What this gangster-turned-pastor saw in his late father’s secret cabinet moved him to tears

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

by Janice Tai // June 15, 2023, 9:40 pm

WhatsApp Image 2023-06-13 at 12.07.25

Pastor Samuel Phun's early rocky years with his father has given him a heart for children from broken families, some of whom he and his wife have fostered. Pastor Samuel is seen here with his wife, two sons and daughter-in-law in Melaka. Photos courtesy of Pastor Phun.

When Samuel Phun was in Primary 4, the class monitress asked to collect his homework. Samuel had not done it. When she said she would tell the teacher, Samuel became so angry that she was about to “pao toh” (betray) him that he picked up a stone and slung it at her.

The stone missed her but hit the discipline master right smack on the back of his head. Immediately, all fingers pointed at him and he was called up to be caned publicly. He received three strokes of the cane on his buttocks that day.

“I began to have the mindset that, okay, I belong to this category of students who always gets into trouble.”

His sister, who had witnessed it all, reported the incident to his mother.

That night, he not only endured a tongue lashing from his mother, thoughts of condemnation started swirling in his head. 

“The whole night I kept thinking about how the whole school knows about me now, and how I am such a bad person,” recalled Samuel.

He began to hang out with the more playful students in school. Once, when they were playing “hantam bola” (poison ball), one of them threw a ball at Samuel. It missed him and hit a Primary 1 girl.

Samuel, together with his friends, was hauled up for another round of public caning.

“I began to have the mindset that, okay, I belong to this category of students who always gets into trouble,” Samuel said.

Samuel (top row, third from the right) with his Primary 6 classmates after he was retained for one year.

Feeling lousy about himself, he lost interest in studying although he used to be among the top students in his class.

By the time he hit the age of 15, school caning was the norm for him. He joined gangs and practised martial arts and lion dance almost daily at a temple.

Growing up with an absent father 

Although Samuel had grown up in a large family, his father was never quite around for him.

It was a simple question, but it riled the young teenager so much that he threw a chair at his father and hurled vulgarities at him.

Samuel recalled seeing him only about two weeks a year as his father worked as a cook on a ship that sailed to countries such as Japan and the United States.

“He was like a stranger to me. By the time he came home for good, I was already quite a rebellious teenager,” he said.

When his father noticed that $5 was missing from his wallet one day, he asked Samuel: “Did you take $5 from my wallet?”

It was a simple question, but it riled the young teenager so much that he threw a chair at his father and hurled vulgarities at him.

“He wasn’t trying to accuse me, but I got angry. In my mind, I was influenced by what my friends said about fathers – ‘long zhong lau peh so siang’ (all fathers are the same). I believed in the lie that my dad didn’t like me,” said Samuel.

During those few years, Samuel felt so lost that he became a “McDonald’s kid”, hanging out with his friends all day and night at the only McDonald’s in Singapore at the time in Liat Towers. They would even sleep there overnight, using the toilets to wash up before heading to school the next day.

Samuel (bending over the table in front) with his secondary school friends.

Many of his friends experimented sexually.

“Given the absence of a father figure in my life, I began to be attracted to a man who showered me with affection and whom I thought understood me well,” said Samuel.

“I felt dirty but I could not get out of it. I felt so hopeless about my future,” said Samuel.

All his siblings were in reputable and professional careers but there he was, dabbling in part-time jobs variously as a welder, plumber, chef and baker. The last job he held was in a nightclub.

Two suicide attempts 

Depressed over the way his life was panning out, Samuel decided to kill himself.

“Can Jesus help me start my life all over again?”

Twice, he went up to the 12th storey of his Toa Payoh flat and sat at the ledge, wanting to jump.

Yet on both occasions he was spotted – once by an old woman and another time by a friend’s mother – who happened to see him and shouted at him to stay off the ledge. Their shouts woke him up from his stupor.

But he spiralled further downwards when his close friend killed someone in a gang fight and was put in prison.

One night, as Samuel was praying to the idol in his living room, his brother came over to talk to him.

