by Patricia Siswandjo on

When he was a 10-year-old boy, he was jolted awake by his mother. She had barged into her marital bedroom only to find her husband and their maid in bed. Furious, she shrieked and threatened to kill them.

Awoken by the ruckus, the boy watched as his mother attempted to attack his father, only for his father – an ex-boxer – to retaliate, overpower, and strangle his mother.

Ever since that nightmarish incident, young Wong Yong Wei grew to hate his father.

But as a young boy, Wong yearned for a father figure.

A year later, he found one – from among the members of one of Singapore’s dark secret societies.

His childhood led him to a life of crime

Wong, then not even a teenager yet, started working for illegal gambling dens.

Three years after Wong first picked up a cigarette at 10, he began sniffing glue in order to get high.

At 14, Wong dropped out of school. Around that time, he also got his first tattoo. It helped the tough-as-nails teenager intimidate his foes – this was around the time he started brawling often, and in one episode, broke someone’s arms.

Image Source: The Pride / Patricia Siswandjo

The heavily tattooed Wong has recently started a tattoo removal programme

Throughout these troubled years, Wong’s father didn’t visit his family even once.

Instead, Wong then felt that the men in the secret society had showed him more care. They treated him as if he were one of their own – something invaluable to him at that time.

One day, Wong’s father inadvertently fell to his death while attempting to repair a faulty air-conditioning unit, which was situated outside the flat.

At that time, Wong, who was already a wanted man, would spend most of his days in Malaysia in order to avoid the authorities. However, his mother implored Wong to stay with his family for the hundred days of mourning following his father’s death – a Chinese tradition.

It was during those 100 days that Wong was caught by Singapore’s Criminal Investigation Department.

He was given three years of probation as a sentence. However, months later, Wong breached the conditions of his probation and was sent to prison for the first time.

Wong was only 16 then. And that arrest would be the first of many.

He was in and out of prison six times over a span of eight years

Speaking to The Pride, Wong, now a wisened 37-year-old, recalled how his tumultuous childhood shaped his life, and how his imprisonment did not rouse the need in him to change.

“My second time in prison reinforced how ‘daring’ I was,” Wong explained. “I thought since I’ve already been in jail, how much worse can it get?”

Upon his release from his second term in prison, Wong, then in his 20s, began working as a loanshark runner, and started operating sleazy pubs and clubs.

It was also around this time he began abusing drugs.

He was caught for the third and fourth time – this time for drug abuse – and sentenced to 15 and 18 months in jail respectively.

During his fourth time in prison, Pastor Ian from Prison Fellowship Singapore’s (PFS) Chapel service reached out to him.

Although he wasn’t a devout Christian then, Wong would attend Chapel service every Sunday as it provided him a respite from his stuffy cell.

But Wong, who loved to sing, began finding meaning in gospel music’s lyrics. Soon after, he considered himself a convert, and a man of faith.

However, he recalled how his faith back then was misguided.

Wong explained how, when he was released from jail for the fourth time in 2009, he thought he was receiving a lot of blessings in the form of more, and better paying, jobs from the underworld.

He made enough money to upgrade from a four-room to a five-room flat.

Two years later, Wong’s wife gave birth to their first child.

“She was so cute,” Wong gushed, blushing as he grinned genially. “She really prompted me to rethink my life.”

It was around 2012 when Wong, who was reflecting on his life, vowed to stop his life of crime. “I turned to food, and ballooned to 96kg!” the good-natured man chuckled.

Around this time, he and his wife also successfully applied for taxi licences, so they could drive to eke out an honest living.

For Wong, life was going well, until it wasn’t.

One day, Wong picked up a passenger who behaved curiously.

“I could tell he was on drugs,” Wong recalled. He admitted, ashamed: “Even though I was already clean…I asked to exchange numbers with him, and I asked for drugs.”

In 2013, Wong was caught again. This time, he, together with other drug users, was arrested by Central Narcotics Bureau officers at a drug collection point.

After his incarceration, he entered a dark place. Filled with self-hate, Wong was determined to stop hurting his loved ones. He begged his wife for a divorce, but she refused. He even thought of suicide.

It was when he was perched precariously on a building, about to jump, that he heard a voice: “If you want to give up your life, give it to me.”

He became a better man for his loved ones

This time, Wong was sentenced to five years and three months in prison.

While in prison, Wong began working as an interpreter for one of PFS’ programmes, the Christian Intensive Religious Counselling Programme (CIRCP). This rigorous programme sees its participants undergo a nine month crash course in Bible study.

