Richard Tan

Former gangster Richard Tan went from drug dealer to lorry driver after his innocent wife had to give birth in prison because of him. He is now a builder of landed homes and rebuilder of lives. Photos courtesy of Richard Tan.

He once held someone at knifepoint in a lift in the “trending” style of robberies in the 1980s, and smashed up a KTV lounge in an extortion attempt. 

In a reformatory centre for young criminals, he was involved in a violent gang fight – hitting someone with a metal post from a table tennis table. For this, he earned himself 12 strokes of the rotan (cane) and got the game banned.

Richard Tan had learned such behaviour from senior secret society members, including a notorious gangster who was eventually murdered.

A baby born in jail

From the age of 16, when other students were carrying their haversacks to school, Richard was going in and out of jail. 

At the age of 33, he was arrested for the seventh time.

“I told myself I didn’t want to go to prison again. So I jumped the $50,000 bail,” recalled Richard, now 56.

He absconded to a country up north, where he disguised himself as a businessman.

“I joined a drug syndicate importing drugs into Singapore. I did it for the money. But deep down inside, I knew that I was doing something wrong,” he admitted.

There, he we has caught by the authorities.

Richard made some of his tattoos with needles while in prison. He got his first tattoo when he was in Secondary Two, on an area concealed by his school shorts. He was expelled from school for gangsterism that year.

“My pregnant wife Celine, who was due to deliver, was also captured. She was innocent, and didn’t know about my activities.

“The authorities threatened me. They said, ‘You need to give us your syndicate boss. If not, we won’t release your wife.’

“I chose not to betray my boss as I thought he would buy me out of prison. He didn’t.” 

As a result, his wife had to deliver their son while in lockup.

“I was totally broken. How can I call myself a man if I cannot protect my pregnant wife and baby son?” Richard said. 

“I told myself that I needed to change.”

Since he was released from prison for the first time at 17, Richard had tried to turn over a new leaf. But he had not been able to do so with his own smarts and strength. 

A sister’s letter

Richard was behind bars for two years overseas before being sent back to Singapore to serve another seven years.

His sister Mary, who is a Christian, wrote regularly to him, urging him to pray.

“All this while, I thought I was somebody, bringing home the money through drugs.”

She also encouraged him with verses from the Bible. They included: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

“Mary was the first Christian in our household. Since my primary school days, Mary would sit down and share with me about the Bible. But I chose not to obey, and lived life on my own,” recalled Richard.

In one letter, Mary wrote: “My dear brother Richard. Do you know how much shame and misery you’ve brought on the family? Do you know why we haven’t given up on you?”

It puzzled Richard.

“Eh, why did she say that I brought shame and misery on the family? All this while, I thought I was somebody, bringing home the money through drugs.”

In prison, he had a lot of time to think about what he had done.

“Actually when doing drugs, I didn’t bring money home. I just spent it on myself.

“In the middle of the night, the police came to our home and handcuffed me.

“When I was in jail, my mother had to tell lies to the neighbours, saying ‘My son go army’ or ‘My son is away’. But I stole, I robbed, I extorted money, I was active in gangsterism. I was also a drug abuser. 

Richard asked his sister why she could still love him. “Her reply was, ‘Because I have the love of Jesus.’”

“I used a chopper to chop other people in gang clashes. I also got whacked and ended up bloody. I landed in hospital five times. 

“I came to realise that all these things piled up to bring shame and misery on my family.

“I asked myself, ‘Richard, if you have this type of brother, can you still continue to love him?’

“My answer was ‘no’.”

Richard then asked his sister why she could still love him through his 24 years of sin and crime. 

“Her reply was, ‘Because I have the love of Jesus.’”

Richard saw her love when she took their mum on a long trip every month to visit him while he was behind bars overseas.

“That was when I realised how great God’s love must be. Otherwise how could she humanly love such a brother?”

‘Deleting’ his old self

While in prison in Singapore, Richard benefitted from chapel sessions which were held three times a week. 

Former inmates came to share how they had turned their life around with the help of Jesus. They included Don Wong, founder of halfway house The New Charis Mission

“He was nine times in and out of prison – and then became a pastor who is influencing others,” Richard said. 

Richard Tan Tung Ling

Richard at his graduation from Tung Ling Bible School, with Chairman of the Board, Rev Yang Tuck Yoong. “God reminded me to have a heart of humility and gentleness,” said Richard of his three months at its School of Ministry.

Richard, who was “totally broken”, knew that God was his only hope. 

“In the last 30 years, I could not find one thing worthy of turning my head. But now I decided to surrender my life to Jesus. It was the most important decision I made.

The New Charis Mission

Minister for National Development, Mr Desmond Lee, presented Richard and second wife May Wong an award in recognition for their support of The New Charis Mission during its 12th anniversary in 2018. With them is its founder, Pastor Don Wong.

“I decided to ‘delete’ myself totally. Meaning, I didn’t want my old self anymore.”

He was sorry for the wrongs he had done that had hurt others. 

“I sought the Lord earnestly for an answer to transform my life.

“God, if I can be a lorry driver or mee pok seller for the rest of my life, I will hallelujah.”

“I let God run my life. I followed the prison chapel service closely, read the Bible, prayed. I also gave thanks to Him every day in my cell.

“I had seen the ugliest side of life, and had visited friends just before they were sent to the gallows. I realised that I could not find peace and love without Jesus.”

