In the latest episode of #SpillTheTeh, we interviewed 3 ex-offenders to hear them share about their lives before and after prison. 

  • Graceson Ang (38)
  • Tian Boon Keng (35)
  • Johnny Chin (49)

How we got hooked

It was during Graceson’s 18th birthday celebration when one of his friends took out drugs and asked if the group would like to try some. Out of curiosity, Graceson had a taste and that one decision would send him spiralling into addiction. 

At the age of 13, Boon Keng started to gamble and consume drugs. He then began to borrow cash for these habits, which locked him in a vicious cycle from a young age.

On his first day of secondary school at 13, Johnny was approached by a big group of seniors who asked if he would want to join their gang.

“At the time, I didn’t know about my own identity and I loved to have a sense of belonging,” he recounted. “So I told them, ‘Yes, I would love to’.”

After joining the gang, Johnny fell under the influence of his fellow gang members and picked up vices including his first taste of drugs.

Most of them were introduced to drugs by their friends or the people around them, and they took the drugs out of curiosity and perhaps a need to fit in.

However, the consequences were something none of them were prepared for. 

If we could turn back time

We asked: If you could turn back time, what would you do differently?

Graceson wishes that he had never touched drugs so that he could give his loved ones a proper, happy family.

Johnny shared that he would choose the right groups of friends: “I remember when I was young, my parents would always tell me that you shouldn’t be mixing with this friend or that friend.

“But my response to them… It’s got nothing to do with my friends. It’s all got to do with myself.”

It was only later in life that Johnny realised this wasn’t true. “The Bible says clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:33 that bad company corrupts good morals,” he shared.

“Which means that even though you may have good character, the moment you’re with bad company — they corrupt you. The friends we hang out with have an influence on us.”

Boon Keng wishes he had spent more time with his late mum, who was battling stage 2 cancer when he was in prison.

“Before I went in, she was already battling with cancer. All I knew was that she was at stage two; she went for chemo and said she was getting better,” said Boon Keng, who regrets taking his mum for granted and for causing so much pain.

Indeed, even after bailing him out of prison with his fiancée, his mum still had to go for chemo. 

I never gave her any happiness… all I did was to give her a lot of trauma. A lot of sadness.

“I never gave her any happiness,” reflected Boon Keng. “I will say… all I did was to give her a lot of trauma. A lot of sadness. Probably she was also tired, so she gave up lah.”

There eventually came a period when Boon Keng’s mum had not visited him in prison for three months. Boon Keng told her to come when she was feeling better and she promised she would come in two weeks’ time.

However, there was no news after that phone call. Much later, Boon Keng only found out that his mum had passed on from the newspaper obituary.

Heartache and regret

“I didn’t treasure the time well, I didn’t actually appreciate her and I took her for granted,” added Boon Keng.

“So now, this thing is a regret that is kept forever within me and I have learnt my lesson.”

Boon Keng shared that he a lot of regrets from that season in his life, one of the biggest being not having spent enough time with his mum.

Johnny’s mother passed away when he was 23 years old, and he regrets that she never got to witness how he turned his life around.

Similarly to Boon Keng, Johnny also lost his mum to cancer. Johnny’s mother passed away when he was 23 years old, and he regrets that she never got to witness how he turned his life around.

“I remember every time when I come back in the middle of the night, even though I have keys, I couldn’t slot into the keyhole because I was too high,” he recalled.

Johnny’s mum would always wait up for “noise at the doorstep” so she could open the door for him. And when he was sober enough to open the door himself, he would always see her kneeling in the house, praying.

“She was praying for me,” said Johnny. “I truly believe I am where I am today because of her prayers… it’s just sad that even after all she did for me, I still didn’t change.

“I believe one day we will be meeting in heaven, and I believe that she will be proud of me too at this point in time.”

For Graceson, his family has always been his pillar of support. The 38-year-old deeply regrets he wasn’t able to give his wife and children a proper family for so long.

“I know that I’ve done my best but it’s still not enough,” he said. “But thank God for my three adorable kids, my mum and dad. They are still there for me. No matter what I do, they never give up on me.

