The school dropout and former gang member made it his mission to mentor and advocate for ex-offenders.
Having served his prison sentence, he thought he had paid his dues.
But ex-convict Andrew Ong faced numerous closed doors when he tried to find employment to reintegrate back into society.
“I don’t blame society for having that stigma or discrimination because we did offend. We did commit a crime. It is only natural that somebody would respond in that manner,” said the 43-year-old, who now works in the social sector.
With a desire to help others rebuild their lives, Andrew now made it his mission to mentor and help fellow ex-convicts reintegrate into society.
Growing up, Andrew came from a dysfunctional family with parents who were going through a divorce.
Conflicts between his parents exuded negativity, causing him to dislike going back home. He started to play truant and became disinterested in his studies, eventually dropping out of secondary school.
“If you’re honest with yourself, a lot of the things we do are because of the approval of our parents. To make them proud, to make them happy, to accept us, right? So when that component was gone, I didn’t see any purpose in studying,” he said.
With the fallout of his parents’ marriage, Andrew had no qualms about joining a gang as they were there for him in his time of greatest need.
He said: “Being part of a gang, I think what I’ve experienced is the brotherhood, how we stand up for one another and how we’ll care for one another.
“The gang provided me with that pseudo-family that helped me as well. If not for them, I don’t think I was able to process the emotions that I was going through.”
In 1996, Andrew was incarcerated for a rioting offence when his gang searched for rivals who had beaten up one of their members one night, causing a fight to break out at Orchard Plaza.
“I actually thought we got off scot-free because I managed to return home. But early in the morning, at about 4am, the Criminal Investigation Department knocked on my door looking for me,” he recalled.
At the age of 18, Andrew was sentenced to 30 months of imprisonment with five strokes of the cane. Miraculously, his appeal for the sentence reduction was reviewed, resulting in only nine months of imprisonment with no caning involved.
However, this was not the last time Andrew had a brush with the law. Shortly after his release, he was put in detention for two weeks due to insubordination during his reservist and was later incarcerated a second time for dabbling with drugs.
He said: “I was taking drugs and I overdosed. I messed up in my work and I lost my job. I was 20.
“I was very remorseful… How did I end up like that because I thought I had my life together? But the overdose proved to me that I did not have it all together.”
Andrew believes that his faith played a vital influence in his change.
“I told God, let’s make a pact. I’ve got nothing left… This time I will take you seriously,” he said.
Having vouched to leave his bad habits by replacing them with good ones, he stopped taking drugs, started going to church services, and mixed with different groups of people.
While he could feel his life was beginning to head in a better direction, he still had a tough time landing a job after his release from prison, being a school dropout with a criminal record.
He shared that many employers conduct criminal history investigations on prospective candidates and reject anyone with a criminal record, preventing ex-offenders from successfully reintegrating into society.
Fortunately, there are still employers who give ex-convicts a working chance. Andrew, who was previously working as a DJ, was hired as a server at a restaurant.
“I told the captain who was interviewing me that day, ‘I have a criminal record. Are you okay with that?’ He said ‘I’m okay as long as you do your work.’”
Feeling optimistic, Andrew recognised that that was the starting point for him to start a new life. Soon after, he pursued higher education and graduated with a degree in communications management from Edith Cowan University.
His motivation to pursue his education stemmed from wanting to help those in developing countries. However, he doubted that he would be accepted overseas without the proper qualifications.
“That intention to do good and to help drove me to pick up my studies again. So I took up O-Level, and then diploma to a degree for about five to six years while working,” he said.
Andrew now wears his multiple failures as a badge of honour, dedicating his time and efforts as an advocate for ex-offenders.
In 2020, he co-founded Break The Cycle, a ground-up initiative that aims to break the cycle of recidivism in Singapore by providing a support system for fellow ex-convicts to reintegrate back into society.
“As an ex-offender, I realised that sports will be a great way to motivate ex-offenders and at the same time, open up a new cycle of friends for them to break the cycle of reoffending,” he said.
The most rewarding part about the initiative to Andrew is seeing fellow ex-offenders grow personally by opening up to people, being more comfortable about themselves and forging new friendships. He believes this collective effort is essential to prevent an ex-offender from reoffending.
Although there have been progressive efforts to reintegrate ex-convicts back into society, stigma and discrimination against ex-offenders are still prevalent, especially when it comes to employment.
Andrew hopes that employers will relook into their hiring process and remove the need to declare a criminal record on job application forms.
Instead, employers can bring that up during the interview to allow ex-offenders to justify the context of their crime. This way, candidates will be shortlisted based on their merits and qualifications, and not because of the declaration.
For youth-at-risk going through a difficult time, Andrew advised: “Listen to your parents. I know it’s not something that we will do. But they have the best intentions for us, even though it may not come out in the way we like to receive most of the time.
“We all have blind spots. Just like cycling. When you are cycling alone, you cannot see how you are cycling. It’s only when there is someone beside you that can see whether you are cycling correctly – your strokes and your posture.
“So similarly, I think if anyone or even myself was going through that change, having a mentor or somebody to point out that blind spots would help.”
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