Isaiah feature

In total, Isaiah Seah spent 31 years, or half of his life so far, behind bars. But when he read the Bible for the first time in prison, the hardened criminal found himself shedding tears. Isaiah at New Charis Mission. All photos courtesy of Isaiah Seah.

Former gangster Seah Chong Moy, 60, used to be a hardened criminal.

At the age of 14 years old, he was already being groomed to be a leader in the notorious “Sio Kun Tong” secret society group, also known as the “Sah Lak Kau”, or “369” gang in Hokkien.

It was the 1970s then and the gang members drew blood from him, mixed it with blood from another fellow leader, in an initiation rite that was meant to secure his allegiance to the group. The cup of blood was then passed around for every member to drink from.

Over the years, “Ah Moy”, as they used to call him, rose up the ranks to be the leader in charge of the Yio Chu Kang area in Singapore, and some 50 of his hard-core members had been following him for two to three decades.

More than 30 years behind bars

Today, Ah Moy goes by the unlikely name of “Isaiah”, in a radical transformation that has him following the leadership of Christ. His past is covered by the blood of the lamb instead.

Otherwise, his past could only have led to one outcome – violent death.

In total, he spent 31 years, or half of his life so far, behind bars.

In 2005, he was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for drug trafficking offences. He was caught red-handed in a hotel room in Geylang with about 500g of ice and 34 small sachets of heroin. Today, if a person is found trafficking more than 250g of ice, he or she would face the death penalty.

Isaiah has gone into the Drug Rehabilitation Centre (DRC) six times, and has been in prison six times. In total, he spent 31 years, or half of his life so far, behind bars.

“By the time you get out of prison, you will already be quite old. But if you are willing to change, there is still time left to do so,” Isaiah’s mother told him when she visited him in prison. He was released two years ago.

Back when he was in primary school, Isaiah did not know that the choices he made would lead him down a life of folly and destruction.

He did not even finish his Primary Four studies. He did not like studying and was often found quarrelling and fighting with his classmates.

So he dropped out of school and went to live with his grandmother, who was more lenient with him than his parents.

His friends introduced him to gambling and he eventually ran away from his grandma’s house when she refused to give him money to gamble.

Running a gambling den at 14 years old

In order to amass enough money to continue playing “Si Ki Pi” (four colour cards), the 14-year-old Isaiah began running an illegal gambling den in his gang member’s kampung house. The tips and allowance he received from patrons was enough to fund his own bets of $100 to $200.

At that age, some teenagers may find themselves discovering puppy love or wooing classmates they had crushes on. Instead, Isaiah would eye dating couples only for one reason – to rob them.

He would snatch any gold chain or jewellery on them and pawn the items away to fund his gambling habit.

Though he did not get caught, his fellow gang member warned him about getting involved in such dangerous activity.

Isaiah eyed dating couples only for one reason – to rob them.

Instead, the gang member convinced him to be a drug pusher instead and he agreed to do so as that sideline proved to be extremely lucrative. He could earn about $500 a day, a huge sum back in those days, especially for a young boy.

Running a gambling den was not easy. When patrons lost money, tempers would flare and quarrels broke out frequently. In order to resolve the conflicts, Isaiah often resorted to violence. Then 19 years old, he recalled taking a knife and stabbing the problematic patron a few times in his back.

“I wasn’t afraid because I had a lot of backing from my gang. Back in the 70s, whatever you had done, it could be solved by talking it through,” said Isaiah.

He was caught for taking drugs at a nightclub when he was 21 years old, resulting in his first detention in the DRC for 18 months.

When he came out, he continued smoking and pushing drugs and running the gambling den. Yet the hunger for more easy money soon led to him agreeing to be a shareholder of two brothels in Geylang Lorong 8. They offered prostitution services from women from Malaysia, Thailand and China.

“The job was easy because the girls earn the money for me,” said Isaiah, who was 23 years old at that time.

Networks of drugs and sex 

Over the next decade or so, he went in and out of DRC for his drug addiction. His strong networks with the drug peddlers in Malaysia in turn enhanced his brothel businesses as he could then tap on the same network to get women in from Kuala Lumpur.

The first time he went into prison was in the mid 90s when he was given 18 months jail and six strokes of the cane for fighting in a night club and smashing someone with a beer bottle on the head. 

“At that time, I was still young and enjoying life. I did not feel bad or regret anything at all because the money was good,” said Isaiah.

While he was in prison, he was not interested in reforming. Instead, he was determined to be “smarter” next time by letting his underlings handle the drugs – ganja tablets and ketamine – directly themselves so that he would not run the risk of getting caught.

The next five years was spent in and out of prison for assault cases and other offences such as selling counterfeit watches and clothes.

While he was in prison, he was not interested in reforming. Instead, he was determined to be “smarter” next time.