They were not close, but he listened as his brother began telling him about how much Jesus loved him.

Samuel retorted: “How can your God be alive? All I see in church is a wooden cross.”

Only one question kept swirling in his mind.

Samuel (left) and his brother who shared the Gospel with him.

“Can Jesus help me start my life all over again?” he asked his brother. 

“Why don’t you give it a try?” his brother replied.

Out of desperation, Samuel agreed.

Loved, forgiven and filled with hope

As his brother prayed for him and led him in the Sinner’s Prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon Samuel so strongly that he began trembling.

“My head and shoulder felt numb and I can’t explain the feeling but, for the first time, I felt that someone truly loved me.”

“My head and shoulder felt numb and I can’t explain the feeling but, for the first time, I felt that someone truly loved me,” said Samuel.

“I felt very loved. I also felt that I became clean, like everything I had done wrong had been forgiven. I suddenly felt confidence and hope in the future,” he told Salt&Light.

So changed was he that he bought breakfast for his parents the next morning. Incredulous at the sudden change in his behaviour, Samuel’s mother thought he had gone “siao” (crazy).

Samuel felt the immediate conviction to stop smoking. He also threw away all his heavy metal music and pornographic videos.

He began attending church and tried to read the Bible. It was difficult for him as he was more fluent in Hokkien and Teochew.

Samuel’s baptism in 1984.

“I just flipped the Bible open near the middle and I landed at the book of Proverbs. It seemed easier so I started to read from there. After that, I chose another short book called Malachi,” said Samuel.

When he read Malachi 4:6 about God’s will for the hearts of parents and children to be turned towards each other, Samuel felt prompted to act on it.

Samuel with his Bible at St Peter’s Church.

He went up to his father and asked him in Mandarin: “Father, would you forgive me? I am so bad.” His father, who was not a Christian then, encouraged him to take it easy on himself.

Three years later, Samuel, then 21, was called into full-time ministry. He became a pastoral staff at St Peter’s Church.

Samuel (top, left) became a pastoral staff in St Peter’s Church.

He was invited to preach one Sunday at another church – the Chapel of the Holy Spirit. After praying over his sermon, he decided to preach on Malachi 4:6.

When Samuel gave an altar call after his sermon, he noticed that the first man who stood up was right at the back, in the last row.

“As he came forward, I thought, ‘Hey, how come that guy looks like my father? But it can’t be  – my father is not a Christian!’” 

But, indeed, it was Samuel’s father.

The father who responded to his son’s altar call

Samuel was shocked. A thousand thoughts flooded his mind.

“Son, can you please forgive me? I have not been a good father.”

“You once threw a chair at him. You are not fit to preach the Word. You are not fit to be a Christian.” The self accusations came fast and furious. Samuel felt like running out of the church.

When his father reached the front, his father touched his elbow and said to him in Mandarin: “Son, can you please forgive me? I have not been a good father.”

Back at home later, his father related how he came to be in the very church at which his son was preaching. 

Samuel’s father had passed the church the day before, and had happened to read the service timing at its gate.

“When I was reading the signboard, a thought – ‘Why don’t you try going to church?’ – just came into my mind. So I went,” Samuel’s father told him.

Samuel, still moved by the recollection, said: “That was the beginning of how God really manifested to my dad, and our relationship began to heal.”

Samuel with his brother-in-law and father.

After the altar call that Sunday, Samuel noticed that his father was still lingering in the church.

He went up to his father and said: “In my entire life, I have not gone out with you. Now that I am an adult, I want to take you on an outing.”

A father-son outing

His father smiled and suggested going to Jurong Bird Park.

The following week, they had a good time at Jurong Bird Park. When they passed by a photo booth, his father suggested taking a photo.

So the two of them took a photo. Perched on Samuel’s hand was a red and green macaw, and on his father’s a blue and yellow macaw.

Samuel’s photo with his father at Jurong Bird Park.

His father kept the photo and picked up two feathers – one blue and one brown.