Wong was extremely determined to change his life for the better.

While there, he met with two PFS staff: Peter Soo, who is also an ex-offender, and Tan Choon Huat. “They supported me throughout my journey to be a changed man,” Wong said.

“There was also Pastor John Ting, who is over 70 years old, but still volunteered to teach the Bible to the inmates.”

These were the men who helped him through his trying period.

And two years into his sentence, Wong, desiring a fresh start, felt the urge to confess all his sins to his wife.

“She knew about my life of crime: from being a loan shark runner, to gambling. But I had never told her about my extra-marital affairs,” he said.

His worried friends from CIRCP tried to dissuade Wong from doing so, as they were sure his wife would leave him if he did.

But Wong was determined. During an open visit, Wong, wanting to truly start anew, laid everything on the table.

“I was scared,” he recalled. “She didn’t say anything at all.”

He added, choking up slightly: “I was afraid she wouldn’t come back during the next week’s open visit… and she didn’t. My heart was shattered.”

The folks at CIRCP did the only thing they could in that moment: pray over him.

“But the next week, she came!” Wong recalled excitedly. “She told me she did want to visit me the week before, but was late and barred from entering!”

Smiling bashfully, Wong spoke about how he was thankful for a wife who has stayed by his side, no matter what.

“I want to be a better man to provide the life that my wife and daughter truly deserve,” he said.

He has gone to lengths to turn his life around

He had an early release from jail in 2017 on account of good behaviour, and since then, the couple has enjoyed a clean, honest relationship. “I’m so grateful to her,” Wong said. “Love is strong.”

Today, Wong is completely open with his wife.

He also went on to take his N levels while in prison.

After studying hard and taking the pre-test, Wong, who had only a secondary one education before that, was told by the examinations officer that his chances of passing the exams were slim. He encouraged Wong to take up a physical labour job instead.

“For a long time, I worked odd jobs,” Wong said. “I delivered for companies, was a contractor, did sales, and more.”

But, nothing could stop the fiercely determined Wong. He eventually took and passed his N-level examinations, and is now eligible for most office jobs.

Another way he’s living the life he wanted to: by telling the truth to his young and vulnerable daughter.

Image Source: Wong Yong Wei

“When I was in prison, I always told my daughter I was ‘away studying’, because I didn’t know if she would even understand the implications of prison,” he said.

“Last year, when she was seven years old, I finally came clean and told her the truth.”

“There was silence, so I asked her: ‘Do you feel ashamed?’

“She said, yes.

“I was crushed. I apologised and told her that I simply wanted her to know the truth – I had to be upfront about things. Lying and covering things up is worse, and when she finally finds out the truth from someone in the end, she is sure to be hurt, and even more ashamed.

“I’m not embarrassed about my past,” Wong said. “I want people to know everything – about my life of crime, my struggles, and my breakthrough. I want people to know, because it is a testimony of God.”

Love begets love

Today, the ex-convict is part of the PFS’s Men’s Support Group (MSG).

“We have a two-hour session every Thursday evening,” Wong said. During the sessions, ex-inmates listen to talks from inspirational speakers, support each other’s journeys, and sometimes even partake in recreational activities such as hiking.

“When I’m there with everyone… it simply feels like I’m home,” Wong said fondly. “I feel comfortable.”

In 2017, a proud Wong was finally baptised. He said: “I finally found the father figure I was looking for: God.”

He said: “I hope to be a good father figure for my own daughter – to teach her what is right and wrong.”

Inspired by the kind folks at PFS and MSG, Wong wanted to give back, to share his story and show others that they, too, can change. The gentle giant has since been hired at PFS, and joins the now 14-man team to turn the lives of others around.

Wong singing while at church. Image Source: Wong Yong Wei

“I’m nervous, but excited,” said Wong, who has never worked in an organisation before.

A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor

His life has been a tumultuous journey, but Wong remains positive.

“Everyone goes through struggles,” Wong said. “But struggles are healthy and help you learn – as long as you are willing to learn.”

He also thinks that struggles are a good thing.

“The fact that you are struggling to make a choice, shows that you have the option to make a choice at all. Some people don’t even have that,” Wong said.

So while the road may not be easy, Wong appreciates every bump, road block, and U-turn along the way.

“Nothing is ever a dead end,” Wong said.

Indeed. One just has to see the light at the end of the tunnel, like Wong did.