The “stubborn ox” who escaped the gallows for drug involvement – twice

TRIGGER WARNING: This story mentions a suicide attempt that some may find distressing.

Josiah Teh Choon Sin // February 6, 2023, 5:12 pm


On his 11th stint in prison, Josiah Teh, now 59, found freedom from drugs and much more. All photos courtesy of Josiah Teh.

“I envy your life today because you no longer live in fear. You don’t have to keep looking out for the police and the underworld rivals.”

This was what my good friend told me before he was executed in Malaysia for manufacturing ecstasy pills.

I felt sorry for him and thought about my own past that was often too painful to recall.

I was jailed 11 times, serving a total of 20 years and 6 months, and given 17 strokes of the cane.

The bargain

It all began in my childhood.

My father was jailed for drug possession when I was a kid.

My mother worked as an assistant at a coffee stall to provide for her four young children. I would occasionally help her after school.

But my life went downhill when I was 14.

I started taking heroin and LSD pills and ended up in a drug rehabilitation centre.

Josiah Teh Breakthrough Missions

The young drug addict going into prison.

Upon my release, my peers persuaded me to join a gang.

Earnings I made from territories under my control were spent on drugs and partying.

I also fought with rival gangs, peddled drugs, gambled on horse racing and ran illicit businesses.

Life for the young Josiah (extreme right) was full of partying and carousing. Sometimes he brought along his mother (second from right).

One day, my cousin invited me to go to church with him.

“Sure! No problem! I’ll go to church with you … if you come clubbing with me first.”

I replied mockingly: “Sure! No problem! I’ll go to church with you … if you come clubbing with me first.”

My cousin agreed, and I kept my end of the bargain.

At church, the pastor asked in his sermon: “What do you do when the neon lights are off?”

I can’t remember exactly what the pastor said, but I remember that line challenged me to think about my life.

The memory of that church visit remained etched in my mind.

But it was only 20 years later that I fully understood the meaning of the message.

Headbanger behind bars

One day, I ran off to Malaysia to escape debtors. I had lost a huge amount of my friend’s money on horse racing.

I was jailed 11 times, serving a total of 20 years and 6 months, and given 17 strokes of the cane.

There, I started producing ecstasy pills with a friend.

But I was soon discovered and arrested.

I escaped the death sentence, but was sent to prison.

Though behind bars, I was still able to get ice (methamphetamine) to consume.

Hallucinating under its influence, I banged my head against the metal bars and walls of my cell. It left me with a deep scar on my head.

Once, I tied a bedsheet into a rope and tried to hang myself. I was saved just in time.

Josiah showing the scar from banging his head against the bars of his cell. Screenshot from his video testimony for Breakthrough Missions.

In the dead of the night, I asked God why I was still alive.

He reminded me that my mother and my cousin, both Christians, were praying for me.

Caned and bitter

Even though ice is a silent and frightful killer, I continued to consume and peddle drugs upon my return to Singapore.

I argued with the prison officers over trivial matters. I cursed them with vulgarities and was caned.

I was again arrested but escaped the mandatory death penalty. It’s a miracle that I am still alive today.

I tried several times to jump bail during my parole, but was always caught and sent back to jail.

In prison, I argued with the prison officers over trivial matters. I cursed them with vulgarities and was caned as a result. They also gave me injections to calm me down.

I was aggrieved and bitter.

One day, a cellmate asked me to read some passages from a Bible to him.

I refused at first because I did not believe in God.

But gradually, during our free time when we were let out of our cells, I would gaze up at the sky and wonder who created the universe.

From buffalo to dove

On one occasion, I got involved in a fistfight and was thrown into a solitary cell.

My prison mate, a Christian, prayed: “Lord, I commit this stubborn ox into your hands.” (My nickname was “Buffalo”.)

One prison mate – a Christian – was concerned about me and prayed for me.

He said: “Lord, I commit this stubborn ox into your hands.” (My nickname was “Buffalo”.)

From being notorious for violence and quarrelling, I became obedient and cooperative.

Not long after, amazing things started to happen.

For some reason, I couldn’t remember the occultic curses that I often chanted.

I became eager to get my hands on a copy of the Bible, but couldn’t find one in the prison library.

But one day while having my shower, someone pushed a copy of the Bible through the gap under the door.

I was overjoyed and relished every chance to read the Bible. I cried tears of remorse as I read it, and prayed that Jesus would forgive me for my past sins.

Josiah (front) with fellow residents and staff of Breakthrough Missions.

The prison warden noticed the change in me and asked: “How did you become as mild as a dove?”

I replied: “It’s because I was weary of prison life. I prayed to God to change me and He heard my prayer.”

Wailing in remorse

One day, while having my meal in the prison cell, I suddenly remembered my family members, friends and people whom I had hurt.

I had caused them such pain and suffering. I felt an overwhelming sense of remorse and wailed.

I suddenly remembered people whom I had hurt … I felt an overwhelming sense of remorse and wailed.

Just then, someone came to call me to a Christian service.

When the pastor invited all who wished to believe in Jesus to step forward, I responded.

He prayed for me and urged me to confess my sins and shameful past to Jesus. He also encouraged me to apologise to the people I had hurt.

A brother beside me read me a Bible verse: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin …” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

It comforted and encouraged me.

I felt a peace in my heart that I had never experienced before.

Having a real vacation

Before I was released from prison in 2009, I often considered the question: “Will I always be repeating the same mistakes and sins till the end of my days?”

I’m thankful that God brought me to Breakthrough Missions, a Christian halfway house that nurtured my character and helped me acquire good habits.

I subsequently worked as a staff member there. Four years later, I went to help my family run their coffee stall as they were short of staff.

Josiah (third from left) serving as an usher at church.

My gangland mates showed up as soon as they heard that I was back. They tried to lure me back to my old lifestyle, but I told them I had turned over a new leaf. I also said that nothing could make me give up God’s love and the true freedom I now enjoy in Christ.

“Having a vacation” is a common euphemism for serving prison time.

But the life I am leading today is the real vacation. I’m carefree – no longer living in fear, as my good friend on death row once said.

Josiah with Susan, his wife and soulmate.

Jesus has given me the true freedom to do what I love. My wife and I often travel overseas to tell others about the Lord. We visit prisons to inspire stiff-necked drug addicts to get back onto the right path.

Twenty years ago, I first heard the question: “What do you do after the neon lights are off?”

Back then, I couldn’t respond as I didn’t know how my life would turn out.

Today, I know the answer: Jesus has set me free from the scourge of drugs. My life is meaningful and has eternal value.

As told to Wang Wai Ying. This story first appeared in Stories of Hope, and was adapted with permission from the book What Amazing Grace and a video produced by Breakthrough Missions


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About the author

Josiah Teh Choon Sin

Josiah had a difficult start in life, with a father who was jailed for drug consumption. After he was himself jailed 11 times, serving a total of 20 years and 6 months, and given 17 strokes of the cane, God touched Josiah in prison and changed his life forever. He and his wife now visit prisons, encouraging inmates with the Gospel.