How having his feet washed in prison prepared an ex-offender to wash the body of his dying father

Jesus died that we may have life. This Good Friday, Salt&Light invites you to find out more about the abundant life Jesus freely offers us.

by Janice Tai // April 14, 2022, 4:22 pm

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Robin Tay (2nd from left), who as an inmate had had his feet washed by then Deputy Director of the Singapore Prisons Service, Jason Wong, went on to minister to prisoners in Curacao in the Caribbean. All photos courtesy of Robin Tay.

By the age of 18, Robin Tay had been in and out of prison and detention barracks six times. He would go on to spend a total of 12 years in prison and receive eight strokes of the cane for crimes such as drug trafficking, criminal breach of trust, extortion and insubordination.  

He lived in fear and despair every day in the past, his heart jumping every time someone knocked on the door. It meant either a police officer or loan shark coming after him. He overcame the fear by taking more drugs, getting himself drunk or running to Malaysia just so that he could sleep in peace.  

Each time he was thrown behind bars, he knew that at least he was safe from others coming after him. Yet there was still no peace. His family had given up hope on him, and he felt not only helpless, but hopeless.

“Is this all there is to life? Is it even possible for me to change and live a different life?” he wondered.  

Christmas carols 

In November 2002, divine music emanating from the speakers of the punishment cell Robin was in turned his life around dramatically.

He had been put in the cell after being involved in a fight.

As he lay languishing, he heard the sweet voices of carollers singing Christmas songs. It turned out that volunteer carollers had come to the prison to sing some festive songs for the inmates and the songs were broadcast to them via the speakers in their cells.

The hurt he had caused the family was so deep that his father had begged him to jump down from their 12-storey flat.

As the Chinese gospel song “Yi Jian Li Wu” (A Gift) was being sung, Robin found himself transported back to every key milestone in his life. Flashback after flashback came: How his parents divorced when he was seven years old, resulting in his mother leaving the family and his father coming home drunk on most nights.  

Broken-hearted, he had gone down the path of smoking, drinking, stealing and gambling when he was 10. He joined a secret society when he was 14. In his mind’s eye, he saw the hurt he had caused his dad – so deep that his father had begged him to jump down from their 12-storey flat so that he would have less trouble.  

Alone in his cell, with the tunes lingering in the air, Robin started crying hard as the flashbacks came and went. Yet, curiously, the final scene that his memory stopped at was of him with a drug enforcement officer at a carpark.  

For the last six days, the officer had been busy questioning him and taking down his statement in preparation of his imminent drug trafficking charge. When that was done, the officer accompanied him down to the carpark for Robin to have a smoke.

As he smoked, they talked. The officer told Robin that he found him to be a responsible man; but that it would be almost impossible for him to change unless he finds an “answer” in life. Before taking him back to remand, the officer asked if he could pray for him.  

“I found him a bit weird but instinctively clasped my fingers together as it was easy to, given that I was handcuffed,” said Robin, who was then 30 years old.  

“Lord, bless him and change him. Let him encounter You in prison,” the officer had prayed. The officer who charged him with drug trafficking was also the officer who prayed for him. It was the first time Robin received a prayer of blessing.  

With the carolling music in the background, Robin remembered that prayer. Realising that it could be the “answer” he was seeking, he informed the prison officer the next day that he wished to sign up for the Christian counselling programme. During the altar call that week, he gave his life to Jesus. 

The officer who charged him with drug trafficking was also the officer who prayed for him.

Thereafter, it was clear that a shift had occurred. He used to string his sentences with multiple words of vulgarities, but began smacking his mouth with his hand instead each time he was foul-mouthed. His fellow inmates thought he had gone crazy.  

When living out his newfound convictions in prison, he faced a lot of challenges.

A voice in his head constantly reminded him: “You sure you are able to change? What are you good at anyway?” When he officially renounced his gang in prison, they ridiculed him and threatened him. 

Over time, he became known for being so well-mannered and serious about his faith that he was appointed as the person-in-charge of the Christian counselling programme.

Inmates who signed up for the programme would have half-day bible teaching sessions from Monday to Friday, and chapel service on Saturday.  

The legacy of Pulau Senang

Despite his behavioural and reputational transformation, his relationship with the prison wardens remained distant and transactional.

At times, the wardens approached him for help, knowing that he wielded some influence over certain unruly inmates. 

“I always believed that prison wardens and inmates could never be friends and we would never be sincere to each other. I couldn’t see myself trusting them. Though I was on good terms with the officers, somehow there was a distance when we wore different uniforms,” said Robin.  

It did not help that shame and humiliation marked their daily encounters with each other. Every day when the prisoners returned to their cells after working at the workshop, they would be stripped naked and made to squat on a mirror to check that they had not brought back any foreign objects.  

