It has been 19 years since Pastor Ignatius Wong was last released from prison. He’d been in an out of prison since 1999, mostly because he could never find his footing each time he was released. Thankfully, he came into contact with a mentor at a rehabilitation centre in Chemor, Perak, who believed in him and Wong has never looked back since. He obtained his Bachelor in Theology and for close to two decades now, has made it his life’s mission to help struggling ex-convicts build a life for themselves upon their release.
“I couldn’t have done it without my leader (at the rehab centre), Jeremiah Pandian, whom I got in contact with through Malaysian Care. He was an ex-offender too and he gave me hope, encouraging me to study and make something of myself. I come from a broken family and have never experienced a father’s love before. Because of my past, I also have a strained relationship with my family... I don’t blame them as I had hurt them so often in the past. But he was like family to me and I thought, if he could do it, why not me?
“And now, I want to follow his example and help other ex-addicts, ” he says.
Wong runs Grace Centre, a rehabilitation centre in Klang for ex-addicts who are out of prison. He is also part of The YouTurn Project (TYP) by Christian non-government organisation, Malaysian Care, that aims to inspire the public to change their views, perspectives and actions towards prisoners and ex-prisoners.
The project aspires to motivate and rebuild the lives of ex-offenders by encouraging society to give them a second chance and a helping hand to earn an honest living; and enable them to reintegrate well into society.
Wong was part of a webinar, The YouTurn Project: Rerouting Destiny, along with the executive director of Malaysian Care Dr Wong Young Soon, Puan Hamidah Hamzah from Panasonic (representing employers who hire ex-offenders) and PPP Nobin Chaudhury from the Prisons Department.
Too often, Wong says, ex-convicts end up back in jail because they feel rejected in society; convinced they will never be given a fair shot.
“Just before the pandemic, I saw a sign for a job vacancy with a disclaimer stating that ex-convicts and ex-addicts would not be considered. That broke my heart. It was the same thing I faced 20 years ago and things haven’t changed. For ex-prisoners, finding a job is really stressful as most applications would want to know if you have been convicted before.
“Society doesn’t seem to think that criminals deserve a second chance, ” says Wong whose rehabilitation centre currently has 10 ex-offenders aged between 22 and 60.
Being able to reintegrate after release depends on several factors, says Wong. This includes being able to secure gainful employment, support from family, friends or the community as well as a personal resolve to steer clear of crime or narcotics.
“From my experience, seven out of ten ex-convicts will find their way back into prison. Some just can’t adjust or cannot find work and so, to get money, they resort to stealing and they re-offend. One of the guys that was under my programme was going really well – he’d got a job as a cook for a hotel and everything was good until he decided to open up to a colleague about his past. The next day, his manager gave him 24-hours notice and told him to leave. It was a huge blow and he was angry, bitter and hurt. He felt like there was no point, no hope and he went back to the streets.
“And then there are also some who are just not able to leave their past behind, ” he shares.
“It’s tough because the minute you are out of prison, you face stigma, ” he says. “Just our haircuts alone are a big sign that we are banduan (convicts). I remember, back in the day, a bus would send us from the prison to Kajang town and we’d hear comments like, ‘Oh kepala rambutan sudah datang’ and so on. We would have no money and sometimes no IC even with us. So we’d literally have to beg for money or a job. I remember there was one mamak restaurant in Kajang that would offer us a free meal but not if we kept returning.
“And even if you have a job, you are stigmatised and often, paid less than the person next to you doing the same job. I’ve experienced that and so have many. It’s easy to give up and feel like you will always be judged because of your past, ” says Wong who also helps ex-offenders at his centre reconnect with their families.
“I find them jobs and help them ease back into the real world when I think they are ready. I also help prepare their families for their reintegration because family support is very important and sometimes, families don’t understand that it takes time for ex-convicts to get back into society, ” he shares.
The will to succeed
Ash was a teenager when he was convicted and sent to juvenile prison in 2013. He was a good student in school and so, in prison, he resolved to study and build a future for himself upon his release. He requested to be allowed to sit for his STPM while in prison and studied hard.
