It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Couple start anew after a life in and out of prison

Couple who lived with drugs, crime and jail time divorced and despaired... but love prevails

Joseph Tan, 53, and Miki Lim, 48, have chequered pasts. The couple have been imprisoned multiple times for reasons such as drug trafficking and drug abuse. Now, they have stable jobs and the couple, who divorced 15 years ago, recently remarried.
"Newlyweds" Mr Tan and Madam Lim are grateful to be back as a family after having been divorced for more than 10 years. Both have found a new equilibrium after a tumultuous life in and out of prison. Mr Tan is now a delivery man, Madam Lim, a freelan
"Newlyweds" Mr Tan and Madam Lim are grateful to be back as a family after having been divorced for more than 10 years. Both have found a new equilibrium after a tumultuous life in and out of prison. Mr Tan is now a delivery man, Madam Lim, a freelance courier.ST PHOTO: SONG TAO

On a sunny Saturday morning last month, Joseph Tan, 53, and Miki Lim, 48, walked down the aisle in Woodlands Evangelical Free Church.

More than 600 people attended the wedding, and by the time they had exchanged their vows, there was nary a dry eye in the room.

Who could blame them, given the couple's soul-searing story of love, atonement and redemption?

It's their second stab at marriage. The couple, who have three sons aged between 29 and 32, first tied the knot about 30 years ago. But they split, acrimoniously, 15 years ago when both were drowning in a cesspool of resentment as their lives spiralled out of control.

Both were damaged souls who had spent time behind bars, not once but several times for crimes ranging from drug trafficking and consumption, to vehicle theft and robbery. In fact, they were nearly hanged for their drug offences.

Mr Tan cleaned up first. Released in 2010 after serving five years in prison for his last drug trafficking offence, he buckled down to make an honest living as a delivery man.

After his release, he started visiting his ex-wife, a hardcore heroin and Ice addict, who was doing time for possession and consumption.

"Newlyweds" Mr Tan and Madam Lim are grateful to be back as a family after having been divorced for more than 10 years. Both have found a new equilibrium after a tumultuous life in and out of prison. Mr Tan is now a delivery man, Madam Lim, a freelan
Above: Mr Joseph Tan and Madam Miki Lim in their younger days, when life was carefree and spent more recklessly. PHOTO: JOSEPH TAN

Inspired by the change in Mr Tan, Madam Lim, who recently got her taxi licence, went on the straight and narrow too.

The two decided to have another go at couplehood. On May 26, they became man and wife again.

Over three hours at a cafe in Chinatown, the pair wince, grimace and shed tears as they detail, in a mixture of English and Mandarin, the travails and trespasses of their past.

More than 600 people attended the wedding, and by the time they had exchanged their vows, there was nary a dry eye in the room. PHOTO: JOSEPH TAN

Madam Lim's elder brother, Peter Lim, gave her away at her wedding. PHOTO: JOSEPH TAN

A trim, pleasant-looking man, Mr Tan is the third of five children of a coolie and a wanton mee seller.

The family lived on the second floor of a shophouse in Chinatown which in the 1960s was the stomping ground of many unsavoury characters, including triad members.

The former student of Pearl's Hill School was a well-behaved kid until he entered his teens.

"My parents were quite strict and I was not allowed to go downstairs when I was small. But once I could, havoc," he says, using the local slang to mean hell breaking loose. "Maybe I didn't know how to handle freedom."

He fell in with bad company and left school after repeating Secondary One.

Petty crime became a way of life: breaking and entering, wrecking pay phones for coins and snatching gold chains to sell at gambling dens.

"I'd gamble and bet on horses, soccer games, a lot of things. I thought I could make a living from gambling. So I borrowed from Ah Longs (illegal moneylenders)," says Mr Tan, who occasionally earned money legitimately as a labourer or painter.

His recklessness grew; he pulled off bigger jobs.

In 1983, he was jailed for the first time after stealing a motorbike. He abandoned it by the roadside one night because of a police roadblock. When he went back for it, the police were waiting for him.

The four-month term at Queenstown Remand Prison had no punitive effect. In fact, his street cred, he says with a grin, got an "upgrade".

