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When Joseph See (right, with Anil David) was asked to head Agape Call Centre, he heard God say: "These are the least of your brothers." The moment was accompanied by an intense awareness of a “poverty of purpose” in his life. Photo courtesy of Joseph See.

“I want to quit. I’ve been offered another, higher paying job,” an employee tells his boss.

“Congratulations, go!” exclaims the boss, Joseph See, 51.

The enthusiasm of See, CEO of Agape Connecting People, is understandable once you consider the core business of Agape: A call centre with about 150 employees who are mainly ex-offenders, people with disabilities and single mothers.

Good job opportunities mean that his staff have been successfully integrated into society and are now accepted members of it.

He sees these successes as “God-moments”, where His goodness is clearly expressed, said See.

The convicts and the convicted

Set up in 2012, Agape has two offices – one in Tai Seng Avenue and another in the women’s prison in Changi. The founder, Anil David, started the call centre with the intention of providing a “Garden of Eden” for employees to flourish – learning the skills and gaining the confidence they needed.

The view of Agape CP in their Tai Seng office. Photo courtesy of Agape via Facebook.

Agape CP’s Tai Seng office. Photo from Agape CP via Facebook.

Today, Agape is also a Skills Future-certified training organisation that runs upskilling courses eligible for government SSG-WSG funding.

In October 2020, David won a President’s Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award, after Agape successfully set up and manned Singapore’s National Care Hotline during the peak of the COVID crisis in Singapore.

But just five years ago, Agape was an unknown social enterprise waiting for its big break.

When David was first connected with See, then a vice president at StarHub, David told him bluntly: “Joseph, I’m an ex-offender and I have a call centre. I want to do business with you.”

“Great,” See replied. “Who are your existing clients?”

The answer was direct: “You will be my first major client.”

“Oh my.” See recalled their exchange with some mirth.

All photos courtesy of Joseph See.

Joseph (left) and Anil (right) at the 2019 Eagles Leadership Conference. Joseph is also Anil’s mentor. Photo courtesy of Joseph See.

At the time, StarHub was one of the four major telcos in Singapore with over 2,700 staff. Agape, on the other hand, was a small startup – with no track record and founded and staffed mainly by ex-convicts.

However, once See understood the cause that Agape represented, he was convicted and broached the possibility of a deal with his superiors at StarHub.

With one job, they were giving the whole family unit a chance to succeed.

There were both supporters and detractors, See recalled. He was asked: “Joseph, I understand that we need to use outsourced partners to grow the business, but can’t you use a ‘normal’ outsourced call centre?”

There were legitimate concerns arising from the points of risk mitigation and data protection, See acknowledged.

But his bosses soon realised, as See did, that the impact of hiring even one person was not limited to that individual, and instead, would benefit his entire family – especially the children.

With one job, they were giving an entire family unit the chance to succeed.

See was soon given the go-ahead to work on the deal with David. His sole condition was that StarHub’s interests were not compromised.

Teams across the whole of StarHub were roped in along with several government agencies and even prison authorities.

“We had to make sure that security was not compromised,” said See. “Putting this together was a challenge, but we managed to do it!”

Right place, right time

On See’s third visit to the prison, however, he had an unusual encounter with the Holy Spirit.

Before he had a spiritual encounter, he recalled wondering: “Is it my spiritual wifi not working?”

“After a training session, I had my back turned and was packing my things when the feeling came suddenly,” he said.

He heard a voice say: “These are the least of your brothers.”

“Imagine someone embracing your heart. Warmly,” See shared, adding that the moment was accompanied by an intense awareness of a “poverty of purpose” in his life.

It was the first time he had experienced such a strong prompting of the Holy Spirit.

“At first, I thought, wah, is it seventh month?” he joked. See, who is Catholic, has attended revival meetings where there were strong outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

All photos courtesy of Joseph See.

With his corporate experience, Joseph is a fitting partner to complement Anil’s story of personal restoration and efforts at helping others at Agape. Photo courtesy of Joseph See.

Before he had a spiritual encounter, he recalled wondering: “Is it my spiritual wifi not working?”

“But I’ve always believed that, at the right time and place, we will be called.”

Just don’t fall forward

Over time, that voice grew louder in his spirit and See couldn’t ignore it. “I knew it was the Holy Spirit speaking and I knew that I needed to respond.”

So, when Agape’s angel investor, Mason Tan, and chairman, Dr Chan Ying Lock, approached See to join Agape as CEO, he was already  primed for a response.

“We often say, ‘God, show me the way then I’ll trust you. But can I trust Him first and let Him show the way?”

See was then sitting comfortably in a stable job and was well-positioned, career-wise, with two decades of experience in an industry with huge growth potential.

He knew it would be a difficult transition to move to a small startup as CEO.

