A gangster notorious for roaming the streets of Geylang with parangs and machetes, Sebastian was changed after hearing Jesus' gracious response to the sinful Samaritan at the well. Photo courtesy of Sebastian.

The gangster who once indulged in every vice is now a gentle missionary. Photo courtesy of Tony*.

From his late teens to his 20s, Tony* (not his real name) was a vulgarity-hurling, parang-wielding gangster who roamed the streets of Geylang, waiting to pick a fight with anyone who dared to throw a glance his way. His life was steeped in violence, alcohol and the company of prostitutes.

Once, irritated by his 3-year-old son’s incessant crying, he stormed into the kitchen and grabbed a chopper, fully intending to “hack him”. Such was his impulsiveness until he came to know the Lord at age 30.

Now 66, Tony’s life and couldn’t be more different. The gentle, level-headed man has been a missionary for the past 23 years, working among refugees in Malaysia. Due to the sensitivity of his mission work, Salt&Light is withholding his identity. 

This is his story:

Warped idea of being a man

When I was three, my parents separated. I was told that my father was a womaniser and used to beat my mother. Unable to tolerate it any longer, she left our family.

“I used aggression to scare people off and make up for what I lacked in my physical appearance.”

While my father doted on me, he was mostly absent as he had to work. As a result, I did not feel much love growing up.

We lived in a three-room flat in Toa Payoh, which in the 1960s was notoriously known as the Chicago of Singapore. Lots of crime and gang activities happened there.

Because I grew up in that environment, I joined a gang when I was about 17. In an hour-long initiation ritual held in a jungle somewhere in Sembawang, I pledged my loyalty to the gang and vowed never to leave or harm my brothers.

In their company, I picked up many vices. I smoked 40 sticks of unfiltered cigarettes a day and also often indulged in alcohol. For every 10 words that came out of my mouth, nine were vulgarities.

I gambled often as I thought that being wealthy would gain me the approval of others. But I ended up losing a lot of the money I had earned from working in a shipyard.

I also frequently visited prostitutes. Having grown up seeing my father bring home different women, I had a distorted view that women were things to be played with, rather than people to be cherished.

“I hoped that by indulging in money, alcohol, violence, I would get some form of recognition.”

Every now and then, my gang and I would roam the streets with our parangs and machetes in hand, looking out for people to fight.

I felt insecure about my physical appearance. So I used aggression to scare people off and make up for what I lacked. I had no problem taking on people who were twice my size.

I was constantly thinking about how people viewed me. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got and the more suspicious I became.

Every little thing set me off. When I thought that people were staring at me, I would confront them and attack them before they could give me an answer.

“I believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit … because my old self would never have said sorry.”

I had a warped idea of what it meant to be a man. I lived by this motto: 君子流血不流泪, which means “a gentlemen sheds blood, not tears”. That was the kind of philosophy I had.

It drove me to be extremely impulsive. Once, irritated by my three-year-old son’s non-stop crying as I was trying to sleep, I stormed into the kitchen, grabbed a chopper and wanted to hack him.

Good thing my wife screamed at me before I could do anything. (I married her at 25 after getting her pregnant.)

Deep inside I felt I was a nobody. But I hoped that by indulging in all these things – money, alcohol, violence – I would get some form of recognition from others. I felt it was the only way for me to have an identity.

Yet no matter what I did, I had no peace in my heart.

A gangster weeps

When I was 30, I was reconnected with my mother, who had become a Christian. She passed away the following year from a heart attack.

After the funeral, my aunt, who is also a Christian, invited me to church. She had helped us with the funeral, so I agreed to go out of obligation.

“Even though the woman was so promiscuous, Jesus offered her the gift of living water and eternal life.”

However, during the sermon, I was deeply touched by Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26). Even though the woman was so promiscuous and had a loose lifestyle, Jesus looked past all of her sinfulness, reached out to her and offered her the gift of living water and eternal life.

Normally people would only be good to those who are good. They wouldn’t be good to people who are bad, like myself. But Jesus’ response was not like the others. That captured my attention.

I gave my life to God that night.

As I learnt about repentance and forgiveness in Christ, I recalled my past and felt an overwhelming sense of uncleanliness, dirtiness, shame and guilt.

Even though I had always sworn never to cry, I wept uncontrollably for a long time. Right in front of this leader that I barely knew! Remorse engulfed me and I asked the Lord for forgiveness for every wrong thing I had ever done.

