It Changed My Life

From street soccer to grassroots work

The team at Aestiwood, a woodwork company which hires former convicts. (From left) Mr Ang Thiam Hock, Mr Ng Lye Choon, Mr Siow Peng Guan, Uncle Chiu, Mr Acer Wong, Mr Ang Kim Song and Mr Patrick Chan. Besides Mr Ang Thiam Hock and Mr Chan, Uncle Chiu
Mr Ang Thiam Hock and his son Qi An at the street soccer court near their home. Their nightly games aimed at toughening up Qi An attracted the attention of children from underprivileged and dysfunctional families.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
The team at Aestiwood, a woodwork company which hires former convicts. (From left) Mr Ang Thiam Hock, Mr Ng Lye Choon, Mr Siow Peng Guan, Uncle Chiu, Mr Acer Wong, Mr Ang Kim Song and Mr Patrick Chan. Besides Mr Ang Thiam Hock and Mr Chan, Uncle Chiu
The team at Aestiwood, a woodwork company which hires former convicts. (From left) Mr Ang Thiam Hock, Mr Ng Lye Choon, Mr Siow Peng Guan, Uncle Chiu, Mr Acer Wong, Mr Ang Kim Song and Mr Patrick Chan. Besides Mr Ang Thiam Hock and Mr Chan, Uncle Chiu is the only other member in the team without a criminal record.PHOTO: ANG THIAM HOCK

Serendipity leads father to helm outfit helping at-risk kids and another hiring former convicts

Ten years ago, Mr Ang Thiam Hock started playing street soccer with his son to make the then eight- year-old more rugged.

He did not expect Serendipity to come along and say: "Hey, I think there should be some plot twists."

That was exactly what happened. Their nightly games attracted the attention of children from underprivileged and dysfunctional families in the Taman Jurong area.

Soon, the former information technology executive was not only organising soccer leagues but also opening up his home to help the children stay away from trouble.

One day, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is the MP for Taman Jurong, chanced upon Mr Ang and his family at the Taman Jurong hawker centre. The minister found out what he had been doing and persuaded him to get into grassroots work.

  • SUPPORTED BY


  • It Changed My Life is a compilation of inspirational stories from this series, and is part of the bank's initiative to celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee.

  • Selected interviews from this series have been compiled into a book. If you would like to attend the book launch on Nov 25, send your details (name, phone number and occupation) to STpromo@sph.com.sg by Nov 6. As places are limited, invitations will be on a first come, first served basis.

One thing led to another and before he knew it, the 52-year-old found himself helming two outfits. Gift of Development (G.o.D) offers help to at-risk children while Aestiwood is a woodwork company which hires former convicts.

"It's not what I signed up for. But I'm glad I did it," he says with a rueful laugh.

Slim and mild-mannered, Mr Ang grew up in a village in Choa Chu Kang. "There were 12 children, I was number 10. My father was the sole breadwinner. He drove a van delivering soap to Malaysia. My mother was a housewife," he says.

Life was hard. Some of his elder siblings had to leave school early. Although the family had a farm where they grew vegetables and reared poultry, meat was a luxury they could afford only on festive occasions.

The denizens of his village were a motley lot and included loafers, gamblers as well as triad members who took part in blood-drinking rituals as a sign of brotherhood.

Fortunately for him, the lure of the outdoors was greater.

"Catching spiders, fishing in the river, there was no time for anything else," says Mr Ang, who attended Bulim Primary School, a village school.

He continued his secondary education at Dunearn Secondary School, where he was mediocre in most subjects except mathematics.

Earning his own keep was something he learnt early in life. Besides giving maths tuition, he also worked, among other gigs, as a general dogsbody in a couple of ice-cream factories as well as a welder in a shipyard.

The shipyard, he says, gave him a ringside seat to life and its more unsavoury aspects. "Some of the workers were 17 or 18, and when they got their pay, they would spend it on glue, and they sniffed it right in front of us," he recalls.

Because his O-level results were not good enough to get him into a junior college, he decided to study electrical engineering at the Vocational and Industrial Training Board.

After completing his national service, he started work as a laboratory technician in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. He was determined to upgrade himself, and studied part-time for a diploma in electrical and electronic engineering at Singapore Polytechnic.

He did well enough to be admitted into Nanyang Technological University in 1989, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering three years later.

After a two-year stint with the National Computer Board, he rode the dot.com wave, first joining Microsoft, and then Netscape, where he stayed for more than four years.

He was Netscape's third local hire and its systems engineer, but he did, and learnt, a lot more.

"The first two years, I worked 14-hour days, seven days a week. I was covering South Asia, and the Netscape name opened a lot of doors. I could be presenting at a marketing event one day, and something else the next," he says.

