Meaning of Life, Relationships

Gangster marries his prison counsellor. How did this happen?

By Janice Tai , 25 June 2022

Anthony Chua, now 47, often felt unwanted as a child.

His parents frequently argued, and in 1978, his mum left the family.

Shortly after, his dad dropped him and his two older siblings off at a children’s home. He returned only two years later to pick them up after securing a rental flat.

Anthony Chua Pastor 1

Anthony spent a few years of his childhood at Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home.

Anthony’s siblings soon left to live with their mom. Anthony himself chose to stay with his dad.

But when his father remarried, the family fights started all over again.

Anthony Chua Pastor 2

Anthony (top) with his brother, sister and father in their rented flat.

Joining a gang

As he grew up, Anthony’s life took a bad turn when he started hanging out with gang members.

He joined the infamous “18 gang” when he was only in Secondary 1. That started his spree of gang-related activities that included rioting, extortion, gambling, womanising and doing drugs.

18 Gang

Anthony with a fellow gangster near the gang’s Hougang headquarters, located at a snooker centre.

Anthony joined the infamous “18 gang” when he was only in Secondary 1.

In 1993, Anthony had his first brush with the law.

He was at the gang’s headquarters when it was raided by police. They found evidence of illegal secret society activities and drugs.

Because of this, Anthony was sentenced to 20 months in the Detention Barracks (DB) for the possession and consumption of cannabis.

Anthony Chua Pastor 3

Anthony (first row, second from left) was sentenced to 20 months in Detention Barracks during his NS years.

Jail and caning

“They thought DB could change me – but it did not,” said Anthony.

While in DB, Anthony met other criminally-minded people who further influenced him.

By the time he was released, he was excited to restart his life as a full-fledged gangster. The goal: to make lots of money selling illegal Ecstasy.

He was sentenced to the maximum security prison in Changi for six years and four months, plus five strokes of the cane.

But in 1997, Anthony was once more busted by police officers – this time at a nightclub. They also clamped down on his loanshark syndicate.

“I was young and foolish,” confessed Anthony. “I thought I could beat the law.”

He was sentenced to the maximum security prison in Changi for six years and four months, plus five strokes of the cane.

Losing his father

Just as Anthony was settling into life behind bars, he was dealt a heavy blow. He received news that his father had died of a stroke and subsequent fall.

“Did my crimes break my dad’s heart? Am I to blame for his death?”

“That news was far more painful than being caned in jail,” admitted Anthony.

Filled with guilt, he wondered: “Did my crimes break my dad’s heart? Am I to blame for his death?”

Yet, this guilt did little to dissuade him from wanting to “upgrade” his gangster status.

He sought to achieve this by getting educated, gaining the smarts he needed to start and run a large-scale gangster organisation.

Thus, Anthony enrolled in classes, studied hard, and passed all his ‘N’ level subjects while in prison.

A new environment

With only 10 months left to his sentence, Anthony was transferred to Admiralty West Prison and then to Kaki Bukit Prison School.

To his surprise, he found out he had been added to a pioneering rehab program that offered valuable life skills training.

“The men in my dorm were mostly Christians. They were all so sissy and gentle.”

Yet, despite the great opportunity to learn, Anthony hated his new prison environment.

“The men in my dorm were mostly Christians,” recalled Anthony. “They were all so sissy and gentle.”

Feeling out of place, Anthony would pick fights with other prisoners, lashing out at them for no real reason.

Meeting Madam

Around this time, Anthony became aware that his quick temper wasn’t helping him.

Wanting to overcome this, he signed up for an anger management course while in prison school.

Madam Serina Ching, the anger management counsellor, gave prisoners a weekly writing exercise.

She asked them to convey their honest thoughts and feelings in a letter which she would then read and respond to.

Anthony Chua Prison

A letter exchange between Madam Serina and Anthony, as part of his weekly writing exercise to cope with anger.

This simple exercise proved to be a major breakthrough for Anthony.

Through expressing himself, he realised that a lot of his aggression was due to his desire to uphold his “Dai Gong” (gang leader) status.

But deep inside, Anthony knew that this angry image was a facade to protect him from looking “weak” to others.

Life-changing decision

A tradition in prison is the breaking of one’s “100 days egg”.

No actual egg is broken but it is a milestone where prisoners start counting down from 100 days till they are finally released.