“Every day they still remind me not to go back… Actually, our parents care for us a lot. No matter how we fall, they’re still there to support us.”

Just as Graceson’s family has been there for him all these years, he now wants to do the same for them: “The turning point for me to change? It’s for my kids, because they’re all growing up.

“When they were still young, I was not there for them. So now I want to pay back what I owe them: spend time with them, give them whatever they want and do my best for them.”

Wake-up call

For those who struggle with an addiction to drugs, change can be extremely difficult. 

Johnny, who is now working at The New Charis Mission (TNCM), shared that many ex-offenders and drug addicts want to change but find it very difficult to do so.

“Do they want to kick off this habit? I would say many of us want to do that. But it’s more about how to do it,” said the 49-year-old, who also believes real change requires a wake-up call.

I want to stabilise myself and be a simple person. I just want to lead a normal life.

For Johnny, it was a phone call in 2007 that changed his life forever. That morning, he decided to phone his friend. This friend had the same background as Johnny, but his life had been transformed by God and he was serving in the halfway house.

“I mustered the courage to give him a call… I had cheated him many times. I borrowed money from him many times, so I assumed that he would not even pick up my call,” said Johnny. “But thank God, he answered my call.”

Over the phone, the first thing that Johnny’s friend said touched his heart — he asked Johnny where he was and how he could help him.

Johnny recounted: “You know, just that sentence alone, that morning, I literally felt the love of God fill my heart.” Johnny’s friend then made arrangements for him to check into the halfway house.

Boon Keng believes that everything happens for a reason. His mum’s passing has also made him see things that he did not see in the past.

“Everything happened for a reason. I believe it is to make me change, to make me grow up and to make me understand that in life we should treasure the time and our loved ones,” he said.

He added his mum’s passing was more than a wake-up call, honouring her memory is also something that keeps him away from drugs.

“If I take the drugs ah… I’m sorry to my mum, you know?” he said. “Although I can’t physically say words to her, I think the minimum I can do is to show her that I quit lah.

“Even though it’s unsaid words, I believe this is a present that I can give to my mum.”

True freedom

Johnny shared that he truly enjoys his life right now because he is free.

When he was young, he always told his parents to give him “freedom”. However, it was only much later in life when Johnny came to understand what true freedom is.

“Last time, we thought that freedom is you let me do what I want to do; I’m free to decide what I want, do what I want,” he said. “But that’s not freedom. True freedom is even though you can do certain things, but you still can choose not to do it.

“God has transformed my life and I hope that I can be an encouragement to the people who have the same background like me.”

Boon Keng shared that life has never been quite so stable as it is now.

“In my life, I was never so normal before. Since 12, 13 years old, I started to worry about money, I started to lie and think of the bad things,” he recalled.

I hold on to this hope, a pretty simple hope — I want to stabilise myself and be a simple person. I just want to lead a normal life. Currently, I’m very happy working on my life.”

Second chances

When asked how society can support ex-offenders, Graceson shared that it’s hard for ex-offenders to find jobs outside because society is not really accepting of them.

He hopes society can give ex-offenders a chance to start over: “Everyone makes mistakes. For those who come out of prison, you give them a chance — I can’t say that they will definitely change.

“Sometimes, we will still trip and fall. They just need someone to support them, to hold them, to give them good advice and hope for the best for them.

“I’ll do my best but the most important thing is how society looks at us. I just hope that they could give everybody a chance to start everything anew. If they don’t give us a chance, then no one can give us a chance really.”

Boon Keng feels that we should treat ex-offenders as normal people.

“Like how when you first see a normal person, you will just respect them, you will actually give them the chance to talk and everything,” he said.

Finally, Johnny shared that if someone is willing to believe in an ex-offender, it makes a lot of difference.

“If we are more gracious in loving someone who is struggling with addictions and believe in them, it makes a lot of difference,” he affirmed.

“Because for us (ex-offenders), if someone believes in us, it definitely gives us that extra energy for us to continue to believe in ourselves that we are able to make it one day.”