“When somebody tells me it can’t be done, I would take it as a challenge”: Jason Wong on transforming lives of families, former offenders
St Luke's Hospital // November 29, 2021, 4:33 pm
God has used Jason Wong to initiate two national movements in Singapore – the Yellow Ribbon Project in 2004 and Dads for Life in 2009. Wong (centre) is pictured with Peter Tan, then Principal of ACS Barker, at the launch of the latter. Photo from fathers.com.sg.
“You are so skinny, you will not make it,” said Jason Wong‘s mother when he told her of his plans to work as a prison officer.
“You are too honest. Drug addicts tell a lot of lies,” advised his future father-in-law.
“Why help this group of people? There are others more deserving,” said his former boss.
“You are a scholar. Such a waste,” commented his future mother-in-law.
Such was the opposition Wong faced when decided to enter the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) in 1990.
If everyone were to join a place where all the talents have been, all problems would have been solved.
Only his girlfriend (now wife) supported him. She felt that it was a better option than joining him as a missionary in some far away, remote country. It was something Jason had prepared her for, if they were to marry.
The challenge to “go to a place where nobody wanted to go” had been issued by Wong’s economics professor to his class in university.
The lecturer explained that if everyone were to join a place where all the talents have been, all problems would have been solved, and “there will nothing much left for you to do – only maintenance work”, Wong, now 57, recounted.
“When somebody tells me it can’t be done, I would take it as a challenge,” said Wong, whom God has used to initiate two national movements in Singapore – the Yellow Ribbon Project in 2004 and Dads for Life in 2009.
“Do what cannot be done” is also Level 7 in The Seven Levels of Change: Different Thinking for Different Results, a book by Rolf Smith that left an impression on Wong.
(The first three levels are about doing the right things and improving on them. Level 5 is about benchmarking and Level 6 is about innovation.)
The dot-matrix printer
In the face of voices opposing his plans to join the SPS, Wong’s heart was unsettled.
Was he planning his own career path, or was it an assignment from God? He needed to know.
Then God gave him a vision.
Wong dreamt he was walking into an air-conditioned café where he saw many people chatting and drinking coffee. He looked down and saw lots of rubbish on the floor. He looked up and the people continued talking, unaware of the rubbish where they were seated.
The vision came back during worship at church the next day. This time he heard what sounded like a dox matrix printer.
“It was like God sending a message to me. The words being printed out read ‘Trash of society’.
“The meaning came into my whole being. God told me, ‘For the rest of your life, I want you to walk among the trash of society. Other people may not see it, but you will see it every day. Are you willing?’”
With tears flowing, Wong responded with a yes to God.
“The world may see them as trash, but to God, they are treasure.”
Captains rather than captors
Wong’s first posting was to the old Changi Prison. It was built by the British to house 1,600 inmates, but it had 2,400 inmates.
Overcrowding and a high recidivism rate were among the many problems that plagued the SPS when Wong joined as Assistant Superintendent of Prisons in 1990.
Wong was involved in sourcing for unused buildings to house the growing population of prisoners.
“In our kind of business, no one wants repeat customers, but they kept coming back.”
“In our kind of business, no one wants repeat customers, but they kept coming back,” Wong said.
Prison facilities were poor. There were no programmes to keep the prisoners meaningfully occupied and there was a lot of tension among them.
The prisoners also viewed the staff as captors, said Wong. There was great mistrust both ways.
The staff were foreigners as the locals shied away from taking up jobs at SPS.
However, 17 years later in 2007, SPS was ranked eighth in the top 10 companies to work for in Singapore.
SPS was the first civil service department to make it to the list that included Four Seasons Hotel Singapore and The Ritz-Carlton, Millennia Singapore.
“To transform an organisation, you need transformational leadership,” said Wong.
Wong’s boss, Chua Chin Kiat, also a Christian, displayed this sort of leadership.
“He was a visionary,” said Wong. “It was wonderful working under him and together with him.
“He believed in team leadership and having a shared vision.”
Chua led staff through a visioning exercise. He felt that the organisation and individual staff members had faint ideas of where they wanted SPS to go. But Chua believed a shared and compelling vision was needed to propel the organisation forward.
During this exercise, staff were allowed to wear civilian clothes instead of their uniforms.
Wong explained: “When we put on our uniform, we held ranks.”
The implication was: “If you’re of higher rank, then you’re correct. If you’re of lower rank, you should keep quiet.”
Chua recognised that that was “a sacred cow that needed to be slaughtered”.
SPS was now on a course to “set captives free” instead of “locking people up”.
“You can’t have a transformation when only a few people are making the decisions,” said Wong.
The 200-plus staff put their heads together and came up with a shared vision:
“We aspire to be captains in the lives of offenders committed to our custody.
“We will be instrumental in steering them towards being responsible citizens, with the help of their families and the community.
“We will thus build a secure and exemplary prison system.”
Prison officers began to see themselves as “Captains of Lives” instead of custodians or captors of lives.
SPS was now on a course to “set captives free” instead of “locking people up”.
The organisation started to change.
Putting his head on the chopping board
However, as with all changes, there was bound to be some opposition.
The first hurdle was convincing Chua’s bosses about their new vision and plans.
Chua showed courage and careful consideration in pushing through this collective vision.
“To move the hands and the legs, we needed to first win their hearts and minds.”
He told his team that he willing to “put his head on the chopping board” to see it through. He asked who else was willing to join him. One by one, a few key staff, including Wong, raised their hands.
The bosses were eventually convinced and Chua and the team managed to implement the changes.
Having persuaded the higher ups, there was however another group to convince: Other prison officers who did not believe in the vision.
Wong remembered one townhall meeting where Chua met with a couple of hundred of staff.
