Prison 'break'

Cosmetics company manager reflected on wayward ways during his second jail term

One morning 40 years ago, Kenneth Kiong woke up, gripped by a desire to steal something.

Just 15 years old, he decided to skip school and head for the now- defunct Paya Lebar airport. The pickings, he reasoned, would be rich there because only the well-off could afford to fly.

He wandered around the airport and his eyes soon zoomed in on a leather briefcase lying unattended on a bench. After 15 minutes, he walked briskly to the bench, picked up the briefcase and headed straight for a toilet and locked himself in a cubicle.

Rummaging through the contents, he took all that was valuable - a camera, a POSB passbook belonging to an Alexander Thorburn and some traveller's cheques - and left the suitcase and the many documents it contained in the cubicle.

Mr Kiong, now 55, recalls: "The passbook showed there was $50,000 in the account."

One of the traveller's cheques, he noticed, was signed. Guessing that the signature would be the same one used in the POSB passbook, he practised forging it over the next few days.

Then he summoned enough courage to head to a POSB Bank branch in Queenstown to try to withdraw $200. The teller verified the signature, did not think it strange that Alexander Thorburn was a Chinese youth, and passed him the money.

"I walked out as fast as possible. I was elated that I had pulled it off and told myself there was a pretty good chance I'd be able to take everything out," he recalls.

Over the next six weeks, he made several more trips to POSB branches all over the island, sometimes withdrawing up to $2,000. He cleaned out more than $30,000 from the account before he was caught.

As he was a juvenile, he was sentenced to two years' probation.

The experience jolted him, but not enough to deter him from breaking the law again.

Mr Kiong was to end up behind bars twice - once for a drug offence he insists he did not commit and then for criminal breach of trust.

His second time in jail, however, changed his life. It gave him time to reflect, introduced him to his faith and led him to the woman who became his wife.

He later gained a foothold in the beauty industry and is today the regional business development manager of a Swiss cosmetics company.

There is little about Mr Kiong today which hints at his troubled past. He is well-groomed, has a great complexion - which he attributes to a good cleanser and moisturiser - and is blessed with a silkily-cadenced voice.

He is the eldest of three children; his father is a retired school principal, and his mother, a housewife.

"I was very close to my mother, but not my father who chose to spend most of his time away from home. He was a disciplinarian and would strip me and cane me for not doing well in my studies.

"I guess I was a big disappointment because I was not a good example for my two younger brothers," says the former student of St Andrew's Primary and Secondary.

Envious of better-off schoolmates who had more pocket money, he candidly admits to being light-fingered, sometimes helping himself to money from his father's wallet.

"I was never caught. I was careful. If I opened my father's wallet and there were 10 $10 bills, I'd just take one so that he would not notice," he says.

Hankering for what he could not afford led him to constantly think about stealing, culminating in the theft of Mr Thorburn's briefcase.

Being flush with cash from that crime, he says, was both heady and scary.

"It was crazy, I would stuff thousands of dollars into my schoolbag because I dared not leave the money at home for fear of being discovered."

He has vivid memories of the day he was caught at the POSB branch in Joo Chiat.

"That day, I thought I would get away, just like I had done on all the previous occasions. But the teller looked at the computer screen and went into an office without telling me why. My head told me to run, but my legs were cemented to the floor. I was just so frightened," he says.

What happened next unfolded like a scene in a movie. He heard the guard closing the door of the bank. The manager led him to his office, got him to call his parents and told him the police were on the way.

It turned out that Mr Thorburn reported the theft of his briefcase only 11/2 months after he lost it. His account was then frozen and that was how the young thief was caught.

"My school principal allowed me to continue my studies and did not spread the story to the other teachers," says Mr Kiong, who had to report to a probation officer at the Pearl's Hill Police Operational Headquarters every month.

However, more trouble dogged him despite his resolve to turn over a new leaf.

In 1977, after he had completed his O levels and was about to finish his probation, he was asked to go for a drug test.

The Central Narcotics Bureau, working with other government agencies like the police, had just launched Operation Ferret to curb an escalating drug problem.

"Every probationer had to undergo a urine test, whether you were a drug addict or not. I did it and my urine tested positive," he says.

The result stupefied him.