I believe it was the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, because my old self would never have said sorry. It was not in my blood to apologise or repent.

Immediately I felt a sense of peace in my heart.

“Even though I had always sworn never to cry, I wept uncontrollably for a long time.

I was determined to walk with Jesus and turn from my own ways.

Thankfully, just a few years earlier, the police had swooped in on gang activities and arrested the two headmen of my gang during a raid. To avoid being caught, the rest of us dispersed and laid low.

In hindsight, I think it was God’s grace that the gang was disbanded. Otherwise, I don’t know if I would have ever left.

This gave me an opportunity to put my past behind me and start anew. But the journey was far from easy.

“I will kill you!”

Shortly after I became a Christian, I found out that my wife had been having an affair for five years.

I vividly remember telling her when we got married: “Listen carefully. Don’t ever let me find you being unfaithful to me. If I do, I will kill you.”

But after that season of repentance, I realised that I had mistreated her and had not loved her well.

“As I was about to meet a prostitute, I heard a loud, stern voice say in my right ear: ‘Don’t go!'”

“Let’s start all over again,” I told her. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s make our marriage work.”

Unfortunately, my wife continued to contact this man for the next two years. I continued to bear with it, even when I bumped into her lover in a lift one day.

My old self would have beaten him up right away. But I surprised myself by telling him calmly to leave my wife alone. I believe it was the Holy Spirit that gave me the self-control.

However, when it was clear that my wife was not interested in leaving him, I called for a divorce.

The separation hit me hard. It didn’t help that I lost my job soon after that. Disillusioned with the faith, I stopped attending church. 

I forgot about God and went back to my old habits of gambling, drinking and visiting prostitutes. But God never forgot about me.

Once, as I was about to meet a prostitute that I was thinking of moving in with, I heard a loud, stern voice say in my right ear: “Don’t go!”

I whipped my head around to see who had said it. But there was no one. I was afraid. Could it be God? Better not go, I thought. So I turned around and went home.

“Contrary to what I believed, my identity is not found in what I do or have.”

In hindsight I realise that God has always been watching over me. Not just in this experience but also in near-death experiences that I had during my time in the gang. Had He not intervened, my life wouldn’t have been the same, that’s for sure.

About six months later, the cell group that I used to attend came to visit me. I don’t remember much of what they said, but their visit reminded me that there were people who still cared for me.

It got me thinking about my faith and walk with God. I was challenged to return to Him, and so I did.

A new love

Slowly my life began to change. As I attended church regularly and plugged myself into the church community, I grew in my faith and gradually gave up all my old vices with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Most importantly, I learned to find my security and identity in Christ, knowing that I’m a beloved son of God. Contrary to what I believed, my identity is not found in what I do or have.

“Their visit reminded me that there were people who still cared for me.”

Romans 5:8 says that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. I don’t have to do anything to prove myself. God loves me unconditionally. How foolish I was to have done all those things that would have never amounted to true acceptance.

I’m no longer insecure or worried about what others think of me. It doesn’t matter because Christ loves me. I can laugh at myself when I make mistakes. I have learnt to forgive when someone hurts me, because I’ve first received forgiveness from God.

As I walked closely with God in my new identity, He also shifted my focus away from myself and towards the needs of others.

(Tony’s second wife confirmed this when Salt&Light spoke separately with her: “He’s supportive, loving and responsible, with a heart to serve not just the family, but also anyone he comes into contact with.” They met in church and have been married for 27 years.)

” I don’t have to do anything to prove myself. God loves me unconditionally.”

Instead of thinking how I can benefit from my relationships with others, God has taught me to think: “What can I do for them?”

This opened up my heart to respond when God called me to be a missionary in 1997. Since then, I’ve grown stronger in my faith, having seen how the Lord loves and leads those who are faithful and obedient to Him.

God’s love and power have transformed me. Through my relationship with Jesus, I now have so much joy and peace. 

In the past when I met with difficult situations, I would fret, worry and lose sleep. Now, even in uncertainties, I have peace. I acknowledge that I don’t have control over the situation. But God does.

I know that I’m loved by Him and He has said he will never leave me nor forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6). So I let God be God. He knows what He’s doing and He will bring me through.

“God wouldn’t give up”: It took a suicide attempt, jail and a near-death accident before he turned to God

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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 and Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.