“Though I was on good terms with the officers, somehow there was a distance when we wore different uniforms.”

One Sunday in October 2006, something unusual happened that transformed the relationship between some of the prisoners and their wardens. 

The 42 inmates in the Christian counselling programme thought they would be having their usual chapel service and sat down on the floor of the multi-purpose room after the worship session ended.  

Suddenly, Robin spied the then Deputy Director of the Singapore Prison Service (SPS), Jason Wong, and seven other high-ranking officers walking in with red pails in their hands. They were wearing normal civilian clothes instead of their usual blue uniform.  

A hush came upon the rows of inmates. No one knew what was going on.  

Jason went to the front and began to share his testimony about how God had led him to join the prisons through a dream. He reminded them that God loved all of them very much and read from Isaiah 61:1-2. Then, he made mention of the Pulau Senang riot, which by then had become a legend among the prisoners.  

God had prepared Jason Wong seven years ago about the need to wash the prisoners’ feet to bring about greater reconciliation.

Pulau Senang was a penal experiment to rehabilitate hard-core secret society members. Because of the harsh conditions and inhumane treatment, the prisoners rioted. The superintendent was set on fire and burned to death. Two other prison officers were killed. The rioters were arrested, and after a long-drawn trial, 18 were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Another 29 were found guilty of rioting and were sentenced to two to three years of imprisonment.

As a result of the riots, the rehabilitation experiment was deemed a failure and ceased. 

A fellow Christian prison officer had told Jason earlier: “Because of the prison riot, there is now a spiritual stronghold that needs to be broken. There will always remain enmity between prison officers and prisoners, captors and captives, unless an act of reconciliation is done between officers and prisoners.” 

Jason understood where the officer was coming from because God had prepared him seven years ago about the need to wash the prisoners’ feet to bring about greater reconciliation between the captors and the captives.  

Prison officers wash the feet of prisoners

That morning, by the time Jason finished recounting details of the Pulau Senang riot, a number of prisoners were already sobbing. Prison volunteers carried a pail filled with water to Jason. Robin was asked to come forward.   

Being the I/C of the programme, Robin was meant to symbolically represent prisoners past, present and future. As second in command in the whole of the Singapore Prison Service, Jason represented prison officers past, present and future. He asked Robin to sit on the chair.  

“We read about feet washing in the Bible and hear it being preached but when it really happens to you, it is unbelievable.”

As Jason knelt down to wash Robin’s feet, he asked him for forgiveness for things prison officers had done or said to prisoners.

“We had not seen all of you the way God sees you. We had not believed you could change for the better. We had used demeaning and denigrating words on you,” Jason said to Robin.  

Both men were crying hard by then. 

Robin was overwhelmed. 

“My heart melted even before he started washing. We read about feet washing in the Bible and hear it being preached but when it really happens to you, it is unbelievable,” he said.  

Mixed emotions tugged at his heart.  

On the one hand, he felt so loved and accepted.  

“I finally experienced what unconditional love felt like. When my mother left my life, love left my life. But even a mother’s love can be conditional because she is related to me. Jason could have just asked us for forgiveness, that would already be a huge thing, but he went beyond that. He must have counted the cost as there were cameras in the room and people assumed he was next in line to be the prisons’ head,” said Robin.  

“This type of agape love humbles you. I felt that dignity had come back to me and there was a sense of release and breakthrough.”

On the other hand, the experience was also a humbling one for him as he felt unworthy of such love.  

Instinctively, he withdrew his leg slightly and wanted to plead with Jason to stop washing his feet. 

Though the washing took only a few minutes, it felt interminable to Robin.   

“I felt undeserving of such love. This type of agape love humbles you. But it is different from the shame that accompanies the strip search which only brings humiliation, not humility. I felt that dignity had come back to me and there was a sense of release and breakthrough,” said Robin.  

After his feet was washed, Robin exchanged places with Jason. He then knelt to wash Jason’s feet, asking for forgiveness on behalf of all prisoners, past, present and future, for all the misdeeds and trouble prisoners had given to prison officers, for the violence and rebellion they had exhibited against prison officers.  

Who are we to each other? 

Subsequently, the other seven prison officers who had volunteered to come, also washed the feet of the rest of the inmates.  

Jason then asked all three rows of inmates to stand up in front of him, and said: “God is my heavenly Father, and you also call God your Father. If God is our Father, then who are we to each other?” 

Jason went up to them, one by one, looked them in the eye and said: “You are my brother” and hugged them.  

The inmates had the answer in their lips, but they just could not mouth the words. They called Jason “Sir”, and it was unthinkable that they should call him “Brother”. 

