From gangster to prison church leader: Malaysian man gets pardon after 28 years behind bars

Mr Sam enjoying his first plate of wonton noodles at Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, after his release.
Mr Sam enjoying his first plate of wonton noodles at Petaling Street, Kuala Lumpur, after his release.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - He stepped out of the gate and soaked in the sun. Asked how he felt, Mr Sam Kian Sang said: "Very excellent."

Mr Sam is a man of God. The 59-year-old counsels people, leads daily worship and conducts Bible classes - in prison.

Until Monday (July 25), Sam was also a convict, serving a natural life term for possession of a gun.

He has now been pardoned by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and is finally a free man after 28 years behind bars.

A natural life term, unlike a life term, would have doomed him to die in the prison. Anyone serving a life term can be freed after 20 years, with one-third remission.

In the first three years, Mr Sam said, he was filled with anger, struggling to accept the fact that he had been put behind bars.

Then, he came to accept that there was nothing he could do but to serve his time.

He brought himself under control, calmed himself down and began to "settle down".

Mr Sam said that for many years, he had hoped to be pardoned and never gave up.

"It's a journey of life. How did I get the patience? Because I believe in God and God gave me strength. I focused on staying positive and changing 100 per cent to become a good person.

"Other inmates told me they were going mad after being in prison for a few years. I helped them to think positively, using myself as an example.

"I told them to be patient and to believe in God. I told them I could remain calm and change for the better even though I may never be released and I convinced them," said Mr Sam after his release.

On the moment when he walked out of the Kajang Prison, Mr Sam said: "The sky was bright and I felt a very positive aura. I feel that everything is new after losing touch with the outside world for so long."

One of the first things he did was to have a bowl of wonton noodles.

"I had my first taste of wonton mee after almost 30 years. I also had to learn how to use a handphone."

He also had to get some new clothes after decades of wearing a prison uniform.

"I want to have a gathering with all my family members and then go to church to see all my brothers and sisters," he said.

Mr Sam's case is special because his appeal was supported by the prison warders, who were amazed by his transformation from gangster to the prison's church leader.

Lawyers and non-governmental activists like Malaysian Care had all campaigned endlessly for his release.

His campaigners said Mr Sam was an example to other inmates. Every Sunday, over 60 inmates, including former hardcore criminals, spent time in worship under his leadership.

It has also been reported that he readily gave away soap and toiletries to other prisoners and also helped to rehabilitate those that even prison warders found hard to handle.

Now that he is a free man, Mr Sam said that he would move to the Rumah Petros halfway house in Jalan Pinang.

Mr Sam was arrested on Sept 13, 1988, for having a gun. He was 31 then.

He escaped the gallows because he was not the principal offender but was hit with a natural life sentence and also given six strokes of the rotan.

He was held at the Pudu Prison until June 5, 1990, and was then moved to the Kajang Prison.

Recalling his days behind bars, Mr Sam said that after the third year, he forced himself to learn English.

He began reading a bilingual Bible with an Oxford dictionary by his side.

He would also speak with other African inmates in English to practise.

Star Media Group chief executive and group managing director Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, who has written about Mr Sam's plight, was among those who campaigned for Mr Sam's freedom.

"I want to thank two persons, Tan Sri Barry Goh and Johan Abdullah, who personally took up an appeal letter to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong, just before Ramadan. I think it was very critical. A lot of effort was put in by NGOs and individuals," Mr Wong said.

Mr Wong, who also met Mr Sam in a prison visit, said the latter was a special person who "counsels the inmates, leads daily worship and conducts Bible classes in cells, and provides information about NGOs like Malaysian Care and halfway houses to prisoners about to be released".

He said Mr Sam's case was first brought to his attention by a senior prison official.

Malaysian Care's policy, advocacy and research director Kenneth Wong said the NGO helped to get a lawyer write to the Pardons Board.

"Honestly, most of the work was spiritual and prayers. It has been very difficult for him and it is very easy to get discouraged.

"It has been great that a lot of work has been done by all those involved.

"This (Mr Sam's pardon) is wonderful news and we thank God for the mercy that has been shown and we thank the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for allowing clemency."