Christmas

A gang member at 8 and secret society boss at 16, he now leads his “brothers” to freedom

This Christmas, Salt&Light brings you a series of stories on new beginnings. Your life can begin again too.

by Gracia Lee // December 21, 2021, 7:12 pm

After escaping from the halfway house, Beng Kim tattooed a cross in the middle of his collarbone as he believed it was Jesus who had saved him.

After escaping from the halfway house, Beng Kim tattooed a cross in the middle of his collarbone as he believed it was Jesus who had saved him. All photos courtesy of Teo Beng Kim.

Teo Beng Kim was just eight years old when he was recruited into a secret society, after gang members saw him beating up another student and recognised his “potential”.

Violent and aggressive, he gained a reputation as one not to be trifled with, and rose through the ranks to become the gang’s headman at 16, with some 80 young gangsters under his charge. 

Violent and aggressive, he rose through the ranks to become the gang’s headman at 16.

So brazen was this teenager that when he was jailed six months for drug possession, he vowed to himself: “If I were to go back to prison, I want to go back for something big, something worth it.”

At 22, the self-professed “lawless” gangster became the leader of an illegal moneylending syndicate that had operations even in Malaysia. Known to be a hard boss, he was callous and hell-bent on having things done his way.

Today, Beng Kim continues to lead many of such “brothers” – albeit in a different direction. Instead of leading them into fights and crime, he now hopes to guide them into true freedom and the hope that change is possible.

After all, his own transformed life is evidence enough.

The kindergarten kid who hung out with gangsters

Law-breaking had been a way of life for Beng Kim from a young age.

The son of hawkers who worked long hours, he grew up in the care of his grandmother in Ang Mo Kio, which in the 1980s was a popular spot among gangsters, gamblers, drug addicts and alcoholics.

Without much parental supervision growing up, Beng Kim fell into bad company from the time he was in kindergarten.

From as young as in kindergarten, he became acquainted with some of these unruly characters as he roamed around the neighbourhood, picking up their bad habits as he hung out with them at coffee shops and basketball courts.

Beng Kim decided – at eight years old – that it would be better to join a gang so that he would have back-up during his escapades. 

In primary school, when he was mocked by his schoolmates for having a skin condition that left sores all over his body, he learnt to use violence to stand up for himself.

“Once, I took a chopper and wanted to go and chop (my schoolmate) up. I was having this kind of mindset, that if people make fun of me, I will fight with them,” said Beng Kim.

He was in lower primary when he first landed up in a police station, after fighting with a classmate’s mother, who had sought Beng Kim out because he had beaten up her son.

But his first brush with the law did not deter him. “After I first stepped into the police station, I kept going back,” he said. 

Fights followed more fights, and Beng Kim decided – at eight years old – that it would be better to join a gang so that he would have back-up during his escapades. 

That marked the start of a rash of gang activities through his early teenage years, from indulging in drugs to running gambling dens to fighting for territory.

“I mean, I enjoyed breaking the law lah. That was one of my habits, every day I have to do.”

Fierce and combative, he once stabbed someone from a rival gang with a pocket knife until the man ended up in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit.

Another time, he was accosted by 20 gang members and bludgeoned with metal and wooden poles until he almost blacked out. “I still could go back to get revenge after that,” he said.

His grades began falling in secondary school, but in his gang he was quickly rising up the ranks. At 16, during his ‘O’ level year, he was appointed headman of the 80-man secret society.

It gave him even more power to do whatever he pleased.

“What I think is what I did. Even if I think something is not right, I don’t care also. I mean, I enjoyed breaking the law lah. That was one of my habits, every day I have to do,” said Beng Kim.

A plan to escape

With the police on his tail for several rioting cases, teenaged Beng Kim decided to enrol in halfway house The Hiding Place, in an attempt to escape the law.

He planned to bolt. There was just one problem: The staff member assigned to escort him was the fastest runner in the halfway house.

But enduring cold turkey in confinement was more unbearable than he had thought. So, he hatched a plan to escape, even though he heard that many who run away would be caught and harshly disciplined.