There were many questions, and lots of fear and uncertainty because they had never done anything like this before, or embarked on such a journey.
Wong recalled one statement Chua made that resonated with all who were present: “Faith energises, fear paralyses.”
It moved them to persevere despite the many unknowns.
Lessons from fishmongers and the King of kings
Another significant event was a Workplan Seminar that transformed the culture of the staff.
“It was a battle of hearts and minds. To move the hands and the legs, we needed to first win their hearts and minds,” said Wong.
They needed all staff on board.
Wong was put in charge of organising a retreat to “fix ourselves”, to provide a united front.
Wong drew lessons that could be applied to SPS from a case study on the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle.
The challenge was simple: If a group of fishmongers could become a world class organisation, why not SPS?
“If Jesus, being the King of kings, can wash the feet of men, then my rank is nothing compared to Him,”
The staff were inspired and responded with great enthusiasm.
The turning of this “rudder” shifted the whole ship in the direction of the new vision, a winning culture, and subsequently the development of clear strategies.
SPS started to transform internally as prison officers became “Captains of Lives”.
Wong would eventually be promoted to Deputy Director cum Chief of Staff of SPS in 2005.
As Number 2 in the organisation, he did something that no other person of that rank would have done: He washed the feet of his own prisoners.
“If Jesus, being the King of kings, can wash the feet of men, then my rank is nothing compared to Him,” said Wong.
“The prisoners could not imagine something like this could happen in the prisons,” Wong recalled.
“Many inmates were on their knees weeping as the presence of God filled the room, and the love of God filled their hearts.
“Amongst the ones released since, several are still faithfully serving the Lord today.”
A hundred yellow ribbons
In 2001, Wong was seconded to Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) as its CEO.
He learnt that transforming prisons was only half the battle.
“Even if we gave them skills, they may not be able to find a job. Even if we helped them with anger management, their family may not forgive them. Even if they renounced their gangs, they may not be able to find new friends.
Wong realised that they had to unlock another prison: The social prison.
“Even if they become Christians in the chapel services inside prison, not many churches outside were ready to accept them.”
Ex-offenders faced a big stigma in society. Wong realised that they had to unlock another prison: The social prison.
In 2004, Wong started The Yellow Ribbon Project, a national campaign to raise awareness about giving ex-offenders a second chance.
Many questioned him, for they saw former offenders as undeserving and thought it would hurt the victims and future victim of crime.
Wong recognised these concerns but also realised that a change in perception was needed to help prevent further crime.
“They don’t deserve a second chance, but they need a second chance,” said Wong, recalling how he once noticed his staff speaking to a couple in the office. The woman was holding a baby.
“My staff was helping the man get a job so that he could feed his family,” said Wong, who pressed on with the campaign.
With former offenders finding jobs and acceptance in the community, the prisoner population started to drop.
The idea of the yellow ribbon was “an idea that God dropped into my head”.
Wong had heard his children singing the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree in the karaoke room in the Officers’ Clubhouse.
The story is told from the point of view of a just-released prisoner: “I’m really still in prison. And my love, she holds the key.”
Uncertain if he would be welcomed home, the man writes to his love before he is released from prison. He asks her to tie a simple yellow ribbon round the tree his bus would pass if she wants him to return.
The song ends with the whole bus cheering at the sight of a hundred yellow ribbons around the tree.
Saving lives – and half a billion dollars
The Yellow Ribbon Project gained local and international recognition in countries such as the Czech Republic, Australia and Fiji.
Wong said: “If you’ve done something well, and other people want to copy it, please go ahead so that more can benefit.
“Many Christians know Singapore has an Antioch calling. Whatever God does here will go to the nations.”
With former offenders finding jobs and acceptance in the community, the prisoner population started to drop. Instead of building 20 new prisons as planned, only 10 were finally built – saving tax-payers half a billion dollars.
Subsequently, Wong moved on to the Ministry of Social and Family Development as he wanted to go upstream to work with families.
As Director of Rehabilitation, Protection and Residential Services, he oversaw all the welfare homes and children’s homes, youth-at-risk, family violence and child abuse cases.
Instead of building 20 new prisons as planned, only 10 were finally built – saving tax-payers half a billion dollars.
“I saw for the very first time, how broken families in Singapore were,” he said.
When Wong began to seek the Lord for the root of all these social issues, he was led to Malachi 4:5-6.
Indeed, hearts of fathers had been turned away (absent) or turned against (abusive) their children, resulting in curses on the land.
The solution was to turn hearts of fathers to their children – for fathers to be positively involved with their children’s lives.
This is backed by research. Studies have shown how a father’s involvement can significantly impact the cognitive and socio-emotional development of their children.
Noticing how mothers are often more involved with their children’s lives than fathers, Wong started another campaign in 2009. Dads for Life mobilises fathers to step up in their role in their children’s lives.
Wong is still involved as a volunteer, especially with the Christian track of the fathers’ movement, Elijah7000. It seeks to raise up Christian fathers amongst churches to be the spiritual heads of the households.
The visionary and pioneer admits that he could not have done what he has without God, the ultimate visionary leader.
“Without faith, it is impossible.
“There were many times I wanted to give up, but it was faith that drove me to continue the work.
“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Read more about Jason Wong’s experiences in Singapore Prison Service and Yellow Ribbon Project in his book, Trash of Society, available at Cru Media, SKS Bookstore and Faithworks Bookstore.
This is the third article in a series of Leadership Conversations by St Luke’s Hospital (SLH) and is republished in a collaboration between SLH and Salt&Light.
Check back soon for perspectives from other leaders who were invited to inspire SLH staff in their personal and professional development.
OTHER STORIES IN THE SERIES:
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