"Last time I thought that I can change,  but now I know I cannot. But I believe if I hold on to God, it definitely is the way," said Tian Boon Keng, who was released from prison on July 23. Photo by Tan Huey Ying.

When Tian Boon Keng wrapped filming for ‘Inside Maximum Security’, the four-part prison documentary by Channel NewsAsia (CNA), he felt a measure of anxiety over how people would respond to his story, as well as some pressure to remain accountable to his promise to stick to the straight and narrow.

One of five inmates featured in the series, Boon Keng was released from prison on July 23. But, having been jailed four times, he knows change is not easy. Long-standing habits are hard to break. Temptations are prevalent.

He remembers the first time he was jailed at 18. When he swore he would never come back again, seasoned inmates told him to temper his expectations.

“I was very assured then, but now I understand why they said that,” the 34-year-old told Salt&Light with a chuckle.

This time around, however, he feels a new kind of hope. “Last time I thought that I can change, but now I know I cannot. But I believe if I hold on to God, it definitely is the way. 

“I don’t believe I can, but I believe God can.”

The secret to change

He wants to make good on his life not just for those who have watched him on-screen, but more importantly for two immensely precious people in his life: his seven-year-old daughter and his late mother.

Boon Keng was one of five inmates featured in Channel NewsAsia’s documentary, ‘Inside Maximum Security’. Screenshot from YouTube.

In the CNA documentary, which has since racked up more than 10 million combined views on YouTube, he shared heartbreaking details of how his daughter had held on to him just three days before his latest arrest and begged: “Can you just don’t commit any more crimes?”

“I knew I couldn’t fight this fight alone.”

As a result of his vices, he has since lost custody of his daughter, whom he used to spend time with every weekend. He has not seen her since he was arrested more than two years ago.

He holds on to hope that he will have the chance to see his daughter again. But he cannot say the same for his late mother, whom he found out had passed away while he was in prison, after chancing upon her obituary in a two-week-old newspaper. 

He said in the CNA documentary: “I think my biggest regret is that I never really told her I love her a lot. I wish I could be a good son to her …

“I cannot turn back the time anymore. For now, I can only tell myself for her, I want to change and let her have her peace. I don’t want to fail her anymore.”

In fact, it was at this lowest point in prison that he desperately decided to place his trust in God. “When I lost my mum and my access to my daughter, I kind of really gave up on myself. I knew I couldn’t fight this fight alone,” he told Salt&Light.

Desperate after losing his mother and access to his daughter, Boon Keng decided to turn to God. Photo courtesy of Tian Boon Keng.

Turning to God

He had first heard about the Christian God during his first incarceration. A fellow inmate had invited him to attend chapel services and would encourage him with Bible verses whenever Boon Keng felt down.

However, he never really took the faith seriously and only turned to God when he was in desperate need of help. Even then, he experienced God miraculously answering his prayers, such as the time he passed a urine test through an unlikely turn of events. 

“I always wondered: How come they can change? What is the secret?” 

“When I talk to Him, He would reply me with somebody telling me at the right time what to do, or I will see a verse. I don’t know how to explain, but I could feel the connection with Him,” said Boon Keng.

During his fourth incarceration, the time he was featured in the documentary, he attended the prison’s chapel services regularly and was impacted by the testimonies of former inmates – some of whom had been worse criminals than he – who had managed to turn their lives around for good.

“I always wondered: How come they can change? What is the secret?” 

In time he discovered the answer: “They held on to God.”

“My own style”

For Boon Keng, putting his trust in someone other than himself has been a rather counterintuitive choice, given that he learnt to fend for himself from a young age. But it is something he is slowly learning to do.

As a child in primary school, he was quiet and withdrawn – an easy target for the school bullies. His housewife mother told him to bear with it. His father, a coffee shop boss whom Boon Keng described as an absent figure, offered no better consolation. 

“I went such a long way using my own style to settle things. But if it’s not God’s way, you will get nothing.”

Left with little choice but to look out for himself, he made a curious observation: “I saw that those people who are being disturbed are those without any backup. Then those people with backup are usually those who disturb other people.”