As his ‘O’ level oral examination was coming up, he would be allowed to leave the compound to take the exam. He planned to bolt at the first opportunity.

There was just one problem: The staff member assigned to escort him was known to be the fastest runner in the halfway house.

In desperation and with no one else to turn to, he began talking to a cross hanging outside his confinement room, remembering that the staff had told him about a person called Jesus.

“I remember I called Jesus’ name and I challenged Him, ‘If you are really God, help me in my situation. Show me that You are really God’,” said Beng Kim.

To his surprise, he felt an overwhelming feeling – one he now recognises as the presence of God – and began weeping uncontrollably. 

“I called Jesus’ name and I challenged Him, ‘If you are really God, help me in my situation. Show me that You are really God’.”

Later, he learnt that another staff member had been reassigned to escort him to school. “It changed to a plumper guy, cannot really run one lah,” he said.

He eventually escaped by jumping two storeys from his school hall.

While he admitted that his prayer had been selfish, Beng Kim said it planted a seed of faith in him. “After I escaped, I had a very, very strong conviction that Jesus is God,” he said.

He tattooed a cross right below his neck, amid the other gang tattoos that were peppered all over his body. Though he did not consider himself to be a Christian, he began to pray every night to this Jesus.

Said Beng Kim: “Of course, at that point in time, it was very self-centred prayers. But God is faithful. He eventually really set me free.”

Partying, clubbing and fast cars

After flunking his ‘O’ levels twice, Beng Kim got involved in the loanshark industry, working under the revered Ah Long San, arguably Singapore’s most notorious loanshark in the 1990s, who once led a multi-million-dollar illegal moneylending syndicate.

After Beng Kim gained enough trust and credibility, Ah Long San entrusted him with some $50,000 to start his own loansharking business.

From as young as eight years old, Beng Kim was embroiled in multiple violent gang-related activities with his “brothers”, which carried on until he met with an unlikely escape and a far-fetched promise in a prison cell.

With good intentions, Beng Kim began recruiting his “brothers” who had come out of jail and were looking for a job.

His business grew larger and larger, and eventually turned into a syndicate in its own right, with some 20 men – including managers and runners – under him, some even in Malaysia.

Responsible for more than 200 cases of harassment islandwide, his loansharking ring had a monthly turnover of $500,000, with about 1,000 debtors’ records in their database. 

By his early 20s, he was raking in $30,000 to $40,000 a month. After becoming a father and getting married, he purchased a Honda Civic and a four-room flat in Sengkang – all in cash.

He spent his days partying, clubbing and racing fast cars, paying little attention to his young family except to give them money.

“It was the highest peak of my life. I saw myself as quite successful. I was carefree, I didn’t have to worry about money. Every day I carry a lot of money with me. I just spent as and when I want,” he said.

He saw neither need nor reason to change the way he lived. What for? Even without any educational qualifications, he had forged a lucrative path for himself, he thought.

A far-fetched promise

But not for long. On April 12, 2007, just three days before his 29th birthday, his loansharking ring was busted.

In an islandwide operation that was reported by local media, police raided 15 of their premises, seized scores of their tools and documents, and hauled 17 of them into lock-up.

Beng Kim was detained under what is now called the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act, which allows for the detention of suspects without trial.

In a press release by the police featuring the operation that busted Beng Kim’s loansharking syndicate, police said the syndicate is believed to have a monthly turnover of about $500,000.

The act is used to deal swiftly with people associated with secret societies and organised criminal groups, such as drug trafficking and loansharking syndicates.

Detainees do not have a fixed date of release. Instead, a committee conducts yearly reviews to see if a suspect is suitable to be discharged. 

As he heard his fellow prisoners worshipping with such “fire”, he felt something burning in his heart and moving him to tears.

Knowing that this jail term was far more serious than his last, Beng Kim decided to become more serious about finding out about this Jesus who had once rescued him, even though he knew he risked facing criticism and ridicule from his “brothers” in prison.

At his first worship service, as he heard his fellow prisoners singing and worshipping with such “fire”, he felt something burning in his heart and moving him to tears.

But he vehemently fought back the tears, adamant that no one was going to see him cry. Even in prison, he had a reputation for being a hardened criminal.