“But there was no teacher to teach me and I had to do everything on my own. I was the only candidate sitting for the exam in prison and, Alhamdulillah, in 2014, I sat for my exam and passed with flying colours, with a CGPA of 3.58.
“After I was released in 2015, I had a month before enrolling in university to do my degree in International Finance and I am now completing my Masters degree in Monetary Economics while working as a Financial Advisor with an insurance company. I am happy with my life now because I have a meaningful career, my family are happy and proud of me and I can contribute to society, ” shares Ash, 26.
It wasn’t easy, though, as everyone in prison kept telling him that he was wasting his time and that ex-prisoners would never be able to succeed.
“Sometimes people would say that I’m crazy because I was always reading and studying. Some suka kacau (disturb) and try to demotivate me, telling me not to waste my time studying as convicts don’t have a future and so on. That became my gula gula (“treats”) in my daily life in prison. Sometimes the wardens would say the same thing. But I didn’t give up, ” he recalls.
In university, Ash shares that he was afraid to interact with other students in case they found out about his past and ostracised him.
“It took me about four to five months to adapt to my life in college. Thankfully I had my case worker from Malaysian Care and Sam Lim (TYP project manager) to support me and give me advice until I became more confident in myself. I joined debating, leadership, sports and many other activities and even became a university athlete and debater, ” he proudly shares.
The biggest challenge, is convincing employers and society to give ex-offenders a second chance, says TYP’s Lim who has been with Malaysian Care since 2009.
“There’s all sorts of social stigma and labelling when it comes to ex-offenders. But without acceptance and support, the offenders will most likely go back to what they knew best, which is a life of crime. TYP hopes to advocate for the reintegration of ex-offenders. We have seen an increase in employment opportunities but there isn’t a good enough yet. But we are working towards it. Wong and Ash are two examples that change can happen. They’ve gone through the process and though both struggled, they have succeeded and are now examples of how people can change and why offenders should be given a second chance, ” says Lim.
Although TYP was launched only this year, Malaysian Care has been working with prisoners and ex-prisoners for 40 years.
“Back then, there was very little civil society involvement with those who were incarcerated and released. The biggest challenge is the recidivism rate. Our experience is that three or four who come through us will fall back. But does this mean we should give up? If this is a business, we would certainly give up because of the low success rate but when it comes to making a change in society, we need to reverse that mindset. Even if we can only help one person, we need to do it, ” says Dr Wong.
Although attitudes towards prisoners and ex-prisoners have changed in the past 40 years, he says more needs to be done.
“Over the past 40 years, we have learnt from a lot of mistakes we’ve made and have seen what works and doesn’t work. Hopefully we can work with more NGOs, religious organisations and society and help prevent them from making the same mistakes we made. Instead of reinventing the wheel, by working together we can work better and more quickly.
“We also need reforms in some laws and these require NGOs to work together and work with policy makers and corporate bodies. A lot of services are needed, such as helping them get counselling, medical check ups, rehabilitation and so on. We need to change the way we do rehabilitation as well because what we are seeing now is an increase of mental health issues among the prisoners, ” he says.
Both Ash and Wong are positive examples of how ex-prisoners can reintegrate. They are now TYP icons and work with Malaysian Care in prison-related programmes that see them going into prisons to motivate inmates not to give up on life.
“When Sam asked me to be a TYP icon, I immediately said yes, 100% yes. I really want to tell the inmates that there are people on the outside who care and will love them. I want to tell them to not give up, to change and create their own opportunities for a better future. I want to be a part of the reintegration of prisoners. I want to be their voice and tell society that if you give us opportunities, we can succeed and we can change for the better, ” says Ash.
Wong says that because he is an ex-prisoner himself, the inmates are more receptive to what he has to say.
“I speak their language. And, just like how I was inspired by my leader (Jeremiah), I hope that they see that if I can do it, so can they, ” he concludes.