After being challenged to a fight in Secondary 1, he joined a gang for protection. It stopped the bullying, but started him on a host of bad habits – smoking, taking drugs, gambling, cheating, drinking – that would prove hard to shake off in the years ahead.

Even after he ditched his gang at 16, these vices trailed closely after him. When he faced stressful situations, he turned to drugs to cope. When he was in need of money, he looked for all sorts of ways to make or take money, never mind if the means were illegal.

“Whenever I faced issues, my way of solving it must always be immediate,” he said. 

But it was this that had landed him behind bars – and four times, no less: crimes from illegal moneylending and cheating, to drug consumption and theft.

“I went such a long way using my own style to settle things. But if it’s not God’s way, you will get nothing,” he reflected.

“Coming out has given me a second chance to turn over a new leaf for the people who care about me,” said Boon Keng, who is pictured here with his fiancée. Photo courtesy of Tian Boon Keng.

This is why he is learning now, tough as it may be, to cast all his burdens on his caring God (1 Peter 5:7) instead of taking things into his own hands as he has been used to doing.

Already Boon Keng has experienced God’s provision for him through prayer. Before his release, he tried everything he could to secure suitable housing for himself, to no avail.

Boon Keng recalled: “I told God, ‘I’ve already done whatever I can. The rest I’ll leave to you.'”

Just as his release date rolled around, his sister informed him that her flat was ready and offered to let him rent it at an affordable price. “This house that I’m staying in now is the best testimony (of God’s provision),” he said.

“Cling on and never, never let go”

However, that is not to say that everything has been smooth-sailing. Life on the outside is still fraught with challenges that will take time and effort to work through.

Apart from earning enough money to pay for rent and other basic necessities, Boon Keng has set himself a goal to build up his savings for his future with his fiancée, who has resolutely stuck by him all this while.

“Once you are too far from God, you will definitely fall.”

But he has to weigh this against other priorities. If he works seven days a week, he will be able to build up his savings faster. However, this comes at the cost of going to church, attending support groups and volunteering his time, which he has expressed a desire to do.

It is something he still trying to work out, but of one thing he is sure: “Following God is definitely not easy, but you must really, really cling on and never, never let go, because once you are too far, you will definitely fall.”

Faithful friends

He has also found much encouragement from people who have taken the time to journey with him – blessings that he does not take for granted.

In the past, he struggled to change as he did not know how to do so. But these new friends have helped to guide him on the right path.

For example, Adeline Wong, founder of Human-Animal Bond In Ministry, invited Boon Keng to volunteer at an event where he got the chance to interact with the vulnerable elderly and give back to society.

She praised him for his warmth and love for the seniors, adding: “He is also very patient and willing to serve and learn.”

Befriending the elderly was a meaningful experience for Boon Keng, who was struck by their simple joy. Photo courtesy of Human-Animal Bond in Ministry.

It was a session that benefited Boon Keng too. “It was very meaningful,” he said. “I saw the uncles and aunties doing simple things but they are very happy. It made me really think: This is the life that I’ve been looking for but I don’t know why I’ve gone one big round.”

In another example of friends who have come alongside him, Jensen Lee, a staff member at Prison Fellowship Singapore, helped Boon Keng realise the ills of smoking not just on his physical health but on his financial health too.

If he forgoes a $10 pack of cigarettes a day, he would save more than $18,000 in five years, Jensen told him.

Friends like Jensen, a staff member from PFS, have been crucial to his journey of recovery, said Boon Keng. Photo courtesy of Tian Boon Keng.

“He’s quite motivated to quit but we’ll have to wait and see,” Jensen told Salt&Light. However, he has faith that Boon Keng will be able to make the right decisions. “He is someone who is willing to put in an effort to change.

“He told me that he is very much depending on God. He knows that without God he cannot change.”

And this is why, even amid all the uncertainties and temptations that he faces as he strives to keep his footsteps steady, Boon Keng only has one prayer request: “Pray for me to be strong in God.”


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About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer and Assistant Editor at Salt&Light.