0. Feature - LianHezaobao

Lacking parental love and support, Ps Tobin Toh joined a gang which set his life on a downward slide that ended with him in prison. All photos courtesy of Ps Tobin Toh.

Pastor Tobin Toh knows what it is like to be an ex-offender and he knows what it is like to be homeless.

So, his work – running a shelter for ex-offenders and the homeless – is naturally close to his heart. 

From a young age, he stopped living with his parents. For reasons he never knew, he and his siblings – an older sister and a younger brother – lived with their grandmother instead. It was only when he was about aged seven that his parents took them all home.

Tobin did not live with his parents for much of his childhood. Instead, he was raised by his grandmother.

Within two years, however, his parents divorced and the three children were separated. Tobin went to live with his third uncle while his siblings went to live with an aunt.

Tobin (left) and his siblings lived apart after their parents’ divorce.

Asked for memories of his childhood, Tobin told Salt&Light in Mandarin: “I don’t remember much, but I remember that my Nai Nai (grandmother) loved me very much. Maybe too much.

His grandmother (centre, back) was the one who loved him the most, said Ps Tobin (extreme right).

“When she went to Malaysia to visit relatives, she would take me along.

“She would never leave me behind.”

Unhappy at home, unsuccessful in school

But life under his uncle’s roof was not easy.

His uncle ran a family business supplying ang ku kueh (tortoise-shaped glutinous rice pastries) and wah kueh (Hokkien steamed rice cakes) to shops. Tobin was expected to help out.

“I had to chop wood for the fire, wash the bowls used to make wah kueh and help make the kueh.

“Every week I would be involved in fights.” 

“If I hid in the room to do my homework and didn’t help out, my uncle would beat me with a wooden board till the board broke. So I had no time to do my homework.”

The self-confessed “naughty child” who picked fights from primary school all the way to secondary school easily lost interest in his studies. After two days in Secondary Two, he asked to stop schooling.

“My uncle said, ‘No.’ But Nai Nai said, ‘Don’t force him.’ Since she said that, no one dared to defy her.”

After Tobin dropped out of school, his uncle enrolled him in the SAF Boys’ School, an eight-year programme that involved two years of training and six years of work in the Singapore Armed Forces. In less than three months, Tobin was expelled.

“First week, I got into a fight. Then every week I would be involved in fights. We would meet outside at Changi Point near the camp before booking in and fight with people from the other platoons.”

Deep in the gang life

The stint at military school did set Tobin on a new direction, albeit a wrong one. Among those expelled from the school with him were some who belonged to a gang. They introduced Tobin to their gang.

“I never felt guilty or bad about what I did.”

“They joined so I also joined so that I would have people backing me and I wouldn’t get bullied.”

With newfound support from the gangs, Tobin saw no more need to continue living with his uncle. He moved into gambling dens and temples with the other gang members.

“When I did not go home, no one came to look for me. My uncle never asked me where I went. But I continued to help out at his business during peak periods.”

To make a living, Tobin harassed transvestite prostitutes for protection money.

“They were working in our gang territory. At first, I didn’t dare do it. But after watching my seniors beat them, I also beat them.

“The knife went so deep it almost hit bone. I required 20 stitches.” 

“I never felt guilty or bad about what I did. In fact, I felt emboldened because with one shout, they would hand over the protection money.”

Tobin worked as a runner in a horse betting ring as well. Steeped in the gang life, he took drugs though he never got addicted, and got into many fights.

“In my first fight, I got slashed by a broken beer bottle. I thought to myself: Why should I be the one to be slashed? I should slash other people. After that, I always made sure I had some kind of weapon with me when I fought.

“My most serious injury was on my back. The knife went so deep it almost hit bone. I required 20 stitches.”

It was because of his involvement in gang fights that Tobin got arrested.

Just 14 years old, he was placed on police supervision for three years.

From debt to prison

In those years, Tobin kept a lower profile, refraining from gang fights although his ties with the gang remained strong.

To supplement his income, he played billiards for money. He gambled heavily.

In his early 20s, he met a girl he wanted to marry. Hoping to go straight, he walked away from the gang and started a hawker stall with his younger brother selling Penang food. Money was good.

Tobin was never addicted to drugs. His weakness was gambling.

But by then Tobin was addicted to gambling.

