SINGAPORE - Growing up, Andrew Ong was like any other ordinary child. But his world fell apart during his secondary school years with the break-up of his parents' marriage.
Losing motivation and interest in his studies, he subsequently dropped out of school. He started to hang out with a different group of friends, and ultimately joined a gang, leading to his first brush with the law.
He said: "For children, motivation for studying and everything else came from your parents. So when that disintegrated, I went wayward… The group of friends that I hung out with became the family that I needed at that point in time. They became my source of support and where I could form my identity and experience a sense of belonging.
"I learnt the good things like brotherhood, camaraderie and loyalty, but they were expressed wrongly through violent, misguided actions."
In 1996, when Ong was just 18 years old, he was sentenced to nine months behind bars for a rioting offence. Three years later, he went back to his old ways. His second time behind bars was when he was put in the detention barracks for two weeks due to insubordination while on reservist duties.
It was in prison where he discovered Christianity, planting a seed that proved to be key in his decision to turn his life around.
In 2000 after his release, Ong, now 43, started volunteering, giving talks and getting involved in facilitating courses and workshops in halfway houses.
Connecting through cycling
The idea to use cycling as a way to connect with ex-offenders was born when Ong started to take the sport more seriously in 2019, after a health check revealed that his cholesterol levels were "off the charts".
When he first started cycling, he could only last 20km at a stretch. Now, he easily covers up to 200km in one ride.
Having seen an improvement in his physical and mental health, he realised that cycling was "motivating and energising", and that he could "marry his passion for cycling" with what he was currently doing at halfway houses.
He pointed out that it was important to have a strong support system for ex-offenders to help their reintegration into society because a lack of motivation, the stressors of life, and going back to old friends are often cited as the three main reasons why re-offending occurs.
Together with two of his friends, Joseph Ho and Carter Ng, avid cyclists who coached and guided him in his own cycling journey, they set up the initiative Break the Cycle in September last year.
Now, Break the Cycle has a total of 42 members, with ex-offenders making up about a quarter of the group. In November 2020, Ong was awarded the Singapore Silent Heroes Award in the Outstanding Adult category for his role in the ground-up initiative.
He said: "Without a cause, cycling can be quite boring and it can become quite showy as well. But if we put a spin to it, it can serve a higher purpose and we can do something good with it. We want (cycling) to be an inclusive sport, not just for elite people.
"There is a core community where cycling becomes a lifestyle. The ex-offenders can pick up a healthy habit and they now also have a new group of friends who will spur them on to achieve bigger goals."
While Ong is in charge of reaching out and connecting with the ex-offenders, co-founder Ho is in charge of coming up with training regimens, while Ng, who is handy with bicycles, offers his expertise when it comes to fittings, repairs or upgrading.
The group usually meets three times a week - on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays - at Seletar Aerospace Park, going on rides that last about two hours and covering a distance of at least 50km.
After their ride, they will often socialise, chatting about a wide range of topics, from bicycles to what is going on in their lives. Ong also occasionally invites his cycling team-mates over to his house for dinner.
This year, the group has signed up for their first official cycling event - the OCBC Cycle - where they will be participating in The Sportive Virtual Ride (42km) as an introduction to longer and more intensive rides in the future.
While participants can complete the required distance in four rides or less from May 15 to June 13 for virtual races, Ong is confident that the group, consisting of 15 riders, will be able to complete the 42km in one go without much hiccups.
Eric Tan, who has been part of the group since March this year and is also an ex-offender, said that cycling is key in helping ex-offenders learn discipline and the importance of working together.
The 55-year-old said: "Cycling is not about winning, but teamwork. There is no such thing as the one hero in the group. As we go quite fast, we need to learn to follow the rules on the road and look out for one another."
He also pointed out that cycling offers ex-offenders opportunities to engage with fellow cyclists "from all walks of life", building a sense of belonging and acceptance that will facilitate reintegration.
He said: "Many ex-offenders, when they come out of prison, they may not know how to blend, or whether people will accept them when they come out, so this group offers an opportunity for them to mix with all kinds of people (from mainstream society). "
Cycling has also allowed Tan to shed "bad habits" like drinking, and he now uses the money for bicycle repairs or upgrades.
Sherlene Lau, who joined the group in December last year after Ng reached out to her on Facebook, has seen her cycling skills improve by leaps and bounds.
In the six months since she joined the group, Lau has learnt how to ride a road bicycle, and has been exposed to many cycling techniques such as switching gears on the bicycle when going uphill. She now joins the group twice a week on their rides.
The 49-year-old said: "It is fantastic to be part of this community. Over here, everyone is very helpful and non-judgemental. We don't judge people by their jobs, what they do and what they have been through. Just because they are ex-offenders, this does not mean that they should be treated any differently."
Spreading the word
Ong, who is also now the head of corporate partnerships and marketing at social enterprise Empact, hopes to assemble a group of ex-offenders to take part in competitions in the future, as well as spread his cause to other biking groups.
He said: "Break The Cycle is meant to be a movement and not just a group. I hope to involve other bike groups in Singapore so that ex-offenders in other parts of Singapore can also get involved and be looked after.
"While breaking the cycle (of recidivism) may not be easy, it is possible. Cycling gives ex-offenders a goal to work towards so that they know that they are worthy, as well as to build their confidence, self-esteem and potential."