“People looked up to us (detainees under the Criminal Law Act) because we are in detention, we are involved in gangs. We are not those ‘normal’ criminals. In a way they see it as something big lah,” he said.

“So I told myself I don’t want to attend (the worship service) second time, because I don’t want to make myself malu (Malay for ’embarrassed’).”

 Jeremiah 29:11 caught his attention. He had just lost everything. What kind of hope and future was there for him?

He settled for quietly reading a Bible someone had given him in his cell. As he flipped through it, Jeremiah 29:11 caught his attention.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

He was incredulous. He had just lost everything – his wealth, his business, his freedom. What kind of hope and future was there for him?

Though he could not entirely comprehend the verse, he continued reading the next three verses, where God promised the Israelite exiles that He would reveal Himself to them and bring them out of captivity (Jeremiah 29:12-14).

“That was when I saw it as a promise from God to me, that He wants to bring me out from this captivity,” said Beng Kim.

Not just physical captivity this time, but a far more sinister one.

One step at a time

Strangely, a deep hunger and desire to know God grew in his heart.

He understood from Jeremiah 29:13 that there were some “conditions” attached to this promise, and that he needed to do his part to seek God with all his heart.

It was a long process of learning God’s values and realigning his values to God’s Word, after a whole lifetime of “lawlessness”.

So, he decided to start attending the Christian worship services and Bible study sessions again, at the encouragement of some of the Christian prisoners. 

Banking on God’s promise, he also declined opportunities and privileges to go outside to work, so he could have more time to read the Bible, which he did from day to night daily for three years.

It was a long process of learning God’s values and realigning his values to God’s Word, after a whole lifetime of “lawlessness” and doing as he pleased, he said.

A wake-up call that cemented his decision to change came when his second son, just a year old when his father was arrested, visited him in prison.

When Beng Kim teased him, the boy responded by calling him “stupid” – a mild word compared to the profanities that his older son would have used.

“My older one learnt a lot of bad habits from me, but my second one, he didn’t really pick up much from me because I went to prison when he was close to one year old.

He resolved to stop using vulgarities and to learn how to control his explosive, violent anger.

“That’s when I started to ask myself what kind of father I want to be to my sons when I am released,” he said.

So, one small step at a time, the man who never saw any need to change started making a few tweaks to his life.

He made it a point not to break prison rules, no matter how simple. He also resolved to stop using vulgarities and to learn how to control his explosive, violent anger.

“I mean I’m not perfect, I’m just learning lah. I also make mistake. But when I make a mistake, I’ll come out in the worship service and confess, and then make good of it,” he said. 

Prompted to start serving God, he also signed up to be a part of the prison’s worship team, first helping out to manage the transparency slides on the projector, and later becoming a worship leader.

God in the jail cell

Seeing a change in Beng Kim, his “brothers” mocked him, labelling him as “holy” and ostracising him.

It was not easy going from being a respected headman and boss to being scoffed at and looked down upon. But he persisted in his newfound faith.

He knew that his “brothers” who respected him, both in and out of jail, would now look at him with contempt as a betrayer.

Small steps became bigger steps and, after about two years in prison, he decided to officially renounce his gang affiliations.

It was a difficult choice, given that being part of a gang had been such a core part of his identity for his whole life. He knew that his “brothers” who respected him, both in and out of jail, would now look at him with contempt as a betrayer.

He also struggled to give up his portion of profit earned from being a syndicate leader, which he was still entitled to receive despite being in prison. From living the high life, he now worried about how he was going to support his family.

“I really struggled a lot whether to give up all these things. But eventually I learnt to submit to God’s calling,” he said, adding that he had learnt from God’s Word that he cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

“To me, I just wanted to serve God, that’s why I was willing to give up everything, not knowing what I’d become. There was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of worry, a lot of fear, but I guess at the end of the day, it’s what God says that matters.”

“I really struggled a lot whether to give up all these things. But eventually I learnt to submit to God’s calling.”

Right before he was supposed to attend his renouncement ceremony, one of his “brothers” tried to discourage him from going through with it. But, after thanking him for his concern, Beng Kim assured him that he knew what he was doing.