Jason went up to them, one by one, looked them in the eye and said: “You are my brother” and hugged them.  

“This must be Jesus. God is real,” were the thoughts going through Robin’s mind when he was hugged for the first time by a man who was an authority figure.  

“We have been ‘educated’ a lot about God’s love but this time it was no longer head knowledge. We know His love is real and can really believe whatever the Bible says because it happened to us,” said Robin.  

Following the foot washing episode, he noticed that his heart towards the prison wardens softened. Once he came to know of an officer who was not feeling well and Robin prayed for him until he returned to work.  

“I felt undeserving of such love. This type of agape love humbles you,” said Robin who, as a prison inmate, had his feet washed by Deputy Director of the S’pore Prison Service, Jason Wong. In the Bible, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples during the Last Supper (John 13:1-17). Re-enacted photo by Wei Ming.

Not every officer who heard about what happened that Sunday understood its intent or significance. Some officers started questioning him about what happened and one also made fun of him.  

“You gold feet ah, if not why people want to wash your leg,” an officer taunted him.  

“Don’t think you are big shot, who do you think you are? Shame on you!” his ranting continued. 
The officer thought the feet-washing incident was a disgrace, and made things difficult for Robin. Each time it happened, Robin kept silent and refused to react. Eventually, another senior officer noticed what was happening and made the officer apologise to Robin. 

Revival fire spreading in the prisons

Yet all these mattered little to Robin because of his growing excitement at having a front-row seat to the revival fire that was spreading across clusters and housing units in prison.  

By the time Robin was released from prison the following year in 2007, he knew of at least 20 fellow inmates coming to Christ.

“While doing our work at the workshops, inmates were sharing Christ with one another. The way we worshipped God changed. People would kneel and lift up their hands during service, and they would come up one after another to share their testimonies. Before, very few inmates would step up to share,” he said.  

The revival started from Cluster A2 Housing Unit 3 and was caught by Housing Unit 1, then Housing Unit 2 and later Cluster A3 and A1. As the inmates crossed paths at the workshops or joint visits, they would encourage each other in their fervency for God.

By the time Robin was released from prison the following year in 2007, he knew of at least 20 fellow inmates coming to Christ.  

The ripple effect of his miraculous salvation and having his feet washed in prison continued to manifest beyond prison walls.  

After his release, he voluntarily walked into The New Charis Mission, a halfway house for ex-drug addicts and ex-offenders, to join its residential rehabilitation programme. The non-profit charity is run by Pastor Don Wong, who led Robin to Christ in prison.  

Robin graduated with a diploma in counselling psychology and is now a certified behavioural consultant.

His father, who saw him change for the better during his final years in prison, but had not dared believe in the miracle, began to sense something different about his son. Unlike the many previous times when Robin had emerged from prison only to slowly slip back into a wayward lifestyle, there was a difference in him this time.  

At The New Charis Mission, Robin studied and sat for the English ‘O’ levels exam paper, having been expelled from school when he was in Secondary 2. He scored an ‘A’. Pastor Don then sent him for a diploma in Counselling Psychology, which he graduated from in 2009. In 2010, he also graduated from City Harvest School of Theology.  

Ministering in prisons and schools

Today, Robin is a behavioural consultant, prison counsellor and a certified school trainer who goes into the prisons and schools to run workshops and training programmes for inmates and at-risk youth.

He also heads the residential rehabilitation department at New Charis. 

From being a former prisoner, Robin went on to become a prison counsellor who would give motivational talks to the incarcerated. The officer standing in front of him used to be his superintendent when he was an inmate.

Robin sharing his experiences with secondary school students.

In 2011, he was nominated for the Singapore Youth Award. Since then, he has been travelling around the world to share his life testimony. In 2013, Pastor Don and Robin were invited to a newly independent country, Curacao (in the Caribbean) to share with the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice how to help their prisoners, ex-offenders and youth. 

While there was distrust between him and the prison wardens in the past, today he is friends with some of them. He meets them for coffee outside to discuss how to partner with them to help certain inmates through their respective work and ministry roles. 

Robin (extreme left) and his spiritual father Pastor Don Wong (2nd from left) met the Prime Minister of Curacao to share tips on helping empower prisoners, ex-offenders and youth.

In his 12 years of doing ministry work, there was only once when Robin was involved in a foot washing ceremony again.  

“Foot washing should never be just another activity or programme to do. We were so impacted by it because it was directed by God,” said Robin, now 46. 

Robin heads the residential rehabilitation department at The New Charis Mission.

It was in 2016 at a retreat that the speaker felt led to encourage the leaders of The New Charis Mission to wash the feet of the ex-offenders and ex-drug addicts that they were overseeing.  