During his national service, he was court-martialled and sent to Tanglin Detention Barracks for two years. His offences? Going AWOL (absent without official leave) and stealing a car.

By then, he had met and become intimate with Madam Lim, then an aimless 14-year-old primary school dropout.

Mr Joseph Tan and Madam Miki Lim wedded when Mr Tan was 23 and Madam Lim was 18, but marriage did not change his ways. He became a drug trafficker in the hopes of making a fast buck and was arrested and jailed. PHOTO: JOSEPH TAN

One of three children raised by a single mother, she says: "I found out I was pregnant after he went to jail. I was just 14 then. I was very skinny but my friend said my stomach was getting big, and when I went to a doctor, he told me I was already five months pregnant."

Upset, Madam Lim's late mother asked her to have an abortion.

"I went to Kandang Kerbau Hospital but I got scared," she says in Mandarin.

Because of her age, she was counselled and sent to a shelter for pregnant teens. She was supposed to give her baby up for adoption upon delivery.

"During the last month of my pregnancy, I saw my friend holding her baby and I felt very sad. I couldn't bear to give my baby up and told my mother I wanted to keep it," she says.

Her first son, Jeremy, was about three months old when Mr Tan was released in 1986. They made plans to marry but had no money.

So he decided to rob a goldsmith's shop in Bukit Merah. Together with a friend who wielded a parang, he got away with more than $100,000 in jewellery.

The planned marriage did not take place. The law caught up with Mr Tan when his friend was nabbed at a gambling den not long after. He was soon behind bars again, this time for three years.

Fatherhood didn't make him mellow. He continued with his old ways when he came out of prison.

The couple, who have three sons - Jacky, Jeremy and Jesper - aged between 29 and 32, first tied the knot about 30 years ago. 

"I started working for an Ah Long. I was gambling here and there, borrowing here and there. Whatever I made in a day, I'd spend in a day," says Mr Tan who married Madam Lim, then 18, in a traditional Chinese ceremony when he was 23. Their twin sons, Jesper and Jacky, were born the following year.

He became a drug trafficker when a friend told him that was the fastest way to make big bucks.

"I was like the wholesaler; I got others to distribute heroin which was brought in from Malaysia. The friend who gave me the lead to do this has since been hanged. Actually, I know two or three others who have been hanged," he says.

Although he smoked marijuana and took Upjohn pills (a tranquiliser), he gave heroin a wide berth.

"I don't know why. Maybe I didn't want to lose control. After taking Upjohn pills, I would steal and snatch people's necklaces. What more if I took heroin?"

In 1992, officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) caught his supplier with a few kilos of the drug in Toa Payoh. This led to the arrest of accomplices including Mr Tan, who was imprisoned for seven years under the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA). The law allows the detention, without trial, of suspected criminals "in the interests of public safety, peace and good order".

Those were tough years for Madam Lim, who was saddled with three boys to raise.

"I also led a havoc life," she says in Singlish. "I worked as a hostess in a nightclub. I didn't know how to take care of my children; I only knew how to buy them toys and take them out for meals. I left them to my mother and my younger sister. I had no goals or ambition. I didn't know how to live a proper, normal life," she says, tears streaming copiously down her cheeks.

Her childhood was dysfunctional. Her father had another family, and her mother slaved away as a cleaner to raise her three children.

"She fed us breakfast before she went to work, and we would not have another meal until she came home at night. We had to find ways to feed ourselves. I grew up without any guidance," says Madam Lim, who spent four months in a drug rehabilitation centre when she was in her early teens.

Her husband's 1992 arrest led her back to drugs. "I was very stressed and surrounded by people who were doing drugs. I took a lot of Upjohn to keep the stress at bay, and then went on to heroin and other drugs like Ice," she says.

To sustain a chronic daily habit, she became a peddler herself and was thrown behind bars for two years in 1994. By the time the millennium dawned, the couple were leading separate lives.

"I felt so alone. When I needed him, he was never there. I had my faults too but I didn't know if he ever loved me or cared about me," says Madam Lim whose depression made her suicidal.

One day in 2002, she impulsively hauled herself over the parapet along the balcony of her mother's 12th storey flat in Bukit Merah. What stopped her from jumping off was the sudden vision of her youngest son's face.

