“I want people to know that with God, all things are possible”: Anil David, ex-offender and recipient of President’s Award
by Gracia Lee // October 16, 2020, 4:01 pm
Anil David holding up the Bible he had pored over while in prison. After meeting God, who transformed his life, Anil went on to set up Agape Connecting People, a call centre that employs ex-convicts, single mothers and people with disabilities. Photo by Gracia Lee.
Anil David still wonders who it was that nominated him for the President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award, which he received at the Istana earlier today (October 16).
It commends him for stepping up in more ways than one during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I never did it for recognition. I only rose to the need,” said the 52-year-old humbly, honouring his wife, Gita, as “the true recipient” of the award.
“I want to be the hope for them, to show that there is a way out of whatever situation they are in.”
When Agape Connecting People, the call centre he founded, was offered the opportunity to set up and man the National Care Hotline, his team mobilised, trained and readied their staff in just 10 days.
The hotline is a government-initiative that offers psychological and emotional support to those affected by the pandemic.
To care for his staff as they went to work each day as essential workers, Anil teamed up with charity Octava Foundation to provide them with three meals a day.
On top of that, he and his wife also rallied and mobilised their family, friends and staff to provide 300,000 meals for foreign workers over two months, as well as support 180 stranded students from India.
A life, changed
This award is just the latest addition to the many accolades Anil and his social enterprise have received since he and his wife set it up in 2012.
But behind all these glitzy prizes is a greater story of how a man, once destroyed by his own greed and thrown into prison thrice for stealing more than a million dollars, was transformed after meeting God in prison.
While being so open about his dishonest past may affect his credibility, Anil does not sanitise his story.
“It is impossible to achieve this on your own. It’s only by God’s hands of grace.”
“There are so many people just like me,” said Anil, who released a book about his life, The Longest Shortcut, in September.
“I want them to know that with God, all things are possible. I want to be the hope for them, to show that there is a way out of whatever situation they are in.
“This way out is nothing but the cross of Calvary. And in the cross of Calvary, there is redemption, there is salvation, there is reconciliation, there is purpose, there is meaning in life.
“If God is able to take someone as dirty, as vile as me and put me where I am today, it is a testimony that God is able to do far greater than we can ever imagine, if we are aligned with him.
“It is impossible to achieve this on your own. It’s only by God’s hands of grace.”
Growing up in a kampung in Potong Pasir as the third of six children, stealing had always been a way of life for Anil. He spent his early years going from house to house with his cousins stealing rambutans from their neighbours.
With little supervision from his parents – his father worked long hours and his mother was busy with the family’s needs – he rarely suffered any consequences for his mischief.
As a teenager, he began noticing how his friends led more luxurious lifestyles. They wore branded clothes, had the coolest stationery and ate at fancy restaurants on the weekend.
It gnawed at his self-esteem. Desperate to fill this void of inadequacy, he developed a habit of stealing money from his father to keep up the lifestyle he craved.
It took a while for his father to notice that his money was disappearing. But Anil never owned up, nor was he ever caught or disciplined.
It emboldened him. Finally, he could get whatever he wanted and live the life he had always dreamed of, he thought.
Web of lies
Stealing was not his only vice. He often lied, too.
It started out as a way for him to cope with his pain. When he was 8, he was habitually molested by a trusted uncle over a year.
Anil paid a stranger $10 to pose as his father.
Unable to process his complex emotions of hurt, guilt and shame, young Anil lied to himself by trying to forget each episode. Somehow, it offered him comfort.
Hooked by the ease in which it got him out of sticky situations, he began lying more frequently.
Once, when the school principal asked to see his parents for his bad behaviour, Anil paid a stranger $10 to pose as his father.
Soon, it became such a habit that he would sometimes lie for the sake of lying.
On another occasion, he brought home a fake trophy he had bought at Queensway – complete with his name inscribed on it – to tell his mother he had won it on Sports Day.
With each little theft and lie, Anil’s conscience was seared.
When he was just 27, he was caught and jailed for five years. His daughter Anishah was barely a year old.
By the time he started work as an insurance agent, he had no qualms about swiping thousands from his client. In eight months, he had taken $100,000.
It was a quick and easy way to keep up his extravagant lifestyle – fancy cars, branded goods, gifts for his girlfriends – which he so desperately craved.
At night when he returned home to his wife, who thought he had been working late, Anil had no problems sleeping soundly.