He had never been a CEO and had spent his entire career in large corporations like StanChart and StarHub.

Still, he knew that joining Agape was the right thing to do.

“As Christians and sceptical Singaporeans, we often say, ‘God, You show me the way then I’ll trust you. But can I just trust Him first and let Him show me the way?

“It’s like that trust-fall exercise where you stand on a chair, fall backwards, and let God catch you … But of course, you don’t fall forward lah.”

Business first, enterprise second

Since joining Agape in 2015, See and David have repositioned the enterprise and are in the midst of expansion, building partnerships with organisations such as DBS Foundation, winning government contracts and even rolling out skills training courses.

Anil (left) with CEO of Agape Connecting People, Joseph See (middle) at their office in Tai Seng Avenue. Photo courtesy of Anil David.

Anil and Joseph at their office in Tai Seng Avenue. Photo courtesy of Anil David.

Two major changes in the company vision have been changed as well, said See. While the story of restoration is a powerful one, See knows that people might not fully buy into it at the end of the day.

“Our story shouldn’t come from a ‘pity party’ perspective.”

“They will ask: Can you deliver the things that you are supposed to?

“So, when we tell our story, it shouldn’t come from a ‘pity party’ perspective,” he said. With over 20 years of experience in this industry, See brings valuable knowledge and expertise to the company, making it a viable business.

Agape has now expanded its services to become a contact centre that handles calls, emails and even live chats, which gives them commercial value because of the exponential growth in e-commerce.

Joseph (right) helped to reposition Agape CP as a commercially viable contact center with strong delivery standards. Photo from Agape CP Facebook.

Joseph (right) helped to reposition Agape CP as a commercially viable contact center with strong delivery standards. Photo from Agape CP Facebook.

The business of delivery should come first, and then they add “by the way, we are a social enterprise”, See said.

“I needed to ’empty my cup’ and learn about them so that I can contextualise things in a relevant way.”

The people with whom he works are not the run-of-the-mill corporate type. It’s not easy, he admitted.

“Anil shares with me how inmates think and it always amazes me.”

Knowing this, See intentionally started his journey by listening, not talking, to his staff, he said. He wanted to understand them. 

“There was a part of me that needed to ’empty my cup’ and learn about them so that I can contextualise things in a way that becomes relevant to them. That was a very important step.”

Seeing Israel in Changi

Agape is intentionally built on Kingdom values such as servant leadership, integrity, excellence, respect and accountability.

“Anil shares with me how inmates think and it always amazes me.”

“In the corporate space, people often rise by stepping on other people. Here, it’s about rising by lifting others,” See said.

“We are all created in the likeness of God and each one of us has that inherent talent,” he added, explaining that the “talent” is impacted by the environment.

“So, our job as instruments of God, really, is to help them rediscover that talent.”

“For them, stepping back out into society is very hard, and we journey and coach them through that season. When ex-convicts are released back into society, we’re helping them acclimatise to being a civilian again.

“I don’t judge them by their record. Anil has been to prison three times and I’ve never asked him about it,” See pointed out. (He only found out the details in a book which Anil David recently published.)

“People often rise by stepping on other people. Here, it’s about rising by lifting others.”

“To me, that’s no longer important. It’s about an attitude of readiness – the only thing I judge.

“I’m only interested in the here-and-now, the present moment that will shape your future. You are writing your resume today,” he explained.

“That’s how we take each person.” 

Having impacted over 600 lives since 2015, Agape is in the midst of expansion, with the goal of training another thousand people by 2022.

The training academy and contact centres provide inmates with training in employable life skills such as communication so that they can be employed when they are released.

At the same time, as call centre staff, inmates gain a sense of empowerment as they provide solutions and troubleshoot for clients. “We tell them: You’ve got this. Now go, you can solve your personal problems too,” See said.

“We tell them: You’ve got this. Now go, you can solve your personal problems too.”

They aim to build a community of “inclusive hirers” – workplaces where Agape’s contact centre staff can work onsite, alongside other staff in the company.

“We feel that’s the best way to have community transformation,” See added, noting that the story of the prodigal son is being played out today – a person restored to family, forgiving himself and seeking forgiveness from others.

“This is Christianity coming alive.

“I always ask myself: In Singapore, who are God’s chosen people? For me, the ‘Israel’ is in Changi.

“Anil and often pray for our staff. The world needs restoration and healing – and it is only through the Lord that this can happen.”

“I want people to know that with God, all things are possible”: Anil David, ex-offender and recipient of President’s Award

One man’s crisis led to jobs for thousands

About the author

Tan Huey Ying

Huey Ying is now an Assignments Editor at Salt&Light, having worked in finance, events management and swimming industries. She usually has more questions than answers but is always happiest in the water, where she's learning what it means to "be still".

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