“I asked him to throw them away but he said he wanted to keep them for memory’s sake – he wanted to remember the day his son had taken him out,” said Samuel.

The brown feather that his father had kept for memory’s sake. The blue feather has since disintegrated.

As they walked and chatted, the Holy Spirit prompted Samuel to ask his father: “What was Grandfather like?”

Samuel had not met his grandfather before.

His father stopped walking, thought for a while, then replied in Mandarin: “I don’t know.”

A shocked Samuel said: “How come you don’t know your own father?”

“When I was three to five years old, my father passed away,” his father replied quietly.

“Robbed” of his own father

The conviction of the Holy Spirit came upon Samuel: “You always thought that your father didn’t like you. That he was not there for you and that he loves your siblings more than you. Do you know why your father didn’t know how to father you? It is because he was robbed of his own father.”

Samuel had believed in the lie that his father did not love him but, that day, he knew the truth.

He stood there, tearing, and said to his father: “I am sorry.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” came his father’s response.

As the years went by, his father gave his heart to Jesus.

Samuel went on to start River Community Church in 1999 and is now its senior pastor. He has two sons, one of whom serves as a lay pastor in the youth service at River Community.

Pastor Samuel preaching in River Community Church.

When his father died in 2003, Pastor Samuel’s mother asked him to help pack away the contents of his father’s cabinet.

“As a kid, my father used to tell me that, whatever I did, I was not to open or touch the box in his cabinet. So, I was very curious about what secrets lay inside,” said Pastor Samuel, now 57.

The secret wooden box in his father’s cabinet that Samuel had been warned not to touch.

When he opened the cabinet, the first thing he noticed were the two feathers at the side of the cabinet.

“The lie I had believed in – that my father did not love me – was completely broken then.” 

“The feathers had meant so much to him that he had kept them in his cabinet. It touched me,” said Pastor Samuel. He sat on the bed and kept giving thanks to God for healing his relationship with his father.

Next, he saw a photo album placed on top of the wooden box. He flipped it open and saw that the first photo of the album was the photo that was taken with him at Jurong Bird Park. Pastor Samuel broke down and wept.

“The lie I had believed in – that my father did not love me – was completely broken then,” he said.

When he opened up the wooden box, he saw four items in it. The first was a golden whistle given to his father by the captain of the ship he used to work in. The second item was the first MRT card in Singapore.

“The third and fourth items were what I had given him because he liked them very much– my sergeant’s good service award and a tie pin,” said Pastor Samuel.

“Jesus opened up my eyes to see and set me free from all the lies I had believed in. Though I had made so many mistakes in my life, God still helped me. Both my father and I had a missing piece in our hearts and God allowed us to see that and heal our relationship in His time.”

The wooden box with three of the four items that Samuel had found in them – the good service medal, the MRT card and the golden whistle.

That is why Pastor Samuel now has a heart for children from broken families. He has fostered a number of them over the years and his church prioritises reaching out to children in the community. About 80% of the children in his church are from the community while the rest are second-generation Christians.

Pastor Samuel believes that, in the last days, the relationships between fathers and children will come under attack.

Pastor Samuel preaching and ministering to others.

“We may lose the next generation when the children lose understanding of the Father heart of God,” said Pastor Samuel.

“Since God has ministered to us, it is up to us to go back to minister to our fathers and show them God’s love.”

With Father’s Day around the corner, Pastor Samuel acknowledges that there may be fathers and children who need to be reconciled with one another.

“My encouragement to Christian fathers is to go deeper and establish themselves in their relationship with God and the purposes of God. Then their children can see how they live and have models to follow.

“Spend time with your children to influence them, love them and pray for them,” said Pastor Samuel.

For children in the faith who are struggling to love their fathers, Pastor Samuel hopes that they are able to look past the faults of their parents and, instead, see to their needs.

“There is no perfect parent and our fathers have their needs as well. Since God has ministered to us, it is up to us to go back to minister to our fathers and show them God’s love.”


I wish, on Father’s Day

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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.