his stepfather and was kicked out of home.
Almost made homeless, Mr Azerael found a saviour in his aunt, Mdm Aliza Ali, who took him in. It was a squeeze in her five-room flat with nine of his relatives, but it was far better than sleeping on the streets.
He now sleeps on a sofa in the living room and has a drawer for his belongings and valuables.
To save money and eat healthily, he wakes up early and prepares his meals for the day, usually chicken because “it’s the easiest to cook, and it’s quite cheap”.
He even finds time to exercise thrice a week, going from 118 to 78 kilogrammes in weight – an outward demonstration of his more positive outlook, determination and better self-esteem.
WATCH: Azy's determination to make good on this second chance (5:23)
DESPITE THE WORRIES, GOOD RESULTS
Studying at home, however, was almost impossible with his young cousins, who slept late. Mr Azerael, who was usually home at about 10pm after work or motorbike classes, resorted to studying outside or getting up at 4am to study.
“Sometimes I just wished that I could focus totally on my studies and not have to worry about money,” he said. “Most of the time, I was drained … But I managed to be strong and make it through.”
He credits his aunt with supporting him emotionally and encouraging him.
Said Mdm Aliza: “He’s very jovial and very determined. He works hard and puts in a lot of effort, but I’ve told him not to work so hard because he doesn’t have enough sleep and time to study. I didn’t want all that to affect his studies.”
For his efforts, and considering his O-level results and how he had given up on education five years ago, his performance in school was better than expected: 3.95 out of four for his grade-point average (GPA).
“Actually, I’ve got onto the Director’s List a few times. It’s the top 10 per cent of the cohort. I’m very pleased with it,” he beamed.
He added that with his high GPA, he would be able to skip the basic nursing module in the polytechnic. “If I were to skip the six months, I’d have more time to work and earn some money,” he said.
IMPORTANT OPPORTUNITY NOW
With his classroom studies completed, he has been on a 10-week attachment in an oncology ward at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he is learning to manage patients, monitor their recuperation and assist with procedures, admissions and transfers.
If he makes a good impression, the hospital may sponsor his polytechnic education, and he is aiming for that.
His mentor, nurse Rizza Sanchez, has said she was pleased with his performance, such as his ability to interact with patients and establish a rapport as well as his competence in some of the medical procedures.
For his first interim assessment, Mr Azerael scored a B. “The grading that he had was very good. Those are the qualities that Tan Tock Seng is looking for in future staff,” said Ms Sanchez.
“If he’s going to perform those good qualities that he’s showing now, he’ll probably get the sponsorship."
Mr Azerael is hoping, however, that his tattoos will not haunt his dream of becoming a hospital nurse. He said: “I want to make sure that my patients trust me, and they know that I’m not a bad person.”
But having battled against the odds – a troubled childhood, money problems and lack of family support – this young man’s persistence in pursuit of his calling has already made him a role model at ITE College East.
And he is grateful for the opportunity. “ITE is a very good platform to start off with, to improve oneself. ITE has really opened doors for me,” he said.
“My end goal is to come back to ITE to become a lecturer, to share my knowledge and experience with future nursing students.”
Watch more heartwarming stories of students and teachers on the series On The Red Dot – ITE: Making The Grade here.