“God, if I don’t change, I just want to die”: Rev Don Wong’s children recall a childhood fathered by the “ang moh pai kia” turned pastor

This Father's Day, Salt&Light celebrates fathers and their special role in the family.

Emilyn Tan // June 16, 2023, 12:10 pm

Don Wong 2019 award

"Without God, it's not possible": Rev Don Wong photographed with (from left) his daughter Vivienne, wife Vanessa, and son Daryl as he received the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Champion of the Year (Individual) award in 2019 from President Halimah Yacob (centre) at the Istana. All photos courtesy of Don Wong.

A “different” childhood is how the children of Rev Don Wong describe their early years.

The bursts of laughter are hearty, the trickles of tears heartfelt as they tell of their adventures with their social entrepreneur dad – a man once ensnared by drugs but saved by the hand of God and set in high places because he learned to know His Name. (Psalm 91:14b KJV)

Ps Don, the founder and executive director of The New Charis Mission, was a hardened convict imprisoned nine times in 12 years. Since leaving that past behind, however, he has not looked back.

The trail of freedom he has blazed for others like his old self is powered with such a zeal that it has morphed into what’s now called The Unlabelled Movement. Its motto: “Drop the label, see the people.”

Even so, he has not been spared the vicissitudes of our fallen world. Sharing his diagnosis of stage 3 pancreatic cancer with the congregation of Paya Lebar Methodist Church last month (May 28), he said: “Today, I’m not supposed to be here.”

“Every crisis will change your life. Either it will make you become a better person, or make you become a bitter person,” Ps Don told the PLMC congregation on May 28, 2023.

The 63-year-old had been hospitalised the previous week for a round of chemo that began on Saturday and lasted 52 hours. The regime came with the warning of adverse side effects and the emergency protocol to be followed should his blood count drop dangerously.

“Every crisis will change your life. Either it will make you become a better person, or make you become a bitter person.”

Sharing that he felt the Holy Spirit holding him back from cancelling his PLMC preaching appointment, he said: “I told God, ‘If You want me to come, then there must be no side effect.’”

Ps Don went on to say: “In life Christians are not spared pain, suffering and crisis, but there is a purpose, just like Jesus suffered and died at the cross for a purpose.

“But even when we don’t know the purpose, you and I must know that God is still in control. There is still that good, good God.

“Every crisis will change your life. Either it will make you become a better person, or make you become a bitter person. The words ‘bitter’ and ‘better’ are differentiated by two letters. If you say ‘i’, I can just sit here right now – ‘why like this? why like that?’ I will become very bitter.

“But if you want to become a better person, then you have to use the ‘e’, Emanuel. God is with you. God is in control.

“No side effects” from the chemo was Ps Don’s prayer when he was discharged from the hospital four days before he was scheduled to preach at PLMC.

“If God wants me to live, God can. Right now I don’t ask, ‘God, You heal me so that I can have a better old age. Yes, if that happens, good.

“But life is not about how long you live or a better life. It’s how well you live your life for the purpose and the will of God.

“And so I pray to God, ‘If I want a better life, the best life is in heaven. God, if You heal me, I want a Spirit-filled life, that through this pain and suffering, I will not miss learning from the experience so that I can glorify Your Name, so I can retell the story of the Gospel. This is life.’”

Fathered by an “ang moh pai kia” 

It’s this perspective that Ps Don’s children, Vivienne and Daryl, have caught for their own lives.

Co-owners of the recently opened The Last Scoop, a social enterprise aimed at training young ex-offenders in entrepreneurship, they spoke candidly with Salt&Light about growing up with their maverick dad, who in 2019 was the winner of the President’s Challenge Social Enterprise Champion of the Year (Individual) award.

“He was an ang moh pai kia and he led a gang”, Vivienne, 25, tells. Why “ang moh” (Westerner)? Not missing a beat, she laughs: “Because his family spoke English.”

“The only reason he talks about his past is to bring that understanding of, Okay, transformation is real. And it’s because of God.”

Ps Don’s grandfather owned a renowned bakery that, in its 1970s heyday, was on par with the Polar Puffs & Cakes name. His son, Ps Don’s father, would go on to multiply the profits many times over … by being a bookie.