“I felt that since I didn’t have much education, I had no other choices but to turn to such sideline jobs for money,” said Isaiah.

Meanwhile, his gang members were also helping him run the gambling dens and brothels. They would also collect protection money from small businesses in the area – a regular rate of $180 a month or $369 (which their gang is named after) if there was an occasion for it.

In 2004, Isaiah’s drug accomplice in Malaysia was arrested.

His drug supply was stopped, hence his income from pushing drugs also plunged. By then, Isaiah had also chalked up debts of $100,000 from gambling and living the high life by renting bungalows.

Knowing that he was desperate for money, his then girlfriend – a secondary school teacher – asked him how she could help.

His heart was so callous then that he suggested she become a prostitute in the brothels he ran so as to help him make some money.

“She actually helped me a few times because she loved me very much,” said Isaiah. 

During that time, little did he know that following the arrest of his Malaysian accomplice, Singapore’s Central Narcotics Bureau had its eyes on him. They caught him one year later in a hotel room raid in Geylang for trafficking and possessing drugs.

This time, he knew his life was “finished”. No longer was he getting one year or six, 14- or 18-months jail terms. He was slapped with 13 years of imprisonment.

Shedding tears a second time

He was put into a single cell. For the first few months, all he felt was a deep anger towards himself and a sense of helplessness.

His mother remarked to him in Hokkien that having a son like him was akin to not having one.

“I asked myself why I was so stupid to live my life like that and I didn’t know what to do,” said Isaiah.

For one year, he spent most of his free time lying down on the bunk in his cell. He was so moody that he hardly talked to people.

When life was good, he remembered dropping by to visit his mum once in a while for barely 20 to 30 minutes each time.

Yet when he was in prison, she and other family members visited him twice a month.

Isaiah enjoying a meal with his family.

Once, she remarked to him in Hokkien that having a son like him was akin to not having one.

His heart sank when he heard it.

Suddenly, he did not know how to talk to his mother. She seemed so distant, so far from him.

“Believe me, this time I will change,” he promised her.

She replied: “You have said this so many times before. But I will still believe you, because you are my son.”

The first year in prison was extremely tough. Apart from being in a depressive state, he also had to go cold turkey. Days blended into each other as his weak body shivered and trembled on the bed.

After one year of keeping to himself, the other prison mates urged him to join them for indoor games. To preserve his sanity, he started joining them for basketball, chess and Rummy O.

He knew he had a hardened heart; this was only the second time in his life that he shed tears.

He found himself especially enjoying the company of some Christian brothers within the group.

“They have a kind of joy about them and are very loving and concerned about others,” said Isaiah.

One of them invited Isaiah to go for Chapel on Sunday and he went because the alternative of staying in his cell seemed dreary.

At Chapel that day, the worship leader led the group to sing a Hokkien song called “Kan Wa Eh Chiu” (Hold My Hand).

Mysteriously, he found his face wet from tears when the song ended.

Puzzled by the sudden emotion, he went up to the worship leader to express his surprise.

After all, he knew he had a hardened heart; this was only the second time in his life that he had shed tears.

The first time was when his friend chided him for his despicable act of encouraging his girlfriend to prostitute herself in order to earn him some money. He felt extremely guilty then and had teared and asked her to stop. Instead, he resorted to pushing drugs again and ended up getting caught.

His heart jumped. Was it a coincidence that Jeremiah 31: 3-4 seemed to speak to his heart?

This time, the worship leader suggested, it could be God touching his heart.

Then, a volunteer from Faith Community Baptist Church asked him how long his sentence was. 

Thirteen years, he replied.

That is not long if you focus on God during this time. It is better that you lose your life in this world than for eternity, said the volunteer.

Isaiah thought the volunteer spoke such a strange language and asked for a Bible, so that he could try to read up more about the Christian faith himself.

The bit about needing to believe in God to be saved and have eternal life sounded foreign. He was slightly skeptical.

Opening the Bible for the first time in his life, his eyes landed on Jeremiah 31: 3-4: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.”

Somehow, his heart jumped. Was it a coincidence that the verses seemed to speak to his heart?

He began meditating on these two verses for the next few weeks, especially when he could not sleep.

The verses gave him a newfound peace and confidence.

“I felt God telling me not to look down on myself because He will build up a new person in me. And not to lose faith for He will love me with an everlasting love,” said Isaiah.

Help me, God

From then on, he started reading the Bible voraciously for two hours a day. Whatever he did not understand, he would copy the verses down and ask the church volunteer to explain it to him.

Isaiah reading his bible daily while living at New Charis Mission.

Isaiah reading his Bible daily while living at New Charis Mission.

Over time, others began noticing how his speech and behaviour had begun to change.

He spoke to others humbly, instead of lacing his words with profanity. He was willing to help others and submit to authority.

Such behaviour, however, irked his “brothers” from the 369 gang who were also in prison.