When the ceremony was over, Beng Kim felt different. The true meaning of freedom suddenly became clear to him.

He said: “I could feel like there was a rock inside my heart actually falling down, and my whole heart became very light and relieved. That was when I recognised God was working in me to take away my captivity and bondage.”

Beng Kim would spend a total of six years in prison, during which he clung tightly to his new identity as a child of God and crafted a new mission statement to “live my new life for God”.

During these years behind bars, he experienced God’s presence like never before.

“I always share that compared to my 29 years outside, these six years were the most fulfilling time because I found the purpose of life and I had a very close relationship with Jesus.”

The miracle

Today, Beng Kim is a programme manager at halfway house HCSA Highpoint, where he is living out his calling to turn back and strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32).

“I could feel like there was a rock inside my heart actually falling down, and my whole heart became very light.”

“I believe God saved me for a reason. He probably wants to use my life to influence or impact some of the brothers who are going through the same things as me,” he said.

While in prison, he realised that many of his fellow inmates have a desire to change, but just do not know how to change or where to start.

“They just need someone to show them the way – God’s way, not our own way, because everyone has a different journey,” said Beng Kim, who went on to pursue his Diploma in Social Services and ended up being the valedictorian of his cohort.

He finds it immensely meaningful to return to prison to listen to the inmates’ challenges and share a bit of his personal story with them, to empower them with hope that change is possible.

As a staff member at HCSA Highpoint, Beng Kim finds fulfilment and meaning in journeying with men who are on the path he once was on.

For many of these men, Beng Kim’s transformed life alone is enough of a testimony.

“Sometimes people may not see the way out … until they see that someone like me, last time do this kind of thing, also can change. Then how much more them?”

His journey from prisoner to valedictorian was featured in Chinese newspaper Lian He Zao Bao in 2017.

Yet he stresses to them that recovery is not a destination but a journey, one that even he is still on.

“Sometimes people may not see the way out … until they see that someone like me, last time do this kind of thing, also can change.”

Even though he has been clean for eight years now, he still needs to choose daily to live rightly, especially when there are temptations to earn quick money through old friends and illegal means, he said.

It is a costly choice. He sees many of his old friends driving sports cars, while he has to take on extra jobs as a private-hire driver and delivery man, on top of his day job, to support his family.

But choosing this path is far more fulfilling, he said.

“Instead of going back to my old ways, to find quick fixes to solve my financial issues, I rather do it with my hard work. It’s a way for me to manage my own temptations and use my potential in the right way, not in the wrong way anymore,” he said.

While it will not be an easy journey, Beng Kim believes that there is no one too far gone for God to save and redeem, and yearns that his “brothers” will one day see it too.

“If God can create something out of nothing during creation, then how much more is He able to transform any one of us?”

He said: “If God can create something out of nothing, which He did in the beginning of creation, then how much more is He able to transform any one of us, even someone like myself who is one of the worst?

“I destroyed a lot of life by harassing people, chasing their debt to the point that even got people commit suicide before. That’s the kind of sin I’ve done.”

Yet, God’s abundant grace and forgiveness reached down to him even when he did not know how much he desperately needed it.

“In the past, I never imagined that one day I would turn over a new leaf, ever come out from a gang. All my life I never had a conviction that I needed to do something different in my life … So honestly I would say that my life is a miracle, and God is using my life to glorify Him.”


In commemoration of its 25th anniversary, HCSA invites you to partner them in their work of rehabilitation and care for the socially vulnerable among us. Give the gift of hope during this festive season through HCSA’s #Gift25ive campaign. Donations are eligible for 250% tax deduction.


MORE CHRISTMAS STORIES ON NEW BEGINNINGS:

“Why me? Haven’t I been through enough?”: She grew up in a KL nightclub with a mum who was a kept woman

“Even if a person dies of cancer, there is still a beautiful story to be told”: How one woman found peace and joy in the valley of death

“The pay was so high, I couldn’t bear to leave”: Geylang brothel owner’s struggle to walk away from her old life

Coming out to come Home this Christmas

About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.

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