All in all, Mr Ang - who got married in 1996 - spent about 17 years in the regional tech industry, where he also worked for the likes of Sun Microsystems and Oracle. In 2010, he decided to quit as Oracle's principal sales consultant.

The plan was to help his son Qi An with his Primary School Leaving Examination and to take a sabbatical. But along the way, his life took a detour and was never quite the same again.

By then, the soccer sessions with his son - first in a multi-purpose hall and later at a street soccer pitch near their five-room flat - had also become something else.

"Children started joining us. Sometimes, more than 20 would play with us," he says. "The reason? They didn't have a ball."

Many of the children were from old Housing Board blocks in Taman Jurong which had been turned into rental units catering to underprivileged or dysfunctional families.

Through his interactions with them, he found that many grappled with issues ranging from abuse to self-esteem, and often had problems in school.

Knowing that football was a healthy distraction, he started organising street soccer leagues, where he played multiple roles, including referee, timekeeper and safety instructor.

He also started opening his home to a few of the children. "They would come in and use the computer. I'd encourage them to read and help them with their work," he says.

He would even track down interesting articles from the BBC and The New York Times and simplify them, marking out words such as "piety", "empathy", "commitment" and "dedication" to teach the children values.

Two incidents reinforced why he needed to help these children.

"One day, many of my football kakis didn't turn up. I found out from some of their friends that six of them were involved in attacking and robbing foreign nationals," he recalls with a sigh.

"In another case, two children - one in Primary 6 and the other in Secondary 1 - were caught breaking into buses parked in front of Chinese Garden. I found out later that they did it to get money to buy food," says Mr Ang.

His chance meeting with Mr Shanmugaratnam led to him taking up community work.

"I was conned," he jokes. "But I went with an open mind. I know that on my own, I wouldn't be able to solve the problem."

In October 2011, he co-founded G.o.D. with entrepreneur Maurice Alphonso and fighter pilot Shawn Ingkiriwang. The trio decided to turn an annexe of the Taman Jurong constituency office into a cosy space where at-risk children could come to study and get help with their schoolwork from a group of volunteers, ranging from housewives to undergraduates.

Emphasis is given to raising their self-esteem and improving their communication and thinking skills.

There are also activities such as visits to interesting places, as well as the staging of plays, to keep the children away from bad company and break the vicious circle of poverty and dysfunction.

"Initially, we opened only two days a week. But word spread among the children and more started coming. Now we're open every Monday to Thursday, from 2.30pm to 5.30pm," says Mr Ang, adding that nearly 40 students now use the centre.

Because of their difficult family circumstances, the children are not always easy to help. But Mr Ang and his team have changed enough lives to feel assured that they are on the right track.

He recalls a Primary 6 girl who came to the centre asking for help.

"I told her that if she wanted change, we had to strengthen her foundation. She often rushed down to the centre at 5pm and I asked her why she was so late. But she would just say: 'It's okay, even if I tried two questions, it would benefit me.'

"When her PSLE results came out, she WhatsApped me to say she had got into the Express stream. If she hadn't come, she would probably have ended up in Normal (Tech)," he says, referring to the academic track for the weakest students.

Mr Ang did not expect that his work with at-risk children would eventually lead him to work with former convicts.

Mr Patrick Chan, a Taman Jurong community volunteer and Mr Ang's course mate in Officer Cadet School during their national service, used to run a woodwork company hiring former prisoners who had done time for offences ranging from drugs to secret-society-related activities.

In September last year, the entrepreneur decided to hand over the business to his staff. He persuaded Mr Ang to co-manage it.

"This is not a business-as-usual kind of set-up. I may have decades of managerial experience but not enough for me to manage a bunch of former inmates," he says, laughing.

He explains: "These are people who have never been gainfully employed. The guy with the lightest sentence served six years in prison. One did 16 years, another, 18."

His wife and son were initially worried about his safety.

"My answer to them: 'I can definitely outrun them'," he jokes.

The first few months were tough. He had to start everything from scratch, including laying down company policies. Three workers left the company. "They did not like the control. They also did not find working life easy," he says.

But those who remain are determined to turn over a new leaf. "One was so afraid of turning up late for work that he set three alarm clocks. I told them that the person they ought to thank is not me, but themselves. Because if they do not want to change, no one can help them."

The dust has settled and Aestiwood is now humming along nicely. "It is not yet profitable but we're working towards breaking even," Mr Ang says.

Since quitting his job, he has been living on his savings. But there are no regrets over the detours in his life. Referring to his charges, he says: "In the last five years, it is not how much we have changed them but how they have changed me and my family."

He is especially pleased at how his work has helped his son develop a strong social conscience.

"That's why I'm still doing this."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 25, 2015, with the headline 'From street soccer to grassroots work'. Print Edition | Subscribe