School dropout and ex-offender among five winners of the Silent Heroes Award

Ex-gang member Andrew Ong was addicted to vices for years, but turned his life around and has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate with society ever since.
Ex-gang member Andrew Ong was addicted to vices for years, but turned his life around and has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate with society ever since.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

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

The first sentence of nine months in 1996 was for rioting. He was only 18 then.

The second, in 1999, saw him spend two weeks in the army detention barracks for insubordination. It was during his time in reservist.

For years, Mr Ong was addicted to vices, including drugs and excessive drinking.

But he turned his life around and has been helping ex-offenders reintegrate with society ever since.

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 on Saturday (Nov 21) evening.

Five inspiring individuals won awards this year for their commendable contributions and positive influence on society.

A total of 91 submissions were received, of which 13 became finalists before five were selected for the awards.

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

"Today as an adult, 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."

For Mr Ong, it was after he overdosed on ketamine in 2000 when he was 22 that he realised it was time to clean up his act.

While his health was not severely impacted, the episode caused 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 awarded by Australia's Edith Cowan University.

He spent the next 15 years in marketing, communications, advertising and business development in the people, public and private sector.

With a desire to help ex-offenders rebuild their lives and stay the course, Mr Ong joined social enterprise Empact in 2018 as head of corporate partnerships and marketing.

It has become Mr Ong's life mission to change the negative perception that the public has of ex-offenders as well as build a strong support system for them.

He is an active volunteer with social organisations such as Architects Of Life, a social enterprise that develops the potential of youth-at-risks and ex-offenders.

Mr Ong is also the co-founder of Break the Cycle, an organisation which uses cycling as a way of connecting and supporting ex-offenders towards reintegration back to society.

He co-founded Chance, an agency which trains and hires ex-offenders for the creative industry.

Award for everyday Singaporeans

Inaugurated in 2014, the award aims to recognise everyday Singaporeans and permanent residents who are quietly making a difference in their families, communities and society without seeking recognition.

Dr Julian Hong, former board adviser with Architects Of Life, said: "Andrew is a fine young man whose heart is in the right place and is a 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 are those who 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 from their beneficiaries or anyone else."

Indian national Dipti Julka, 39, took home the award from the Compassionate Foreigner category 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.

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 on Nov 21, 2020. A fifth winner, Indian national Dipti Julka (Compassionate Foreigner category) was not at the event. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

They are non-profit organisation Etch Empath, which provides skills development workshops for the visually impaired; social enterprise Fortitude Culina, an inclusive cafe Mr Yeoh started which hires visually impaired as chefs; and Cycling Without Age Singapore, a charity which Mr Yeoh set up to reduce social isolation for seniors.

The award in the Inspiring Youth category was given to Mr Derek Lim, 25, for his good work as a volunteer since February 2015 with Homeless Hearts of Singapore - a non-profit organisation which befriends and helps those who are homeless.

Mr Mashuthoo Abdul Rahiman, 71, took home the award in 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, such as the Singapore Kadayanallur Muslim League.