Skip to main content
Best News Website or Mobile Service
WAN-IFRA Digital Media Awards Worldwide
Best News Website or Mobile Service
Digital Media Awards Worldwide
Hamburger Menu




'I see this more like a calling': The volunteers involved in a support scheme for young suspects

Under the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS), they accompany suspects during interviews with law enforcement agencies.

'I see this more like a calling': The volunteers involved in a support scheme for young suspects

Mr Muhammad Ilyas Zainal Akmar and Mdm Irene Yeh are AAYS volunteers. (Photo: CNA/Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: His work as a volunteer in a support scheme for young suspects has taken him to various locations, but the time when he returned to his secondary school has stuck with Muhammad Ilyas Zainal Akmar until today.

“When I stepped inside, people were wondering what was this guy doing back here?” recalled Mr Ilyas, 34.

“One teacher recognised me ... the teacher was looking very weirdly at me, and I had to explain the whole scheme.”

Mr Ilyas is one of the volunteers under the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Young Suspects (AAYS), a support scheme where an “appropriate adult” - an independently trained volunteer - accompanies young suspects during interviews with law enforcement agencies.

As of October this year, there are about 280 volunteers for the AAYS, said the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).

The scheme was first piloted in 2017, before being rolled out islandwide in 2019.

It followed a multi-agency review of investigation processes for young people after the suicide of Benjamin Lim. The 14-year-old was found dead at the foot of his block after he was questioned by the police over an allegation involving outrage of modesty.

The scheme currently applies to suspects under 16, but as announced in Parliament in July, it will be expanded to cover suspects aged 16 and 17 by October next year.

Minister of State for Home Affairs Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim said last year that there are regular reviews to ensure that protocols in dealing with young suspects are up to date. He spoke in Parliament in response to questions from MPs about the case of 17-year-old drug suspect Justin Lee, who fell to his death months after he was arrested and charged in court.


Having previously helped with a football programme at Roundbox, one of Singapore Children Society’s youth drop-in centres, Mr Ilyas is no stranger to volunteering with minors.

“The football programme ended and they extended this opportunity to me which I found quite interesting, so I took it up. I've always had this passion to serve and it involved the youth. I really believe that our youth are our future,” he told CNA.

“There are two parts to this - one of them is ... helping out with this programme and at the same time it also gives me an understanding on why youth act a certain way and stuff like that.”

While he initially had reservations about his safety, these concerns eventually dissipated, Mr Ilyas said.

“After I took on a few cases here and there, I realised that most of these children … did what they did because of circumstances instead of them being bad people. So that gave me the assurance to continue on,” he explained.

Before becoming an “appropriate adult”, volunteers like Mr Ilyas undergo compulsory training by the Singapore Children’s Society, the service provider for the AAYS.

Volunteers must attend a compulsory briefing, followed by an AAYS volunteer training session before they can be activated. They are trained to look out for signs of distress in the young suspect, aid communication between the young suspect and investigation officer and provide emotional support when necessary.

Volunteers CNA spoke to stressed the need to be a neutral party during interviews.

“Being neutral really helps them to open up a bit. Even the simple act of just nodding along to what they say can help them be more comfortable. It definitely helps if you portray neutrality very well, then I think both parties will have a win-win situation,” said Mr Ilyas.

“We must be balanced, we must show them I’m not (taking) any side,” added Madam Irene Yeh, another volunteer. The 70-year-old was introduced to the AAYS by a friend, and has been helping out for more than two years.

“When I am there, I think they feel safer. And I always tell them I'm not a police officer. I emphasise I'm not a police officer. Of course some of the kids, they don't understand what an AA is, so I use another term like I'm a volunteer from Children's Society ... This is where I make them feel comfortable,” she added.

Senior Staff Sergeant Muhammad Rhadji Bin Karim is an IO with the SPF. (Photo: Singapore Police Force)

Senior Staff Sergeant Muhammad Rhadji Karim, who is an investigating officer (IO) with the Singapore Police Force, explained that these volunteers have been helpful in interviews.

"Usually, they won't interfere in my investigations or questioning - only when they see some trigger points that are exhibited from the suspect, then they will step in," he explained.

This can be in terms of helping paraphrase questions or helping assist in communication between both parties, Senior Staff Sergeant Rhadji said.

Their work also ensures that the IO avoids getting into any "pitfalls" of recording inaccurate statements, he added.

