Ex-offender now runs successful business
They are success stories now, but these three people made mistakes in the past and had brushes with the law. Grateful for a second chance, they are paying it forward. CATHERINE ROBERT (firstname.lastname@example.org) finds out more
He had just $10 to his name and he knew the odds of having a good life weren't promising.
Mr Jim Koh, then 18, had just come out of a reformative training centre that ran programmes to rehabilitate youth offenders.
He had been sent there after his second brush with the law for rioting when he was 17.
"I had a very rough group of friends when I was younger," 28-year-old Mr Koh told The New Paper, as he recollected his teenage years. "I got into trouble and was sent to Boys' Town and later, the Reformative Training Centre.
"I had no education. I had $10 and I was left to fend for myself. I knew I had to do something for myself.".
Mr Koh spent three years in a succession of lowly paid jobs - as a waiter, dishwasher and helping out at a billiards centre.
"People didn't want to hire me. The few job options I had (paid) super low (salaries) and definitely offered no future," he said.
But he kept his chin up, saved up and eventually got his motorcycle licence.
He was employed by a motorcycle dealership where his job was to repossess bikes when buyers defaulted on instalments.
He said the more bikes he repossessed, the more commission he earned.
"I was grateful because no one else would take a chance with me," Mr Koh said.
"I started taking home about $3,000 a month. It was an amount I never thought I would ever earn.
"I kept wanting to learn more about the business so my boss (also) taught me how to repossess and tow cars."
Two years later, in 2006, armed with experience, Mr Koh was able to join a car-towing company.
"(The) money was better - the more cars I towed, the more I earned."
Things were looking up.
His girlfriend had also agreed to marry him.
The pair saved as much as they could for their wedding.
But after they had scraped together $10,000, his then fiancee and now wife, Ms Felicia Tay, an administrative assistant, surprised him by suggesting that they hold off the wedding and use the money to start a company.
"I was shocked, (but) I took the risk and bought my first tow truck," he said.
In October 2009, he started Gao Express Towing Services.
It now has eight tow trucks and six employees. Last year, the company raked in $1.2 million.
"If that lady boss (at the bike dealership) hadn't given me that chance, I probably won't be where I am today," he says.
Now he tries to do the same for others.
"I know the life I came from and that's why I hire mostly ex-convicts, or people with close to no education. I immediately say no to people with degrees. I want my company to be a place of opportunities for those in need.
"I guarantee them $3,000 every month but they usually earn more, especially if they work hard".
Mr Koh's staff say they earn between $4,000 and $5,000 every month.
"When hope isn't freely given to these ex-convicts, it only pushes them to fall back on a path that lands them in prison again," he said.
"Someone believed in me and now, I want to believe in as many of them as I can."
The other person he repaid for his good fortune is his wife, who helps him with the company.
She got a $110,000 "wedding of her dreams"when they tied the knot in 2011.
When hope isn't freely given to these ex-convicts, it only pushes them to fall back on a path that lands them in prison again.
- Mr Jim Koh
Cooking up help for other troubled youth
CHEF: Mr Enoch Teo at Enoch's European, the restaurant he started in 2013. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
By the age of 14, he was already abusing several different drugs.
His downward spiral started after he quit school in 2006. He spent his days with a gang, getting into trouble with petty crime.
The turning point for Mr Enoch Teo was when he was arrested at 16 for breaking into a car and stealing a laptop and CashCards.
A drug test showed he had also taken codeine and aramine.
"If I had been slightly older, I would have gone straight to Changi Prison," he said.
Instead he was put under the Streetwise Programme, a voluntary rehabilitation scheme for non-offending wayward youth.
When he came out a year later, in 2007, his mother convinced him to apply for a job at a Japanese restaurant.
"I enjoyed working in the kitchen but that wasn't enough to keep me off the streets and away from the bad stuff. The temptation was always there," Mr Teo said.
So he checked himself into halfway house The Hiding Place, where he was put on a programme for young people.
"I looked at my mother and saw how she never gave up on me. I knew that I had to do something to get my life in order," he said.
After a year there, he pursued his passion in the restaurant business and attended the At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy.
Six months after graduating, he had a motorbike accident, which left him immobile for four months when his right leg was badly injured.
But there was silver lining.
The insurance compensation, which he declined to reveal, allowed him to start his own business, a European cuisine restaurant, which he opened in 2013.
Now Enoch's European, which is at East Coast Road, is doing well and sees a good flow of customers, especially at dinner time.
Mr Teo also hires troubled youth to help run his eatery with the help of YouthReach, a centre that helps at-risk youth develop their skills.
"I feel like I was given an opportunity in the past to turn over a new leaf. After what I went through, I feel it's easier for me to connect with other youths.
"After everything, nobody gave up on me, why should I give up on them?"
After everything, nobody gave up on me, why should I give up on them?
- Mr Enoch Teo, who runs his eatery with the help of at-risk youth
Helping others' dreams blossom
BOSS: Mr Eric Lai now owns landscaping company Palm Landscape and Design, which has more than 30 employees. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
In 2003, he was imprisoned for 2½ years for renting cars, selling them and making a run for it with the money.
Mr Eric Lai was also declared a bankrupt.
There was more bad news: A few months before his release, his prison officer handed him divorce papers from his wife.
"When I received the divorce papers, I was so close to losing hope," he said.
"Even the officer didn't know how to break the news to me."
Mr Lai, 56, eventually found a second chance in a Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) programme.
He was part of the first batch of inmates who was sent for the programme, which was aimed at helping them get jobs after their release.
"I got into landscaping under the programme where I worked as a landscape technician," Mr Lai said.
"I proved myself there and after my release, the boss kindly offered me a job."
Mr Lai was grateful for the chance, even though his salary was only about $1,000 every month.
Not long after he started working there, he was promoted to a supervisory role.
"I looked after a few landscape technicians," he said proudly.
Mr Lai knew then that horticulture was his calling.
He made friends with the management teams at the various condominiums he worked at during his time at the company.
"They kept encouraging me to start my own business, saying they will support me. That made me think seriously about it."
In 2010, he and another former inmate set up Palm Landscape and Design.
Two years later, his partner pulled out of the company and Mr Lai took over.
The company, which began with three employees, now has more than 30 employees.
Last year, it made just under a million dollars.
He said that with a lot of hard work and determination, "dreams sure can happen".
Now a support company under the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score), Mr Lai also hires ex-offenders.
"I've had a couple join me, but they have moved on to other job opportunities. But even that is good enough for me. I want to help them in any way possible, even if I'm just a stepping stone."
I want to help them in any way possible, even if I'm just a stepping stone.
- Mr Eric Lai, whose company hires ex-offenders
AWARDS FOR THOSE WHO HELP EX-OFFENDERS
The Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score), which was formed in 1976, provides rehabilitation and aftercare services to inmates and ex-offenders.
Next month, Score will recognise employers and partners who have helped it in its mission, at its annual awards. Some companies that have been awarded include Eighteen Chefs restaurant and Dairy Farm Singapore.
They received the Spark of Hope Award, given to individuals or organisations who have made special contributions to Score's projects, events or programmes.
Employers interested to work with Score can contact Mr John Low at 6513-1534 or email@example.com.
You can also visit Score's website at www.score.gov.sg or register online at Score's job portal at app.score.gov.sg/login.aspx