“Marriage was good but I wasn’t. Even when I won a lot of money, I didn’t bring it home.”

He was in charge of a chain of businesses, bribing people to ensure things went smoothly.

When his luck ran out, Tobin found himself in debt. He managed to pay off the five-figure sum. Then he found himself in debt a second time – $400,000.

“It was too much. I couldn’t pay.”

To make a quick buck, he sold pirated CDs (compact discs) at pasar malams (night markets). Business boomed and before he knew it, he was in charge of a chain of businesses, bribing people to ensure things went smoothly for his shady dealings.

“But we became too obvious,” he said.

He was arrested in a sting operation and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

A light so bright

In prison, he managed to get on a Work Release Scheme (WRS) that allowed him to be released a year earlier so he could work by day and return to a community supervision centre by night.

But one day he received bad news from home.

“My wife asked for a divorce. Because of that, I was no longer eligible for WRS. No family support. And I got put in a PC room.”

Protective custody (PC) is designed to keep prisoners from harm and from harming themselves. The prison officers were afraid that, saddled with such massive disappointments, Tobin would try to take his own life.

Tobin as a young father.

“I didn’t want to kill myself. I wanted to get out and take revenge,” he said.

He spent the day in protective custody “in a blur”. But at midnight, something lit the way for him.

“I saw a light like a matchlight. It was soothing. The more I looked at the light, the whiter it became and the calmer I felt.

“The voice asked, ‘Do you still want to take revenge?’” 

“Then a voice spoke in my heart, ‘Do you want to take revenge?’ I replied, ‘Why not? When I get out, I will take revenge.’

“The voice said, ‘Don’t think of revenge. Let Me show you what you have done.”

Then right before his eyes, Tobin saw his life flash by “like a film”. Scene after scene  played.

“I saw all the bad things I had done. How I had been so bad to my wife and friends.

“Then the voice asked, ‘Do you still want to take revenge?’ I saw that everything was my fault and I wept.

“I saw the light get whiter and whiter. Then the voice said, ‘Do you want to follow me?’”

“Yes,” Tobin replied.

“I didn’t know who He was. I thought it was a god from my days involved in another religion. So I thought it was something familiar.”

That old rugged cross  

Stranger things were to follow.

Right out of protective custody, Tobin was handed an English Bible.

“I was waiting to be interviewed for a transfer to another prison and the prisoner next to me gave me a Bible.

“A deity I used to worship and had allowed to possess me flew out of my mouth.” 

“He said, ‘You look troubled.’ Then he told me to read a chapter of Proverbs a day.”

Though the Bible ended up being a pillow for Tobin, he did also do as he was advised.

“As I read, I felt like there were a lot of good things I didn’t do. But all the bad things, I did them. The more I read, the more frightened I got.

“How did God know I did these things?”

In time, he asked a friend for a Chinese Bible and his friend told him to move from Proverbs to the Gospels.

“As I read about how Jesus helped all these people, I asked Him to help me because I had done so many bad things.”

It was at a service in prison where founder and executive director of The New Charis Mission, Ps Don Wong, preached that Tobin finally decided to become a Christian.

“Ps Wong led me in the Sinner’s Prayer.”

That night, Tobin had another supernatural encounter.

“From that day onwards, I would pray, I would read the Bible. It all came naturally.”

“It was in the middle of the night. I saw an old, ugly cross. As I looked at it, the cross fell on me and I shouted out.

“When I did, a deity I used to worship and had allowed to possess me flew out of my mouth. I saw it. It looked exactly like the deity I used to pray to.

“It tried to go back into me but it couldn’t.”

The next day when Tobin read the Bible, “it became clearer and clearer”.

In the months before, he had only understood bits and pieces of what he had read. But that morning, everything became clear.

“From that day onwards, I would pray, I would read the Bible. It all came naturally. It was like something in my brain opened up.

“Before, when I read, I would get sleepier and sleepier.”

He gave up reading novels and asked his family to bring him Christian books.

“That was how I got to know Jesus more and more.”

But God was not done with him.

Read Part 2 of Tobin Toh’s story here and find out how he ended up buying a halfway house to help other ex-offenders get their lives back on track.


A 10-cent bet led to his 24-year gambling addiction

From suicidal to saved: Ex-gambling addict and debtor finds new life in God

I lost my family, my home, my money and my health. But then my faith came alive.

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.