"When my brother saw me clinging onto the parapet, he tried to pull me to safety but couldn't because I was so heavy. When they heard the commotion, a neighbour and his three sons from the floor below came to help."

In 2003, she asked for a divorce. Each continued to wrestle with demons and almost seemed hellbent on a life of destruction.

Although he studied for and sat his O levels, even scoring As for Maths, Accounting and Chinese, while in prison, Mr Tan continued his freewheeling criminal ways.

He was jailed two more times, once for selling pirated software in 2002 and for drug trafficking again in 2005.

The last arrest, which nearly got him hanged, was the turning point.

He was ambushed by CNB officers and caught with 900g of heroin in a Havelock Road hotel.

"If you have 15g of pure heroin, you will be hanged," says Mr Tan, who had to wait a few harrowing months to know what his fate was while the authorities lab-tested the haul for purity.

"I nearly went crazy thinking about how painful hanging would be. Like they say, death is not terrifying but how you die is terrifying."

He was eventually charged with having 5.6g of pure heroin and given a seven-year sentence.

In prison, he decided "to get serious with God". Realising how he and Madam Lim's destructiveness has messed up their sons' lives (all three did not complete their secondary education and had brushes with the law for offences including rioting and drug consumption), he resolved to turn his life around.

Good behaviour earned him an early release in 2010. The man who used to rake in thousands trafficking heroin found a job which paid $1,300 a month as a delivery man cum driver. He now works in a different company, doing the same job but with a higher salary.

His former wife's battle with drugs, meanwhile, was still not finished.

A two-year prison stint in 2006 was followed by an arrest, harrowingly similar to Mr Tan's last one, in 2010. She was caught with half a kilogram of heroin and more than 200g of Ice.

Like him, she had to wait nearly one year for lab results to confirm that she did not have to face the gallows. She eventually served three years and was released in 2015.

What rattled her was what her eldest son said to her before her case went on trial.

"He said: 'You mean I have to visit you in prison again?' Then he hung up on me. What he said really broke my heart but it also made me realise what a terrible mother I had been."

Sadly shaking his head, Mr Tan says: "Actually I feel really bad for our boys. It was especially bad for Jeremy. At one stage, all his family members were behind bars."

His wife reaches out to hold his hand before continuing her story.

Both Mr Tan and Madam Lim were nearly hanged for their drug offences. The couple recently tied the knot for the second time. ST PHOTO: SONG TAO

"I was put in an isolation ward for the first month. I really needed visitors but couldn't have any. I was allowed visitors only after 11 months. It was so hard," she says.

Not knowing if she would face capital punishment was terrifying.

"I reflected a lot on my life. I thought of my sons. I might have told them I loved them but did I really? Was I even a mother? I prayed that even if I were to hang, I could see them first."

Despite their acrimonious past, Mr Tan went to see her in jail.

"She is the mother of my children. I also felt guilty for what happened to her," he says simply.

She refused to talk to him initially but when he turned up every month, she relented.

"I could see that he had really changed. I also wanted to change," says Madam Lim.

In prison, she started reading the Bible and self-help books. She took art and sewing lessons which helped her to focus.

"Before I was released, I prayed that I would have my family again."


Madam Lim worked as a cashier upon her release in 2015 before getting herself a van and becoming a freelance courier. After just three attempts, she also obtained her taxi driving licence.

Active in their church, the couple courted for two years before tying the knot again. Madam Lim says: "We really started afresh. In the past, we couldn't last three months without a fight. He now treats me as an equal and takes our relationship very seriously."

Mr Al Sidhom, 50, met Mr Tan when he was a prison counsellor.

The senior manager in a multi-national says: "He was very committed to change. Many have failed but he is a perfect example of true transformation, inside out. He now counsels, leads and motivates others."

The "newlyweds" are grateful that their new equilibrium has had a positive impact on two of their children who live with them.

Jeremy and Jesper both have steady jobs as a technician and a key repair man.

Mr Tan says: "Jacky is in Thailand. We're not sure what he does but we pray that he will come home soon."

When asked what they are most thankful for, he replies: "We thank God for teaching us how to let go of the past. If we didn't, we would not have a future."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 24, 2018, with the headline 'Starting anew after a life in and out of prison'. Subscribe