SINGAPORE – He used to procure girls for prostitution rings in places like Thailand, Malaysia and Hong Kong.
Today, Mr Jeremiah Tan Siak Meng has turned his life completely around. The 60-year-old now works in a bak kut teh (pork rib soup) stall.
Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh has two outlets here, and most of its employees are former offenders determined never to return to their old lives.
Mr Tan spent a total of 14 years in jail for offences related to human trafficking, and selling and making forged documents.
He considers himself a changed man after being released in 2009. He is an active member at his church, where he helps to serve refreshments at services every weekend.
In the past, he earned at least $30,000 a day from his illegal activities. These days, his job as a cashier at the food outlet makes him about $1,000 a month.
Mr Tan says he is a lot happier now. “Now, as long as I take care of everyday expenses, I’m happy,” he said. “I used to be a rascal; I did everything except drugs. Smuggling girls and making fake ICs were my profession.”
It was his last seven-year stint in jail that turned his life around. Mr Tan said that in 2003, while he was serving time, a group of Christian inmates invited him to a gathering where they sang together and prayed for him.
He was suffering from depression at that time and had to take medication for it.
Within 10 months, he overcame his depression and even became a worship leader in prison. But Mr Tan said he feels “blessed” to have a boss who is also a former inmate.
Mr Jabez Tan, 39, the founder of Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh, had been jailed for 13 years and given 12 strokes of the cane for being involved in gang- and drug-related activities.
After becoming a Christian in 1998 while in jail, his life turned around. He started Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh in Simpang Bedok last year. The second outlet was opened in MacPherson Road last Monday.
He hopes to use his business to change the lives of other former offenders and the less privileged by providing them jobs.
“Soon Huat is in the business of second chances. Eighty per cent of our staff are ex-offenders,” he said.
He picked up cooking while in jail, and would ask his mother to bring him recipes whenever she visited.
He started out washing dishes and became a cook for condemned inmates after prison officers noticed his interest in cooking.
He was released in 2002, but decided to remain in a halfway house and busied himself with Bible school and Christian mission trips to prevent himself from going back to his old ways and friends.