"I did not even smoke then," claims Mr Kiong, who was immediately put into detention at Selarang Barracks for two months.

The drug addicts there told him another addict had probably swopped his urine sample.

His father wanted to hire a lawyer, but was told that there was substantial evidence to prove he was guilty. A re-test was out of the question.

He was given a six-month sentence.

"I was really suffering. In prison, I learnt to smoke. If you couldn't beat them, you might as well join them," he says with a grimace.

After his release, he took on some odd jobs while waiting to do his national service, which turned out memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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"I went AWOL, I was charged in military court, I stole whiskey from Fitzpatrick's," he says, referring to the now-defunct supermarket chain.

"Looking back, I was rebellious and trying to get attention. Like any other habit, stealing had taken hold of me and it was hard to kick."

After national service, he found a job selling language learning tapes by Linguaphone.

"I did well and rose from sales representative to trainer in a few years. I could earn three or four thousand dollars a month, which was pretty good money in those days."

But every penny he earned, he spent on "wine, women and song".

"I guess I was trying to be someone I was not," he says.

One day, he took a $500 deposit from a customer without telling the company, thinking he would make good once his salary came in.

"I was caught when the customer complained that he hadn't received the stocks. The company found out that I did not submit the customer's order and my boss reported the matter to the police," he says.

Although his parents repaid the money and hired the late lawyer and politician JB Jeyaretnam to defend him, Mr Kiong was charged, and sentenced to two years in jail for criminal breach of trust in 1985.

He spent a few months at the maximum-security prison in Changi before he was transferred to the medium-security one nearby to serve out the rest of his sentence.

His talent in art saw him deployed as a prison artist; he even had his little office where he stored his art supplies.

That was the turning point in his life. Being in prison afforded him time to reflect on his wayward past; he also found faith.

Upon his release, he worked for an outreach non-profit group Prison Fellowship Singapore, earning $400 a month as a counsellor.

After a couple of years, he became the sales representative for a skincare company.

At his job interview, he shared his life story which he believes helped him snag the job.

"I did not have the fear that they would not hire me," he says.

His job involved selling the company's products to high-end spas and salons.

"Everywhere I went, I would share my story. Maybe they were sympathetic or were fascinated, but many customers gave me business," says Mr Kiong, who rose to become the company's assistant manager in three years.

Around this time, he got married to Ms Judy Ang, a civil servant. She is the sister of one of his cell mates, a drug addict.

"I wanted to send him a birthday card but I couldn't remember the exact date. So I called his home and the person who picked up the phone became my future wife. She was quite touched that I cared enough about her brother, a drug addict who had been in and out of prison several times," he says.

Over the next decade, Mr Kiong made good progress in his career. Each job change led to better pay and prospects.

He did especially well at one company where he was tasked with marketing a line of French beauty products, growing sales from $20,000 annually to $150,000 in about five years.

But hubris set in.

He decided to strike out on his own in 1998 and set up his own company with a partner. He wrote to the French principal asking for distribution rights. The principal, however, backed out of the deal just as they were about to sign the contract, and showed him a fax from his previous employer imploring them not to terminate their partnership.

His partner pulled out, and Mr Kiong - who had just bought a new condominium - was left high and dry. For nine months, he tried looking for a job, but to no avail.

Shrugging his shoulders, he believes it was retribution for trying to snatch the French brand from his previous employer.

"I guess what I tried to do was unethical; I did not have integrity. I later apologised to my former boss. He was very nice about it and said what was meant to be would be," he says.

Things started looking up when he secured the distribution rights to a line of toiletries, Original Source, from the United Kingdom.

For nearly four years, he ran a tight ship with his wife. "I was storekeeper, admin manager and marketing manager," he says.

When Original Source sold its brand to healthcare conglomerate PZ Cussons in the United Kingdom, Mr Kiong lost his distributorship and folded his company Skin Solutions.

After several stints marketing and managing beauty lines such as Dr Hauschka, he became the regional business development manager for Swiss cosmetics company BelleWave last year, overseeing 10 territories including Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia.

Life, he says, is good although he still dreams of having his own company.

His parents are comforted that their prodigal son came home.

Meanwhile, Mr Kiong, who has no children, continues to share his past with people he meets.

"Everyone has a past, there is no need to hide. I may even be helping people who identify with my struggles."