Meaning of Life

Faced with the gallows after killing a man, I found my greatest treasure

By Gracia Lee , 1 September 2020

Crouching behind parked cars at a multi-storey carpark in Beach Road, Michael Teoh and two of his gang members lay in wait for their robbery victim, their adrenaline pumping.

They had been following the fish auctioneer for more than a week and were familiar with his daily routine. They knew where he parked his car. They knew what time he would show up. They knew where he stashed his money. 

It was past 3am when they spotted him. 

As the gang’s designated “fighter”, Teoh, then just 16 years old, was to lead the attack. Clutching a hammer in his white-knuckled fists, he waited for the 41-year-old man to walk closer, and closer, and closer.

And then he struck.

The attack took place in a multi-storey carpark at Beach Road at about 3am. Reenacted photo by Gracia Lee.

The attack took place in a multi-storey carpark at Beach Road at about 3am. Reenacted photo by Gracia Lee.

But the man put up a strong fight of self-defence. As the scuffle ensued, raw emotions of rage and violence engulfed the teenager’s being.

In a moment of pure aggression, his mind completely blank, he struck the man repeatedly until the older man fell unconscious.

The man was still breathing when they fled with the money, said Teoh. He did not think too much about the attack. Such fights were common; it was all in a day’s work.

BLOODIED HANDS

The next day, he was thumbing through the newspaper when a familiar face on the thin page caught his attention. It was the victim from the night before.

Being illiterate – he had dropped out of school at a young age – he could not tell right away what the story was about.

“If kena arrested, confirm hang. Singapore so small, how to hide?”

But as he stared at the heap of words, deciphering some simple ones here and there, the truth dropped onto his shoulders like a crushing weight.

He had just killed a man.

Inexpressible fear gripped him, coiling itself around him in a suffocating embrace. He couldn’t eat. He struggled to sleep.

Without any respite, he tried to numb the fear with alcohol. In the rare moments of sleep, he was often jolted awake by nightmares of ghosts and a drowning darkness.

Fear taunted him wherever he went. After getting into a taxi one day, Teoh was casually asked by the taxi driver if he had read about the “murder” in the papers.

The taxi driver said: “This one very jialat. If kena arrested, confirm hang. Singapore so small, how to hide?”

FESTERING DARKNESS

Peace had always eluded Teoh, even from a young age.

Born into a broken family with divorced parents, he spent most of his growing up years being passed around from one family to another. Abuse followed him wherever he went.

Inexpressible fear gripped him, coiling itself around him in a suffocating embrace.

At six years old, he lived with his mother and stepfather, a drunkard who physically abused him almost every night, said Teoh.

His mother subsequently “chucked” him to his biological father, who had remarried another woman. In this household, he was sexually abused by his stepbrother, he said.

After some time, his father “chucked” him again to another ex-wife’s family, where he also suffered physical and mental abuse for many years.

At 12, he finally decided that he had had enough. “I thought, end my life better. After all, there’s no meaning in carrying on,” he said.

One night, when everyone else was asleep, he climbed onto the kitchen ledge of his seventh-floor home and steeled himself to step off.

Teoh was just 12 when he contemplated committing suicide, having suffered abuse for most of his childhood life. Photo by Christina Chen on Unsplash.

Teoh was just 12 when he contemplated committing suicide, having suffered abuse for most of his childhood life. Photo by Christina Chen on Unsplash.

In that moment, he raised his eyes to the night sky. For the first time in a long time, he noticed the twinkling stars. A thought came to him: Who made these stars? Who controls them? There must be Someone who does.

Inexplicably, that thought gave him a glimmer of hope. Perhaps he could continue to live, he thought as he stepped down from the ledge.

A thought came to him: Who made these stars? Who controls them? There must be Someone who does.

Still, his circumstances did not change. He ran away from home and spent his days roaming the streets of Singapore. He dropped out of school. He slept wherever he could find shelter.

He became fast friends with bad company and joined a gang, which introduced him to many vices. By 15, he was involved in running nightclubs, prostitution rings and gambling dens.

He became a hardened young man. “All through my childhood and my youth, my mind was just full of hate. I never tasted love. I had no love, no peace, no joy,” he said. “Only hate.”

It was this burning resentment that had overpowered him on July 13, 1982 – the night he took that innocent man’s life.

A DESPERATE PLEA

Three months after that night, Teoh’s worst fear showed up at his door.

When the police ransacked his cupboards and arrested him, there was only one thought in his mind: “Finished.”

In police custody, he admitted everything he knew about that night, save for the names of his gang members.

When the police ransacked his cupboards and arrested him, there was only one thought in his mind: “Finished.”

But he later found out that it had been one of them who had ratted him out to the authorities.

After 21 days of interrogation, he was thrown into an isolated cell at the now-demolished Queenstown Remand Prison and charged with first degree murder. If convicted, his end was sure – death.

It was torturous. Every night, he thought about the noose around his neck and agonised over his soul. Deep down he knew that if they hanged him, he would go to hell, he said.