In the event that investigation officers have to conduct interviews with persons with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders or mental health issues, “appropriate adults” under the Appropriate Adult Scheme for Persons with Mental Disabilities (AAPMD) have been particularly helpful, said Senior Staff Sergeant Rhadji.

“We ... acknowledge that they have limited life experience, and also limited psychological resources to actually cope with the stress of handling this situation,” he added.

“So, we will activate this AA to … explain to them that they are a neutral party, they are inside this interview to assist the suspect in case they require any emotional support and also to facilitate me in communication.”

The AAPMD scheme which encompasses suspects, victims and witnesses of all ages with mental disabilities, was started in 2015. There are currently about 329 volunteers for the AAPMD.

One of the volunteers under the scheme is retiree Benjamin Chan. He has been activated for 41 cases.

It is important that AAPMD volunteers follow the interview closely so as to better help suspects, victims and witnesses, said Mr Chan, 57.

“If you don't show your interest with the investigation, when they have a problem, they (will) also feel reluctant to check in with you,” he added.

“Even though sometimes it can be repetitive … Just follow closely, make sure not to be judgmental and let them express themselves.”


Young suspects display a variety of reactions prior to and during interviews, said volunteers whom CNA spoke to.

While there are repeat offenders who are unrepentant, some minors are overwhelmed and will burst into tears, said Mdm Yeh.

“I remember in one case the boy was shivering - actually we are not supposed to touch them - but (there was) no choice, I just held on to the hand and straightaway … the shivering stopped,” she added.

Some are afraid that their parents will find out, she added.

Officers from the Singapore Police Force patrolling. (File Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

Volunteers also have to deal with a spectrum of cases, some of which can be more serious in nature. Mdm Yeh for one, was involved as the "appropriate adult" in a case where a student attempted to assault a teacher with a knife.

“I had one case where it was a sexual assault case, unfortunately the IO had to get a lot of details on it. As he dug more for more details, it got a bit more disturbing … It is something that is not for the weak stomach,” added Mr Ilyas.

“I don't think it can get away from you that easily. It's something I guess varies from person to person - for me it takes a lot of video game sessions for me to forget about it … It will stick for a while.”

There are times where parents also get involved, noted Mdm Yeh. But volunteers are trained not to engage them, she pointed out.

“I have parents shouting at me. (They) ask the IO: ‘Who is she? Why is she going in when I cannot go in?’” she recalled. “Sometimes they ask: ‘Can we meet ... Can I buy you coffee?’

“I will try not to have any conversation with their parents or guardians. It’s our guidelines ... After the investigation, we have to be detached and (keep an) arm's length from (it)," added Mr Chan.


AAYS volunteers are notified via SMS about each potential case. The text messages contain details such as the time, date and location of the interviews.

If they would like to help out in a particular case, volunteers have to acknowledge the message within about 10 minutes. If they are matched with the case, a confirmation SMS will be sent to them shortly thereafter.

Volunteers have learnt to expect the unexpected as interviews can often drag on for hours, they explained.

“When I do something, I want to be committed. And if I get a case, I block myself for at least five hours,” said Mdm Yeh, who works as a freelancer.

“Sometimes we have to call to cancel (our plans) … Sometimes (for) work, I say I'll do it the next day. (Being a) freelancer, (if) I cannot do it today, I'll do it another day.”

These interviews can be held at locations including police stations and schools.

An interview room at the Ang Mo Kio Police Division HQ. (Photo: CNA/Matthew Mohan)

However, as far as possible, police will interview young suspects in a police station, away from their school or place of employment, Minister of State for Home Affairs Sun Xueling said in Parliament in July.

She added that if interviews need to be done at the school or place of employment, the police will avoid drawing unnecessary attention or causing embarrassment to the young suspect by dressing in plain clothes and using unmarked vehicles.

“The cases I usually respond to are ... in the late afternoon or weekends, evenings or nights,” said Mr Ilyas. “It doesn't really affect my professional life.”

“Every case is sometimes very unique ... Sometimes (it) can be stretched to five or six hours,” added Mr Chan.

Despite the various challenges, volunteers CNA spoke to are keen to continue in their role as “appropriate adults”.

Mr Chan noted that it is important that volunteers be involved so as to assure parents and the public that there are “some level of checks and balances” in the system.

“We learn a lot from the children, how to be patient, how to deal with them,” said Mdm Yeh.

Added Mr Ilyas: “It's something that ... I have a very strong passion (for), especially when it comes to our youth. I don’t see this as a volunteering thing. I see this more like a calling, something that I should give back to society."

Source: CNA/mt(rj)


Also worth reading