In 1995, when he was just 27, he was caught and jailed for five years. His daughter Anishah was barely a year old. His conviction shook him a little, but his habits were already too deeply entrenched.
In 2000, he was convicted again for a criminal breach of trust and sent back to jail for 16 months.
By the time he committed his third crime in 2004, when he colluded with his girlfriend to embezzle almost $800,000, his heart was blackened.
Shame and regret
But his third sentence, slapped on him when he was 36, was his longest one yet.
His selfish pursuits had done nothing but cost his family a son, a husband, a father.
Just the thought of spending eight years in a maximum-security prison was unbearable.
His cell reeked of sweat and metal. The humid air clung to his skin. Hemmed in by concrete walls and steel bars, he had no escape from the reminder of his undoing.
Though he had not paid much heed to his family for years, he found his thoughts wandering to them often.
A month had passed, but his wife and two young daughters had not come to visit – not that he blamed them. He had disregarded them for way too long.
Trapped in his own prison of guilt, he spent weeks contemplating if it was better for him to die.
It dawned on him that his selfish pursuits had done nothing but cost his family a son, a husband, a father. And now they had to bear his shame too.
He knew the person he had hurt the most was his wife, Gita, who had left her family in India to build a life with him here. He had broken all the promises he had made to her.
He also grieved for the time he was losing with his daughters, who were just two and nine, and wondered about what life would have been like had he made better choices.
Shame and regret sat on his chest like a brick. Trapped in his own prison of guilt, he spent weeks contemplating if it was better for him to die.
Time was the only thing Anil had in abundance. So, when a fellow inmate offered him a small, blue Bible, he found no reason to decline it.
At that point, his vague impression of Jesus from his time in St Andrew’s Secondary School was that he was “a miracle-maker, some kind of David Copperfield”.
His vague impression of Jesus was that he was “a miracle-maker, some kind of David Copperfield”.
But as he read through the book of Matthew, he was struck by how Jesus was able to see right through every person He met.
“Suddenly I felt so naked, like this book was reading me. I felt that Jesus could see right through me too – all my deceit, that I was just a phoney,” he said.
Up until that point, he had spun such a complex web of lies that nobody knew who he truly was, not even his wife.
He threw the Bible aside, afraid to embrace the bareness he felt.
But after some time, boredom crept in and he picked up the forgotten book from the floor. This time, Matthew 11:28 caught his attention.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
It was exactly how he was feeling – weary and burdened. He was tired of being the person he was, tired of carrying around guilt, tired of knowing he had lost everything.
“Suddenly I felt so naked, like (the Bible) was reading me.”
Suddenly he was reminded of a chat he had had with Pastor Santar Singh from Khush Khabri Fellowship almost a decade before, in October 1994.
Anil had just intended to sell him insurance, but they had ended up spending an hour-and-a-half talking about the Christian faith.
“He was going on and rattling on about Jesus. I thought: Wow, this is really long. But there was one thing that I remembered him saying, ‘Christianity is a relationship you have with a person’,” Anil recalled.
At that point in prison, he had destroyed all his relationships. So, a relationship with God – and some respite from his burdens – seemed like a good offer.
However, not knowing how to have a relationship with someone he could not see, he left the thought at the back of his mind.
More than a year later, a fellow inmate invited him to attend the Sunday Christian counselling session.
That night he slept well, something that he had struggled to do for a long time.
“He said there was aircon, during Christmas got chocolate, and sometimes pretty girls will come. So I went,” said Anil with a laugh.
During the sermon, to his shock, the pastor shared the exact verse that he had been gripped by a year before: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
He froze for a second. “This is no coincidence,” he thought. “God is speaking to me.”
Desperate for this rest that had long eluded him, he stepped forward to give his life to Jesus.
“I remember that as I was praying, there were tears flowing in my heart. I suddenly felt so tired. Drained. I didn’t feel free,” he recalled.
“Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel alone.”
But that night he slept well, something that he had struggled to do for a long time. And when he awoke in the morning, the brick sitting on his chest was gone.
“Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone,” he said. “I didn’t feel alone.”
Though his problems and worries were still very much present, his heavy burden was gone, replaced by a courage to face up to what he had done.
“That was the start of a very, very painful peeling off of my skin, as I began my journey of knowing Christ,” said Anil.
It was a challenging process of unlearning his old value system and adopting the one given by God – of honesty, contentment and trust in Him.