The now-demolished Queenstown Remand Prison, where Teoh spent four years in isolation as he awaited his sentence. Photo from myqueenstown.blogspot.com

The now-demolished Queenstown Remand Prison, where Teoh spent four years in isolation as he awaited his sentence. Photo from myqueenstown.blogspot.com.

Fear tightened its grip on him. He could not sleep. He could not eat. It drove him to the edge.

He cried: “If there is a true God, a real God, come and save me. I’m at my end already.”

He cried out to all the gods and idols that he knew of, begging for power or for some kind of release. “Bo xia bo yia – no sound, no appearance. No return call,” he said.

He began to doubt if there was even a higher power. In a last ditch effort, he turned his face to the ceiling of his cell and cried: “If there is a true God, a real God, come and help me. I’m at my end already. If you are there, come and save me.”

The moment he uttered this cry, an inexplicable feeling of peace and calmness washed over him, he said. It was like a drowning man’s first gasp of air.

RISING HOPE

The next morning, all the prisoners in his ward were called out of their cells. An old prison chaplain had asked to see them.

It was the late Reverend Khoo Siaw Hua, one of the pioneering prison chaplains who had founded Prison Fellowship Singapore, a Christian organisation that ministers to prisoners, ex-offenders and their families.

“If there is a true God, a real God, come and help me.”

Teoh recalled: “The first thing he said was, ‘I’m sorry. So long never come and see you all because I was in hospital.’ I was wondering, who is this guy? I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me. But he come to say sorry to us?”

Rev Khoo then asked who wanted to have a Bible. Teoh’s hand shot up, catching him by surprise.

First of all, he didn’t even know how to read. Secondly, he was a tough gangster! Tough gangsters were not supposed to care about these things. No one else had raised their hand.

But the chaplain had seen his hand and a small Chinese New Testament was sent to his cell.

“God if this is from You, You make me read.”

When it arrived, Teoh held it in his palms hesitantly. Remembering his cry from the night before, he said: “God if this is from You, You make me read.”

Then he cracked open the book and started reading, beginning from the Gospel of Matthew. “The first page, all names!” he exclaimed, referring to the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17. “I said, what is this!”

But he pressed on, his eyes scanning the words on the pages and picking up simple ones he could identify.

Despite his poor literacy, something miraculous happened. “Suddenly, I started to understand the words. I started to understand the story,” said Teoh, amazement in his voice.

As Teoh flipped through the Bible, picking up the few words that he knew, he suddenly began to understand the gist of the story and realised that there was a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who had died for him and set him free. Reenacted photo by Joel Leow.

As Teoh flipped through the Bible, picking up the few words that he knew, he suddenly began to understand the gist of the story and realised that there was a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who had died for him and set him free. Reenacted photo by Joel Leow.

“Slowly I realised that Someone had paid for my all my wrong deeds. Someone had died for me, like in a gang where a brother dies for another brother. But this fella come and set people free from sin! There is hope!”

“Someone had died for me, like in a gang where a brother dies for another brother.”

A warmth spread through his body, he said. In that moment, he became aware of how utterly sinful he was. “I knew I had done a very, very wrong thing,” he said.

Regret and remorse washed over him. He did not know how to pray, nor had anyone taught him how to confess. But he responded simply: “I’m sorry, God. I’m wrong. Please save me.”

“The moment I said that, the load on my shoulders just dropped. Tears flowed from my eyes. But they were not sad tears, they were tears full of joy and full of hope,” he said.

BLESSED ASSURANCE

That night, he could sleep. The prospect of death no longer ate at his soul, “because I knew that Jesus died and rose up three days later, and this Jesus is my hope”, he said.

There was one miracle after another. Whenever he woke up, he would hunger to read the Bible even though he could not understand all the words.

“I was so happy until I go to the (prison) yard and tell people: There is hope! His name is Jesus Christ!”

The vulgarities that he typically spewed mindlessly also became “stuck” in his throat, much to Teoh’s surprise, he said.

But the biggest miracle of all was that he could smile. It was not something he had done, not genuinely at least, for as long as he could remember.

“I had no more sadness or fear. I was so happy. I was full of joy and peace,” he said. 

He wanted everyone to know about this Jesus he had just met. He said: “I was so happy until I carry my Bible, go to the yard and tell people, there is hope! His name is Jesus Christ!” The other prisoners thought he had gone crazy.

Every night in his cell, he asked God to send people to tell them about Him. He also prayed that He would send someone to teach him more about the Bible.

After three months of quiet and faithful prayer, Prison Fellowship Singapore started a weekly chapel service in his ward. Many prisoners came to know Christ through it, said Teoh.

“I thank God for those years inside the isolated cell. That is the treasure of my life.”

The Lord also sent a pastor who did one-on-one Bible study with him, as he had asked. Teoh was amazed: “In my heart I said, this God is real! I can fully trust Him.”

It was in these four years in remand that Teoh’s relationship with God grew and matured.

