IMG_6710

When he was eight, Soo started smoking, the habit introduced to him by the street kids with whom he hung out. His nearly lifelong addiction to gambling also took root in primary school. All photos courtesy of Prison Fellowship Singapore.

“I consider myself to be the biggest trouble-maker, out of the eight children my parents have,” Peter Soo, 62, admitted candidly.

“Even at a young age, I didn’t like to stay at home. I would go out very early and come home late.

“I would join the street kids in Geylang and roam around. I did whatever they did – steal fruits from other people’s houses, steal brass padlocks and aluminium plates to sell, even set fire to cables to burn away rubber to steal the aluminium wires inside.”

His first real “part time job” was taking orders for a noodle seller on his tricycle to earn more money.

Eight-year-old smoker

With the money that he accumulated, Soo spent every cent on food and cigarettes. He started smoking when he was eight, introduced by the street kids whom he hung out with.

His nearly lifelong addiction to gambling also took root in primary school, with a simple guessing game called “barrack”.

“I liked the excitement of gambling, so when I got older, I went to look for more ways to gamble. From ding tiong to chup diam to poker cards … I just really liked the thrill,” he divulged.

From prisoner to prison counsellor – Soo sharing his transformation story.

Soo’s trouble with the police started when he was 15. He got into fights and people got hurt.

When he was 17, he joined the secret society – friends whom he met on the streets, who promised him loyalty and security, friends who stood up for him when he got bullied, or joined him to bully others.

“At that point, I joined because of the excitement. I was not afraid of anyone, because I knew I had buddies,” he added.

Rob, steal and beg

His very first puff of heroin was introduced by the “hokkien bengs” (dialect for gangsters) when he enlisted in the army. Out of curiosity, he tried the drug.

“I was not afraid of anyone, because I knew I had buddies.”

“When I didn’t take the drug, I had a kind of uneasiness … like body ache, bone ache. Very uncomfortable. I would get agitated very easily. But once I took one more puff, everything would cool down,” he said. That was how the drug took over his life.

The law finally caught up with him in 1977 and Soo was put away in a rehabilitation centre.

Over the next few years, he was in and out of rehabilitation centres – during which time his family did not give up on him, and took turns to visit him.

He was eventually put into prison for gang-related rioting.

In 1982, at the age of 25, he was wanted in Singapore for a gang clash, so he escaped to Hong Kong. But over in Hong Kong, he got into even more serious gang clashes – this time with weapons – and had to escape to the US.

How did he get enough money to get to the US? “I had to rob, steal and even beg to get enough money to run away then,” he said.

Soo (extreme left) with founder of the Yellow Ribbon Project, Jason Wong (second from left), and the staff of Prison Fellowship Singapore.

One would have thought that being a wanted man would have given Soo a “good shake”, but in San Francisco, he also joined a gang with other immigrants, did drugs, and even played with guns.

After yet another gang clash, he had to run back to Hong Kong for refuge.

A special birthday

At this lowest point in his life, Soo met a lady who had faith in him. He couldn’t believe it himself. But they tied the knot in 1985, and he said that was when he “calmed down a bit and learnt there is such a thing as consequences”.

“I was not ready to receive the Lord, but I was ready to accept that I was a sinner.”

But being away from gang clashes did not mean he was free from his other addictions – he soon found excitement in gambling, which took the form of currency trading. He made millions, which fuelled more gambling trips to Genting, Macau, Korea – even as far as Las Vegas.

Entangled in a vicious cycle, Soo soon went bust from betting on horse racing, soccer and poker. He even ran two illegal gambling dens.

Eventually he accumulated a mountain of debt from loan sharks, friends and relatives, which amounted to more than half a million Singapore dollars at one point. They also had to sell their private apartment and downsize to a three-room flat.

God’s blessings extended to Soo’s family life – his son, Billy, is now 25. Soo and his wife had been told they could not conceive.

In despair, and feeling like he had let his wife down, Soo wanted to end his life.

By that time, his wife had accepted Christ, and had been pestering him to visit a church.

Once, she invited her cell group to their home for house-warming, and her pastor from Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) took the opportunity to pray for Soo, who said the Sinner’s Prayer.

“I was not ready to receive the Lord, but I was ready to accept that I was a sinner,” he said.

Soo, who is now at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church, was a pastor of the Hokkien ministry and prison ministry in FCBC.

It turned out that the best birthday present from him to his wife that year was his salvation.

At the following Sunday service in FCBC, Soo knelt at his seat “crying like a baby”, even before worship started. “There and then, my crying was meaningful,” he recalled. “All the unbearable things were cried out and God lifted a heavy burden off me.”

Nothing is impossible

From there, things took a turn for the better.

He started longing for Fridays to arrive so he could attend cell group. Barely three weeks after receiving Christ, he felt a strong urge to serve in church – so he did, and started with ushering.

His gambling addiction stopped, and even though he still owed the loan sharks a lot of money, they did not hound him.

Through his church, he started to volunteer in a place all too familiar to him: Changi Prison.

He started to look out for proper jobs, and eventually learnt how to be a real estate agent from someone who offered to train him from scratch. It was his first real job.

“The money I earned felt different,” Soo said.

Through his church, he started to volunteer in a place all too familiar to him: Changi Prison.

In fact, he met some of his old gangster pals inside, who were shocked that Soo came back to prison, but this time round, as a volunteer counsellor. The change in him was so drastic and unthinkable that some of them accepted Christ.

Others, when released from prison, went to FCBC to check if it was the same Peter Soo they had known back then as gangsters, who was now standing at the pulpit preaching about redemption and hope.

By then, Soo had become a pastor taking care of the Hokkien ministry and prison ministry in FCBC.

He has also volunteered with Prison Fellowship Singapore since 1998, and recently took on the role of a fulltime staff at PFS, heading the Through Care ministry team.

“God is so merciful,” Soo (second from right) says as he looks back on his rollercoaster life.

At home, God also blessed Soo and his wife with a son, even though they had been told they could never conceive. Their son, Billy, is now 25 years old. Soo and his wife are sure that there is nothing impossible for God.

“If I were to be very frank, I was really a very horrible person. Some of the things I did in the past were so sick, so bad, it can make me vomit now. But God has forgiven me, and even allowed me to glorify him,” Peter concluded, the tenderness beneath his steely front betrayed by slightly damp eyes as he recounted: “God is so merciful.”

This article was first published on www.pfs.org.sg, and is republished with permission.

About the author

Sharon Lim

Sharon is a freelance content producer who spent a decade in corporate communications before a tiny human turned her life upside down and her house inside out. In between changing diapers and meal prepping purée, Sharon hopes to inspire through storytelling and applied drama.