Ex-gang member wins award for helping former offenders

Andrew Ong gets Silent Heroes Award for assisting ex-inmates to reintegrate into society

Silent Heroes Award recipients (from left) Derek Lim (Inspiring Youth category), Andrew Ong (Outstanding Adult category), Mashuthoo Abdul Rahiman (Pioneers of Promise category) and Aaron Yeoh (Hearts of Humanity category) at the award ceremony at Shangri-La Hotel yesterday. A fifth winner, Indian national Dipti Julka (Compassionate Foreigner category) was not at the event. The award recognises everyday Singaporeans and permanent residents who are quietly making a difference without seeking recognition. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Once a school dropout and gang member, 42-year-old Andrew Ong has been behind bars twice.

The first sentence of nine months in 1996 was for rioting when he was only 18. The second, in 1999, saw him spend two weeks in army detention for insubordination while he was a reservist.

For years, Mr Ong was addicted to vices, including drugs and alcohol, but he turned his life around and has been helping former offenders reintegrate into society.

For his contributions, he won the annual Silent Heroes Award in the Outstanding Adult category.

Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli gave out the awards to the winners yesterday.

A total of 91 submissions were received, of which 13 became finalists before five were selected for their outstanding contributions.

Mr Ong told The Sunday Times: "Growing up, I was either standing outside of my class or outside a Criminal Investigation Department room.

"Today I'm honoured to be recognised for being a positive example. I hope to inspire fellow ex-offenders and show them that it is possible to turn their lives around."

Mr Ong realised it was time to clean up his act after he overdosed on ketamine when he was 22 in 2000, causing him to lose a business contract while he was working at a nightclub.

He returned to school in 2002 as a private O-level candidate and, in 2007, completed a degree in communications management at Australia's Edith Cowan University.

Since then, he has been in marketing, communications, advertising and business development in the public and private sectors.

With a desire to help former offenders rebuild their lives, Mr Ong joined social enterprise Empact in 2018 as head of corporate partnerships and marketing. It has become his life mission to change the negative perception the public has of former offenders as well as build a strong support system for them.

He is an active volunteer with social organisations like Architects Of Life, a social enterprise that develops the potential of youth-at-risk and former offenders.

Mr Ong is also the co-founder of Break the Cycle, which uses cycling as a way of connecting and supporting former offenders towards reintegration into society.

He also co-founded Chance, an agency that trains and hires former offenders for the creative industry.


Inaugurated in 2014, the award recognises everyday Singaporeans and permanent residents who are quietly making a difference without seeking recognition.

Dr Julian Hong, a former board adviser with Architects Of Life, said: "Andrew is living testimony of his journey from stereotypes - someone with lived experience of gangs and incarceration, to now doing good and helping others."

Mr M. P. Sellvem, president of the Civilians Association and chairman of the Silent Heroes Movement, said: "Silent Heroes write a one-sided contract and in it, it says they will do whatever they can to make a positive impact on others and expect nothing in return."

Indian national Dipti Julka, 39, was named the Compassionate Foreigner for her volunteering work at ground-up movement Be Kind SG.

Mr Aaron Yeoh, 42, won the award in the Hearts of Humanity category for his contributions in three social organisations.

Etch Empath provides skills development workshops for visually impaired people, while Fortitude Culina is a cafe Mr Yeoh started that hires visually impaired people as chefs, and Cycling Without Age Singapore was set up by him to reduce social isolation for seniors.

The award in the Inspiring Youth category went to Mr Derek Lim, 25, for his work as a volunteer with Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a non-profit organisation that befriends and helps homeless people.

Mr Mashuthoo Abdul Rahiman, 71, won the Pioneers of Promise category for his work as one of the initiators of free tuition class in Singapore in the 1970s and as an active leader in several charities.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2020, with the headline Ex-gang member wins award for helping former offenders. Subscribe