“It was a greed thing,” says Daryl, 24. “Because of that money, they were able to do whatever they wanted, and they gambled their whole fortune away.”

His mafia ties enmeshed his progeny, and all of Ps Don’s four brothers (two older, two younger) belonged to one gang or another and were involved in some sort of vice. Only their sixth and youngest sibling, a sister, was shielded.

Ps Don went headlong into drug consumption and trafficking when he was 13. Never one to hide the truth, “he would just say, ‘When I was young I did this-this-this’,” Daryl states. “He is very blunt about it, and he says, ‘The only reason you are on this earth is because of God. Without God, I will not be here. Without God, you will not be here.’

“That’s the only reason he talks about his past. It’s to bring that understanding of, Okay, transformation is real. And it’s because of God.”

Cold turkey

Ps Don had a police record as a teen, but it was only when he turned 21 in 1981 and legally became an adult that he was imprisoned. Over the next 12 years, he would be incarcerated nine times. Once, released in the morning, he went right back on drugs the same afternoon.

“He vividly remembers that time,” Vivienne relates. “The severity of the addiction was such that finishing the sentence meant the freedom to go out and get high again, with no regard for the consequences. There was no change, no rehabilitation. He was like that.”

Going cold turkey while in prison didn’t help. Neither did his introduction to God.

Authenticity and transparency are among the values Ps Don has impressed upon his children, Vivienne (far left) and Daryl (second from left).

It was at the prison chapel that Ps Don first heard the Gospel.

Daryl shakes his head ruefully: “According to prisoners, Christmas celebration in prison is where there is good food. So, a lot of them go by chance or just to get a good meal because they know that the volunteers will bring in doughnuts and stuff like that.

“Since Covid, it’s been a bit different. Last time it was the volunteers’ hospitality that attracted a lot of them to chapel. They will be like, ‘Ey, I’m a Christian also, I can attend.’

“Somebody led my dad to say the Sinner’s Prayer. But what he will tell you is that ‘1983 to 1993, I knew God but I didn’t live the way a Christian should live.’”

The mother who visited her son in prison

After 10 years of shallow religion, Ps Don lingered at the back of the prison chapel one day in desolation and cried out: “God, I got nothing else. I already wasted 12 years of my life. Honestly, if I don’t change, I just want to die. I’m causing so much pain, and to my mum especially.”

Daryl explains: “Our grandmother is really one of the strongest women that we know. There were moments when all her five sons were just doing their own thing, drugs and vices and all that, and their mother was at home worried for them.”

“She loved them all. Never once would we hear that she gave up on them.”

She was not a Christian then, but her mother’s heart was such that she would travel to the prison to see Ps Don every visitation day. This was not possible with her other sons, who were elsewhere in the world, at one time or another in prison or on the run.

“But she loved them all. Never once would we hear that she gave up on them.”

She was one of the reasons Ps Don felt his hopelessness desperately. As Daryl tells it, Ps Don’s epiphany moment came when his heart finally heard the prison chapel preacher saying: “God loved you so much that He walked that road, got spat on, mocked, beaten up, flogged, whipped, carried the cross all the way up to Calvary and died for you and me. How can you and I not give our life to serve Him?”

The testimony is so often on Ps Don’s lips that Daryl repeats it easily. “That made my dad walk to the front and recommit his life and say, ‘God, I have no education, I have no skills. All my skills are illegal activities. If this new life can glorify Your Name, I surrender it to You.’

“So, he will always tell us, in 1983 he came to know the Lord, but he only had transformation in 1993.”

A chance to prove himself

Ps Don checked himself in to The Helping Hand, a Christian halfway house, and stayed on after completing its programme to become a staff member.

He attended Community of Praise Baptist Church (CPBC) and, with its then-pastor as his mentor, started a halfway house in 1995. He also founded a social enterprise hub, the first of its kind in Singapore, in 2005.

“God, I have no education. All my skills are illegal activities. If this new life can glorify Your Name, I surrender it to You.”

The transformation of his life was so quick that it was “radical”, in Daryl’s assessment. “God’s time and our time is very different. In those years he really committed his life to God and was given the chance to prove himself.”