Just before he was released, Richard asked himself: “What do I want in life?”

He told himself: “I need to pursue God closely. I just need a simple life.

“I told Him, ‘God, if I can be a lorry driver or mee pok seller for the rest of my life, I will hallelujah (praise you).”

“Why do I have to leave now?”

Richard was nearly 40 years old – and his son, seven – when he was released from prison in 2007. 

His wife Celine, who had patiently waited for him, helped to purchase a four-room flat for the family to settle into.

Richard indeed worked as a lorry driver when he was released. He attended church and participated in Christian activities regularly.

“My life was peaceful, joyful and meaningful. I always thought stories should have happy endings. But mine was totally the opposite – a super sad one.”

Within two years of his release, his world crumbled when his beloved wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

“After she left, I did a lot of crying inside my lorry.”

“She asked me, ‘I waited for you to come out from prison, to change, and you became good. Why do I have to leave now?’

“I didn’t know how to answer the question,” Richard said.

His heart broke as he witnessed how she slowly faded away from the illness.

“But God consoled me. One night, she suddenly told me at 10pm that she wanted to see me in her next life. She wanted to accept Jesus and get baptised.

“A pastor rushed to my house in the middle of the night and baptised her in front of her parents. I am thankful she accepted Jesus.”

She passed away two weeks later, within a year of being diagnosed.

Divine N’ Dynamic Private Limited

After Celine’s passing, Richard raised their son Keith who was 9, with the help of his sister Mary. Today, Richard is training Keith, now 23, to be a project manager.

“I cannot accept it. If she was 52, I can accept it. But she was only 32,” Richard said.

“After she left, I did a lot of crying inside my lorry for a few months.” 

Old friends, who were involved in loan sharking, gambling, illegal betting and cigarette smuggling, tried to lure him back to his old ways and easy money.

“After months of debate and quarrel with God, I adjusted my mind and decided to grab hold of the promises of God and follow Him no matter what,” said Richard.

Second chances at love: God healed Richard’s relationship with his mother (left) and siblings, and brought May Wong (right) into his life as his second wife.

God also blessed Richard and May with a daughter, Chloe, who is now 2.5 years old. They are pictured with Richard’s sister Mary and son Keith.

“I decided to let God run my life,” said Richard, who celebrates his 17th year of freedom from jail this year.

He quoted Galatians 2:20“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

From lorry driver to construction boss

Eager to “chase back” his 40 lost years, Richard worked hard by day. He spent four nights a week upgrading himself through eight courses run by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

“Every year, I saw significant changes in my career,” he said.

“From lorry driver, I was promoted to site supervisor, to project manager. In the fifth year, I was promoted to a commission-based project director.

“God put me at the right place, at the right time, with the right people,” said Richard. 

“In the sixth year, God gave me the peace and a clear indication to set up my own construction company.”

Divine N’ Dynamic Private Limited

Starting as a “one-man, one-lorry, one-office-girl business”, Richard’s construction company, Divine N’ Dynamic Private Limited, now includes a team of 30 foreign workers. “I cannot imagine how a lorry driver reached this stage if not for God,” he said.

At his company, God blessed him with favour from clients.

As his career and life stabilised, Richard did not forget the One who had changed him. He started serving Him by going into prison every fortnight to help new releasees find jobs, and adapt to society and church.

“From a drug dealer, God transformed me into a builder of landed homes,” said Richard, who shares his testimony with clients like this gentleman. “My owners know about my past and are all very supportive of me.”

Seventeen years ago, he was a lorry driver when he started attending Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC). Today, he is a prison counsellor and a key figure in FCBC’s after-care prison ministry.

“I felt not worthy to come before God. But now, I have the capacity to serve Him,” says Richard who also runs a cell group for former inmates, with the help of his second wife May Wong and a Christian friend.

Unlabelled Run

Richard (front row, second from right) now runs a successful construction company building landed homes. It supports the Unlabelled Run, organised annually by The New Charis Mission to crush negative stereotypes and draw attention to the good work of former offenders. The sixth edition of the run will take place on May 18, 2024.

Many who hear Richard’s testimony cannot comprehend how a former gangster like him was able to turn his life around – and how a lorry driver earning $1,500 a month became the boss of an established construction company.

“I also cannot comprehend,” said Richard.

“I came out of prison at zero, with no cert, no educational qualifications, no connections  only one driving licence.

“This is definitely God’s hand in my life.

“He has restored my life in all areas – family, career – and enabled me to give back to Him and the community,” said Richard, who shares of his transformation only to boast about the goodness and grace of God (1 Corinthians 1:31).

Quoting Ephesians 3:20-21, Richard said: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.

“耶稣是让我们抬起头的神 (Jesus is the God who lifts up our heads in dignity).

“This is why my life overflows with gratitude to Him.”

A version of this story first appeared in Stories of Hope.


In and out of prison five times, it took heartbreak to turn him around

“I cannot, God, but You can”: She gave birth in prison, but still struggled to kick addiction

“God is bigger than chilli padi!”: How the Unlabelled Run is transforming lives

About the author

Gemma Koh

Gemma has written about everything from spas to scuba diving holidays. But has a soft spot for telling the stories of lives changed, and of people making a difference. She loves the colour green, especially on overgrown trees. Gemma is Senior Writer & Copy Editor at Salt&Light and its companion site, Stories of Hope.