He was baptised in prison when he was 20. He spent his time studying the Word and praying for the salvation of his prison mates.

“I thank God for those years inside the isolated cell,” he said. “That is my treasure, the treasure of my life. It was so beautiful being isolated with God every day. With Him, I really have joy.”

GRACE UPON GRACE

Finally, it was time for Teoh’s case to be brought to trial. But he had no fear, he said.

“My hope was based on the assurance that God will fully take care of this life and the next. My spirit could feel this assurance, this guarantee,” he said.

“My hope was based on the assurance that God will fully take care of this life and the next.”

While waiting to enter the courtroom, he could not help but sing praises and hymns to the Lord, much to the bewilderment of the officers who were with him.

In the courtroom, Teoh was given much grace. His charge was reduced from first degree murder to robbery causing grievous hurt, and he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment and 12 strokes of the cane.

Subsequently, he was even accepted into a scheme that allowed him to work outside of the prison and come back only in the evenings as he served the rest of his sentence.

Teoh was extremely grateful. “God never fails to answer prayers,” he said.

REDEMPTION AND FORGIVENESS

In 1988, Teoh was released from prison. The people waiting for him outside the gates were his old friends, as well as some new ones he had known from his time behind bars.

It was too easy to plunge right back into his old life of alcohol, gambling and fighting. It was all he had ever known.

But things were different this time. As he engaged in these vices, he wrestled with a deep turmoil in his soul. The peace and joy he had discovered in prison also escaped him.

“As I’ve matured, I understand that the holiness and light of God cannot go with the darkness.”

“I struggled between sin and the holiness of Christ. It was like two powers were holding onto me,” he said. Every night when he went home, he would go onto his knees and pray for God’s divine power to help him overcome temptation.

And once again, the Lord answered Him. One by one, his relationships with his friends soured. They said Teoh had changed. He wasn’t the same anymore. They no longer wanted him around.

“Only in the name of Jesus can we overcome evil. And God had His way,” said Teoh.

“At that time I didn’t understand. But now as I’ve matured, I understand – the holiness and light of God cannot go with the darkness (2 Corinthians 6:14). It’s so real.”

As he continued to walk with the Lord, the Holy Spirit also convicted his heart to seek forgiveness and reconciliation from his family, whom he said were his “enemies that I hated the most”.

“It wasn’t easy to forgive. But with God, we can.”

To his surprise, even though he had approached them, they were the ones who apologised to him first, said Teoh. His stepfather even went on his knees to ask Teoh for forgiveness.

“It wasn’t easy to forgive. But with God, we can,” said Teoh, adding that his mother and stepfathers are now believers.

Teoh also wanted to reach out to the victim’s family to ask for forgiveness, but was advised against it for fear of bringing back painful memories for them, he said.

However, he took the opportunity to apologise to them on-air when his story was reenacted on a Mediacorp show, Turning Point. “I said, I’m very sorry, really very sorry, really very regret.”

Since he came to know Christ in prison, he has also been praying for the man’s family, to whom he knows he has caused inexpressible hurt.

MORE THAN ENOUGH

For the next few decades, Teoh, now 55, would keep walking closely with the Lord.

In 1989, he got married to his wife, Christina, whom he met while working in a restaurant. They now have two grown up children.

Teoh is married to his wife, Catherine, whom he met while working at a restaurant after his release. They have two adult children.

Teoh with his wife, Christina, whom he met while working at a restaurant after his release from prison. They have two adult children.

A few years later, he also succeeded in obtaining an ‘N’ level certificate and eventually fulfilled his childhood dream to become a lifeguard and swimming coach.

“Last time I killed people, now I want to save lives.”

Even before he was released from jail, he knew that he wanted to come back one day to help prisoners like himself.

“The prison is where God saved my life,” he said.

So, for the past 16 years, he has spent much of his time as a volunteer counsellor and motivational speaker to convicts. He also gives talks and workshops to youth-at-risk.

“Last time I killed people, now I want to save lives,” he said.

Teoh receiving an award from Mr Masagos Zulkifli for his long-term work in prison.

Teoh receiving an award from Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli in 2015 for his long-serving volunteer work in prison.

Even though he is now a free man – in more ways than one – he always remembers the God who had saved him when he was an utterly helpless teen in an isolated cell.

“We are the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd. We must be humble and hold His hand.”

Even in times of plenty, he stresses the importance of adopting this posture of total surrender and dependance.

“Without God, we are poor. But when we come before Him like this, He promised to add everything that we need to us. Abundantly! (Matthew 6:33)

“So, every day I need to be trembling and humble before the Lord. We are the sheep, Jesus is the shepherd. We must be humble and hold His hand.

“We cannot run ahead of Him. We have to walk beside Him or behind Him. When we are weak, ask Him to carry us. Don’t feel paiseh (Hokkien for “embarrassed”).

“Since I gave my life to him in prison, he has never failed me. In fact, I’ve had more than enough.”


This story first appeared on Salt&Light.

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