Ps Don also met Vanessa, at the time a CPBC staff, and they married in December 1995. It was Ps Don’s second marriage; his first at age 23 had ended in divorce while he was in prison.

Ideological differences meant that Ps Don and the halfway house would part in 2006. Vivienne and Daryl were still in primary school then, but they remember that, overnight, their lives changed. They no longer spent any time in the halfway house premises.

Their dad has never told them what exactly happened. “Of course we had all these questions,” Daryl says. “But he was just, ‘Okay, children, we’re going through something. But we will come out again.’

“I remember that period of time as a period of tightness. Our parents weren’t drawing pay. We would be at home, we would not go out. We were very frugal already, to be frank. So I’d say we knew something happened.”

“We have enough because God will provide”

As children they’d eavesdrop when their parents went into their bedroom to have serious conversations.

Vivienne tears as she shares: “There was one day we heard them talking about some money issue. We didn’t understand. So, Daryl and I emptied out our piggy banks of coins and $2 notes that we had saved from Chinese New Year.

The joy of simple pleasures: Ps Don turned 63 in January this year.

“We took a big orange envelope from my mum’s study room and emptied everything into it and I slid it underneath their door. After that we went to hide in our room.”

“Their faith in God is what I think was memorable about that season. They always believed, ‘We will achieve God’s purpose.'”

Ps Don then sat them down and returned the envelope: “We understand that you’ve heard maybe a few things about us not having enough. But we don’t need this. You keep it. You saved it. We may not have a lot, but we have enough because God will provide.”

The lesson learnt was priceless. Daryl continues: “Their faith in God is what I think was memorable about that season. They always believed, ‘God has called us to this. We will get out. We will achieve this purpose that God has given us.’

“Even now, they won’t go into the details, but our dad would always tell us that at the time he was so troubled that he went to his mentor, the late Rev Henry Khoo, and asked him what he should do.

“Rev Khoo asked him, ‘What do you think God is telling you?’

“My dad said, ‘God is telling me, don’t come down from that cross.’ And Rev Khoo said, ‘Then don’t. It is after the cross that you’ll see the glory of God.’ So that’s what kept him in this journey.

“Our dad felt that God was telling him, ‘You’re going to start another halfway house, but this time you will inject the one thing that is missing from every other halfway house – the element of discipleship.”

A new season

Later that same year, in 2006, Ps Don and a handful of like-minded men started The New Charis Mission. It would be a place where every person who came in would become a disciple of Christ, as well as a discipler.

There has since been a season of reconciliation, when TNCM and the previous halfway house collaborated for several months before TNCM moved into its current premises at the Kembangan-Chai Chee Community Hub in 2014.

“Drop the label, see the people”: New Charis Mission has been organising The Unlabelled Run for five years now.

Ps Don’s take on it, according to Daryl, is: There’s no need to talk about the past anymore.

“For him, release is release. ‘If I’m coming to you, it’s because I’m okay with you already.’

“He has always been a person who believes in authenticity and transparency. With him, what you see is what you get. He will tell you what needs to be said, as it is.

“His very famous phrase is, ‘I’d rather you be uncomfortable with the truth that I’m about to say, than I make you comfortable by sugar-coating the truth.

“He firmly believes that if he is speaking what God wants him to speak, then it will come to pass and it will produce fruit. That’s how he carries himself. No double meanings, no passive aggressiveness.”

Click here for Part 2 of Vivienne and Daryl’s account of having Ps Don Wong as Dad.

The Unlabelled Run, now in its fifth year, seeks to raise awareness that labels attached to the already marginalised can be detrimental, and advocates their removal. The 2023 edition will take place on June 24 at the Singapore Sports Hub.

Registration for the 5km fun run and 10km competitive run has closed, but The New Charis Mission, as its main organiser, welcomes public support of the event. Click here for more information.


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About the author

Emilyn Tan

After years of spending morning, noon and night in newsrooms, Emilyn gave it up to spend morning, noon and night at home, in the hope that someday she’d have an epiphany of God with His hands in the suds, washing the dishes too.