A new identity
He spent the next few years poring over the Bible, reading it from cover to cover five times.
In it, he found forgiveness and redemption.
“God doesn’t look at the wrongs I’ve done. He has forgiven me and given me a new identity.”
“I looked at Peter, a cowardly person who betrayed Jesus. But yet Jesus said: No, you’re going to be the man of the hour for Me. And David committed sins in his life, but God still called him a man after His own heart.
“I put all these pieces together and saw that God doesn’t look at the wrongs I’ve done. He has forgiven me and given me a new identity.”
As he read the Old Testament, he also discovered the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and why He made it willingly – “because He created me in His image, I’m important to Him, and He doesn’t want to see any of His children straying away”.
The unconditional love showed to him by the counsellors at Prison Fellowship Singapore, who turned up every week to spend time with him, also greatly moved him.
“Under his shelter, I will always find rest.”
As they met every Saturday for two hours, he knew that he could share every shameful thing he had done without receiving judgement.
“They helped me to overcome many things. I could share all the extramarital affairs that I’d had and they would guide me with the word of God, teach me how to be sanctified, how to be set aside,” he said.
They challenged him to put God’s word to memory. By the time he left prison, he had about 300 verses etched in his mind.
He still keeps the Bible he had in prison, now old, tattered and clearly well-read. Its pages are filled with long, handwritten prayers, reminders to stay faithful, highlighted verses and detailed annotations.
But his change did not happen overnight. Occasionally, he would still get involved in fights in prison and cause trouble. “But there was one thing I held onto and did not let go of – this person, Jesus, that I was beginning to have a relationship with.”
His priority was to make amends with his family.
So, inspired by Paul who wrote letters in the Bible, he wrote to his family twice a month, apologising to them and coming clean about everything he had ever done.
“I am truly sorry for the pain I have caused you.”
Even when they did not reply, he continued to write.
In one letter to his elder daughter, Anishah, he wrote: “Little princess of mine, I made a mistake and I am paying so heavily for it. What saddens me most is that my mistakes are affecting you as well!
“I know it is hard for you to grow up without a father figure to guide you. I am truly sorry for the pain I have caused you. I promise you to change and be a better man and the best daddy in the whole wide world.”
He looked forward to the day when his family would come to visit, wishing so much that he could just reach out and hug them. “I had to rebuild everything from behind the glass,” said Anil, whose daughters are now 18 and 25.
In prison, Anil was also rebuilding his own life. At the encouragement of a prison officer, he applied to work in a call centre run by inmates.
It was here that the Lord sent his way mentors and friends who saw value in what he had to offer and affirmed his abilities – something he had not experienced growing up.
His years at the call centre allowed him to put into practice the new values he had learnt – discipline, honesty and hard work.
God sent his way friends and former mentors who believed in his transformation and invested in his dream.
And, as he took pride in the work that he was entrusted with, he gained a new sense of accomplishment and purpose.
It invigorated him so much that he decided he would one day start his own social enterprise and call centre, and hire ex-convicts like himself, as well as other groups on the fringes of society.
It was a dream that seemed almost impossible to attain. At the age of 41 when he was released, he was an undischarged bankrupt with only a secondary school education.
But God sent his way friends and former mentors who believed in his transformation and invested in his dream.
“He also went (to jail) and he’s doing well. That touches me. If he can do it, I also can do.”
His wife, too, shared in his vision and gave him her full support, even pawning all the family jewelry to raise the funds.
In 2012, the couple set up Agape Connecting People, with the hope of providing a “Garden of Eden” for employees to flourish and gain confidence.
They built it on Kingdom values, such as integrity, excellence, respect and accountability.
Today it has about 150 employees, who are ex-convicts, people with disabilities and single mothers. It has two offices – one in Tai Seng Avenue and another in the women’s prison in Changi.
For many of Anil’s employees, which he prefers to call colleagues, his success is an emblem of hope.
Ramesh Singh, 50, an ex-offender who has been an operations executive at Agape for six years, said: “Now where is he? He also went in (to jail) and came out, and he’s doing well. That touches me. If he can do it, I also can do,” he said.
In all he does, Anil remembers Psalm 91:1: He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
He said: “The moment I move out of that umbrella, I’m asking for trouble. But under his shelter, I will always find rest.”
TO READ GITA’S STORY, CLICK HERE:
FOR MORE STORIES OF TRANSFORMATION, READ: