When they first met, they were suspicious of his generosity.
Andrew Ong, 43 and Jeremy Tan, 51 were interested in cycling but didn’t have the expertise.
When Andrew took Jeremy to meet bike enthusiast and expert Carter Ng, the 46-year-old helped him by adjusting his saddle and correcting his posture — giving advice to help him improve.
At the time, Jeremy was surprised by his generosity and initially questioned Carter’s intentions since there was nothing for him to gain. He wondered if there were any “strings attached”.
It is previous experiences of betrayal that cause this distrust of others. Andrew tells The Pride: “When we meet someone like Carter, who is helpful and very kind, automatically we think, ‘What’s the catch?’”
Both Andrew and Jeremy have a past that explains their caution in meeting new people.
As a teenager, conflict between Andrew’s parents made him stay away from home; he eventually dropped out of school and joined a gang.
At 18, he was sentenced to jail for nine months for rioting. After release, he struggled with staying clean. He returned to old vices — drug abuse, smoking and drinking — and was imprisoned a second time, serving part of his National Service in detention barracks for insubordination.
At 22 years old, Andrew suffered a drug overdose. “It was the wakeup call that I needed,” Andrew tells The Pride. “It made me realise I wasn’t in control of my life. I’d messed up, and I was disgusted at the person I saw in the mirror. I knew I needed to change.”
He returned to school, and through grit and determination, obtained a university degree. He’s now a department head at Empact, a social enterprise.
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Like Andrew, Jeremy was a former drug abuser, dabbling in drugs since he was 13. He dropped out of school, engaged in criminal activities, and was introduced to hard drugs at 18. Jeremy says: “When I tried the first puff, it led me down the drain. It was a nightmare.”
For 22 years, Jeremy struggled with drug addiction. He was imprisoned four times, once in a Thai prison — nothing helped him quit.
In 2010, Jeremy was in jail again and felt extremely hopeless, but after a religious experience, he turned his life around. He says: “I was saved and was finally able to get out of this drug bondage.”
Upon release, Jeremy entered The Hiding Place’s rehabilitation programme, where he has since stayed on as a staff member for the last 10 years.
Exercise was crucial in helping him break his drug addiction and he picked up cycling. When Andrew visited The Hiding Place last year, the two discovered a common interest in cycling.
That was when Andrew introduced Jeremy to Carter. He’s the guy you go to for cycling equipment and bike fixes.
Carter tells The Pride that he has always been a hands-on guy, often tinkering with mechanical watches and the like. He applies his dexterity and curiosity to bicycles, to understand how a bicycle’s material and components affect performance. With his experience, he advises cyclists and keeps costs – a roadworthy bike can cost at least $1,000 – down for them.
Breaking the Cycle
Last September, Carter, Andrew and a third co-founder Joseph Ho, came together to found Break the Cycle, which uses cycling to help ex-offenders break out of recidivism. The aim is to provide a network of healthy friendships so ex-offenders don’t fall back to old friends and old ways.
Today, the ground-up movement has 50 riders, including 5 women, who meet three times a week — on Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays — for 200km, 4-hour rides that end with a catch-up makan session.
Building friendships through learning to trust
At first, Jeremy and Andrew struggled to believe that someone would care for them without wanting anything in return. Even Jeremy’s wife, worried from past experiences, asked him: “Why do you trust Carter so much?”
But over time, Carter has proven to be a trustworthy friend. Jeremy shares that his wife has since gotten a bike from Carter and picked up cycling as well. He says: “I can trust him to be a friend — more than a bike friend — I can share with him any problems I have.”
That is at the heart of what Break the Cycle is about — friendships.
Jeremy recounts how he was surprised by the kindness shown to him during his first ride with Break the Cycle. During a stretch, he got a punctured tyre and he expected the group to cycle on without him. Instead, a fellow cyclist, Freddy Ho, stayed back to fix his tyre.
Even though it seemed like a small gesture, Jeremy was deeply moved by Freddy’s readiness to help someone he barely knew. He laughs: “Break the Cycle always says, ‘Leave no man behind’, and they really do!”
Due to his life experiences, Jeremy says that he is very cautious about making new friends as he does not want to stumble down the wrong path again.
However, for all his wariness, Jeremy says of his experiences so far at Break the Cycle: “I find that,” he pauses for a moment, “these are the new friends that I think I’ve been looking for lah. Real, healthy, good friends, not like the old friends that I had.”
Ex-offender or non-offender, the community at Break the Cycle learns together.
Jeremy receives feedback from Carter to be more patient and not get caught up with just riding fast, Carter learns from Andrew to speak more considerately, and Andrew is guided by Carter to commit to a training schedule.
Speaking to online publication Salt and Light, Andrew explained how he saw cycling as a mentoring tool. “When you cycle, you cannot improve unless you have a third party to observe your pedal strokes and point out your mistakes. That’s what mentoring and discipleship is about.”
Riders are also taught to obey traffic rules and use appropriate hand signals. As part of helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society, they are reminded to show kindness and respect to fellow road users.
A continuous loop of inspiration
The riders at Break the Cycle don’t just meet each other on the road.
It started with Carter, who opens his home to anyone who needs their bike fixed. Whether he knows the cyclist well or not, they’re welcome to bring their bike over.
He recounts how when he was in primary school, his mother would pack extra food for him to share with poorer classmates. He says that he strives to pass on this kindness and teaches his children to do the same.
“I believe that there should not be any boundaries. I always open my know-how and my home to everyone who is willing to learn.”
His generosity inspired Jeremy to help other cyclists as well, based on what he has learned. He laughs: “If Carter can do it, so can I.”
Jeremy’s ‘pay it forward’ attitude is exactly what keeps Carter and Andrew going.
Carter says: “We (the three co-founders) can’t do it alone. We wish to reach out to more people, who then pass it on and pay the kindness forward.”
Daring to dream
Whether you’re a non-offender or ex-offender, avid cyclist or total newbie, male or female, “no-one is singled out,” Andrew says. You can contribute to and be empowered by the community at Break the Cycle; they look out for one and all.
But the group isn’t content to just ride together. The next step for Break the Cycle is to build a team to compete in a bike race.
Andrew says: “We want to show our ex-offenders that impossible is nothing, despite their disadvantages. They too can dare to dream.”
The goal isn’t to win, but for ex-offenders and non-offenders to train together and take part.
Andrew teases his friend, who bursts into laughter: “Of course, Jeremy will be in it… hor Jeremy? You need to go fast and fast right?”