He wants to end bias against convicts

The New Year is a time when many people welcome the fresh start with ambitious personal challenges . The Straits Times speaks to three individuals with New Year's resolutions that embody a wider purpose - from helping kidney patients to reaching out to inmates and saving the environment.

Mr Michael Teoh, 52, was 16 when he faced a murder charge, which was later reduced. He now helps inmates to return to society.
Mr Michael Teoh, 52, was 16 when he faced a murder charge, which was later reduced. He now helps inmates to return to society. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

The festive season is a period for people to take a break, but former inmate Michael Teoh has been spending time thinking about helping others with a similar past to his.

His New Year's resolution is to help more people in prison and halfway houses. For those released from jail, he wants to help them transition to society. Problems they face include finding jobs and a home, as well as mending relationships with their loved ones, he said.

Mr Teoh, 52, knows these issues well - in 1982, he was charged with murder after a robbery gone wrong. He killed a man with a hammer when the victim struggled against him and an accomplice at a carpark. He was 16 at the time.

"I was so scared of the death sentence," he said.He regretted his criminal past and turned to religion. After four years in remand, the charge was reduced to robbery with grievous hurt. He was sentenced to eight years' jail and 12 strokes of the cane.

Mr Teoh grew up in a broken home. He was abandoned by his biological father, and his mother did not have a strong presence in his life. His stepfather beat him often and schoolmates bullied him.

He joined a gang and led a life of crime - getting into fights, running gambling dens and brothels.

When he got out of prison in 1988, he sought forgiveness from his family and he forgave them for how they had treated him. His stepfather had gone down on his knees to seek his forgiveness for physically abusing him, Mr Teoh said. He tracked down his biological father, who apologised for neglecting him.

Now happily married with two children, Mr Teoh, who is a certified lifeguard and a professional swim coach, said: "I want to set an example to show (inmates) that it is possible to forgive and forget."

He spends at least six hours a week holding group counselling sessions at Changi Prison. He helps out at halfway houses occasionally and trains volunteers.

He wants to do more in 2018, like reducing the discrimination ex-convicts face. "They take it hard when they don't get callbacks from employers or landlords, or their families don't want to talk to them.

"I will encourage them to put aside their pride and imagine what it is like for the employer, landlord or their loved ones. They may understandably have some reservations about letting ex-convicts into their lives," he added.

But he will keep fighting for inmates to integrate into society. "People don't understand why I keep going back to the prison... but I tell them I must stand up from where I fell. Last time, I killed someone. Now, I want to save lives."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline He wants to end bias against convicts. Subscribe