His turn to wash the feet of others

This time, Robin was the one in higher authority who would wash the feet of another.  

“As I was washing, I prayed in my heart that there would be a bridge of love and connection between me and him,” said Robin. “Sometimes even though people are staying in the same place, there can still be some distance between us. But I hope that when we are true and sincere in serving one another, there would be a bridge one man to the other,” he recalled Jason Wong as saying.  


Robin reconciled with his father after his release from prison.

In remembering what Jason had done for him, Robin also purposed in his heart to do the same unto the Lord.  

He would go on to do another “feet washing” act that same year. This time there were no feet involved but the service took much out of him.  

After Robin came out of prison, his relationship with his father, who had not wished to have anything to do with his son, changed dramatically. From one that used to see father and son in fist fights, they were reconciled to the point that the father moved in to live in his son’s marital home shortly after Robin’s marriage in 2009.  

“It was a miracle,” said Robin. “There was no quarrel between me and him or between him and my wife. There was so much peace and love among us. It could only be because I was walking with the Lord and He returned peace to my family and household.”

Robin’s family photo (with his father seated) in 2009 when he married his wife Kelyn.

In September 2016, however, his father was found to have stage four cancer of the pancreas and liver.  

Feeling lost and wondering how his father would react to the news of the diagnosis, Robin heard the Holy Spirit whisper to him to bring his dad back to The New Charis Mission for the leaders there to pray for him.  

“Jairus asked for healing, I gave him resurrection. You asked for healing, but I gave you salvation.”

Robin plucked up his courage to ask his father if he wished to, as his father used to be such a devout follower of another faith that he had asked his son to walk on fire twice before. 

To his surprise, his father agreed and they made their way from the hospital to New Charis Mission. His father received Jesus into his life that day.  

After his father battled the cancers in hospital for one month, the doctor informed Robin that the cancers were aggressive and chemotherapy could not be done without risking his father’s health further. He had less than three months to live, Robin was told

When the news of the diagnosis was finally broken to his father, all his father wanted was to go home.  Robin saw to it that he was discharged from hospital that very day.  

Over the next three weeks, he witnessed his father’s steep deterioration – from using a walking aid to a wheelchair, and eventually being bedridden.  

Every day from 6am in the morning, Robin would care for his father for 16 hours. 

“When you were young, your father also changed your diapers. I have allowed you to do the same for him.”

The caregiving was not pleasant. His father had a stoma bag attached to his waist and Robin had to empty it regularly. His father also had frequent diarrhoea and needed his diapers changed up to 20 times a day.  

“We had a helper but I changed and washed him myself. The whole room would be very smelly and it would not be nice for the helper to do it. As a son, I wanted to do it for my father,” said Robin.  

His father was also in great pain and Robin would try to help alleviate the pain with morphine, stroking his chest and singing worship songs to him.  

During this time, Robin felt so emotionally and mentally drained that he once threw his Bible on the floor in despair.  

“Why? Why? Why does my dad have to die when we have just been reconciled? Seven years together is not enough, Lord!” he screamed silently to God.  

There was no answer.  

He went over to pick up his Bible and opened it.  

First Christian wake in the family

It opened up to Luke 8:40, where Jairus had come to plead with Jesus to go to his house as his daughter was dying. On the way there, their journey was interrupted by the healing of the woman with the issue of blood.

At that moment, Jairus received word that his daughter was already dead and he was advised not to bother Jesus. Jairus did not lose heart but continued to return home with Jesus, and eventually he saw his daughter being raised from the dead.  

Robin took his father on a short holiday to Genting Highlands shortly before he fell ill.

As he was reading the passage, the Holy Spirit said to Robin: “Jairus asked for healing, I gave him resurrection. You asked for healing, but I gave you salvation. It is a better portion and won’t be taken away.” 

“It was then that the Holy Spirit also revealed to me: ‘When you were young, your father also washed you and changed your diapers. I have allowed you to do the same for him so that you can live life with no regrets thereafter.’” 

He realised that his “foot washing” act of serving and caregiving for his dad was as much as for himself as it was for his father, who died one month after he came home.  

Five days before his father passed away, he was baptised and his extended family witnessed the first Christian wake service in the family.  

The divine exchange 

For Robin, this Good Friday reminds him of the divine exchange that could only be made possible by Jesus’ ultimate act of service on the Cross.  

“In my life, I have seen impossibilities turning into possibilities, conditional love to unconditional love, from being distant to being a bridge, division to reconciliation,” said Robin.  

“The divine exchange is made possible through Jesus’ death on the Cross. By dying to ourselves every day, through acts of service such as feet washing, we can also choose to participate in the divine exchange in the day to 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.