Once, they asked him to smuggle food (those who worked could earn pocket money to buy food from the prison canteen) to a fellow gang member who had just entered the prison.

Isaiah refused to do so, as he knew he was not allowed to.

“Each time things happened, God would send people who didn’t know me to my rescue and solve the problems.”

“Now Christian already, become kiasi (scared) is it? Meet me to thrash it out in the dining hall tomorrow morning,” a gang member taunted Isaiah.

That night, Isaiah went back to his cell and knelt down for a few hours. 

“God, I am a Christian now and cannot do such things. But they accuse me of not caring for my fellow gang brother. I need You to help me,” he prayed.

The next morning, he was anticipating the brewing fight in the dining hall. As the gang member began shouting at him, a fellow inmate – someone he did not know – stood up to defend him and challenged the gang member on his behalf, saying that it was not right of him to find trouble when Isaiah merely did not want to do something illegal.

Of course, that was not the end of the matter. Over the next few weeks, the gang member sent various people to try to make life difficult for Isaiah.

“Each time things happened, God would send people who didn’t know me to my rescue and solve the problems,” said Isaiah.

“During these moments, I remember how God told the Israelites that He would fight for them so much so that He even parted the Red Sea so that they could pass through and escape from their enemies,” he added.

Leaving the 369 gang

In 2008, two years after he became a Christian, he announced to his gang members in prison that he intended to leave the 369 gang.

“I have seen how you have changed. How is it that your God is so powerful?”

They were flabbergasted and tried to persuade him to change his mind. They had been his followers for the last 20 to 30 years.

“I told them that I have realised that the life we used to lead was wrong and that kind of life was meaningless. I hoped they would also turn away from it. At first, they couldn’t accept that,” said Isaiah.

In 2018, Isaiah was about to be released when another 369 gang member in prison approached him.

“I have been observing you for a few years and I have seen how you have changed. How is it that your God is so powerful?” he asked Isaiah.

Isaiah replied: “It is not easy to turn good and I depend on God every day. Why don’t you try to go to Chapel and taste the holiness of God? One word from God and your life will never be the same.”

Given his radical life transformation, Isaiah’s mother has also come to faith.

Subsequently, Isaiah was transferred to another block as he was about to be released. While he was there, he heard that his former gang member had gone to Chapel and accepted Christ.

Soon after, both of them were released and Isaiah arranged to meet him at the Church of Singapore, the church his friend was attending.

His friend ran over to him and gave him a big hug.

“Brother, what you told me is correct, one word from God and my life is totally changed,” he told Isaiah that day.

Isaiah urged him to press on and not give up as the journey ahead would still be difficult.

“When you have turned back (on your past lifestyle), remember to also strengthen other brothers,” he reminded his former gang member.

Given his radical life transformation, Isaiah’s mother has also come to the faith.

Isaiah with his mother on her baptism day in church

Isaiah with his mother on her baptism day in church.

Upon his release, Isaiah chose to go to The New Charis Mission, a halfway house for former drug addicts and offenders, even though he was no longer battling drug addiction.

Isaiah with brothers from New Charis Mission at a charity run.

Isaiah with brothers from New Charis Mission at a charity run.

He wanted to serve God and give back to the community by journeying alongside other ex-drug addicts. He also does some mover jobs for some side income. Every Wednesday, he and the brothers visit rental flats in Chai Chee to befriend the elderly who live alone and assist them with household chores.

Isaiah helping an elderly resident out with household chores.

Isaiah helping an elderly resident out with household chores.

Isaiah keeps up a disciplined routine at New Charis, both spiritually and physically. He wakes up at 5am to have his personal quiet time before attending the group devotion. Thrice a week, he also works out a particular muscle group, whether it is doing 300 squats, 500 push-ups or 250 chin-ups.

Isaiah doing his exercises at New Charis Mission.

Isaiah doing his exercises at New Charis Mission.

Earlier this year, he attended Tung Ling Bible School for three months and later took on a two-month online course at the Global University’s Center for Evangelism and Discipleship.

Isaiah with his Tung Ling bible school classmates.

Isaiah with his Tung Ling Bible School classmates.

After being with New Charis for two years, he intends to move out soon to live with and take care of his 87-year-old mother. He is also waiting on God to show him his next assignment or calling in this season of his life. 

There are days when he still has to battle temptations, such as when his gang member friends ask him out to visit prostitutes or go for a drink at nightclubs.

“It can be very hard but we need to know our purpose. Changing is not a feeling; feelings can make you waver or lead you astray,” said Isaiah.

“Changing is about believing in a hope and that can make your life totally different.”

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About the author

Janice Tai

Salt&Light senior writer Janice is a former correspondent who enjoys immersing herself in: 1) stories of the unseen, unheard and marginalised, 2) the River of Life, and 3) a refreshing pool in the midday heat of Singapore.