For Anthony, his 100 days egg was fraught with raw emotion as he reflected on his troubled life as a gangster.

“Could there be more to life than this?” he wondered as he tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep that night.

That’s when an idea started to rise in his mind.

He thought: “Every day I see these Christians read their small books. What are they even reading?”

Slipping out of bed, Anthony crept across the prison dorm to take someone’s copy of a devotional. He started to read.

Anthony was riveted. He read the devotional cover-to-cover that very night.

“I was planning to level up my criminal activity. But when I read the verses, I saw its truth and found it meaningful.”

In particular, the verses of Ecclesiastes (taken from the Bible) spoke straight to his heart.

“Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Anthony recalled: “There I was, planning to get out of prison to level up my criminal activity. But when I read the verses, I saw its truth and found it meaningful.”

Right then, another prisoner woke up to go to the toilet. He was shocked to find the scary gang leader quietly reading the Christian devotional.

The next day, the prisoner gathered up his courage. He invited Anthony to go to the chapel with him that week.

To his surprise, Anthony readily agreed.

Anthony Chua Journal

Unexpectedly, Anthony began ending his personal letter entries with inspirations from the devotionals he read.

Crying for the first time

Yet, despite his growing spiritual curiosity, Anthony still tried to uphold his “Dai Gong” image among other inmates.

In the same week, another prisoner accidentally elbowed Anthony in the heat of a basketball game.

He fumed, asking others for the identity of the inmate so he could hunt him down to fight him.

Later that week, Anthony went for his first-ever prison chapel service.

As he walked in, prisoners were singing the Hokkien song Kan Wa Eh Chiu (“Hold My Hand”).

“There was something different about the atmosphere,” Anthony reflected. “I felt peace as I heard the song.”

He sat quietly, enjoying the calm of the service.

But when the last line of the song played – “(God) tells me, ‘Come in My child'” – memories of his late father suddenly flooded his mind.

Tears began to roll down his cheeks. It was the first time he had ever cried in prison.

As Anthony rushed to hide his tears, the worship session ended. The service leader then told everyone to shake hands with the people around them.

“There was something different about the atmosphere. I felt peace.”

When the prisoner in front of him turned around, Anthony was shocked.

There, right before him, was the inmate he had wanted to pick a fight with!

Other prisoners looked on, wondering what would happen next. The air was tense. 

But to their surprise, Anthony didn’t throw a fist. Instead, he reached out his hand to the inmate, shaking it.

Anthony himself was stunned by his peaceful act. He knew something was changing in his heart – though he didn’t know why just then.

God’s waterfall

Anthony was once again unable to sleep at night. His mind raced as he wondered why he had behaved the way he did at the chapel service.

Earlier, Madam Serina had praised Anthony’s progress in recent days.

She also suggested that he try praying to God – something he had never done before in his life.

So on that restless night, Anthony turned to face the wall as he sat cross-legged on the floor.

Then he closed his eyes and started to pray for the first time.

Anthony felt a physical sensation like a waterfall falling upon him. 

That was when something supernatural began to happen.

Anthony felt a physical sensation like a waterfall falling upon him. At the very same time, he saw flashbacks of his life in his mind’s eye.

“I started remembering things, including all the bad things I’d done,” shared Anthony.

“But I also saw other memories, like when I was at the children’s home watching a Christmas play on the Good Samaritan story (in the Bible)”.

Methodist Home

Anthony (centre, front row) with his older sister holding his arm, amid other children and staff at Chen Su Lan Methodist Children’s Home.

For the next few hours, Anthony relived his past as the waterfall-like sensation continued to wash over him. He could not bring himself to get up from the floor.

Later, Anthony learned that this experience was actually the Holy Spirit filling him, cleansing him of his past mistakes as God forgave him.

This encounter with God would prove to be a major turning point for Anthony.

Meeting Serina again

On December 18, 2001, Anthony was released from prison. He was now a free man.

With the very first church Anthony tried to attend, he ended up waiting for an hour for the service to start. But no one else showed up.

Frustrated, Anthony got into a cab to go home.

As he did so, he suddenly felt God speak to his heart: “Don’t you know of another church you can go to?”

Indeed, he did. He recalled that Madam Serina, his prisoner counsellor, had once told him the name of the church she attended – Centre of New Life.

He headed straight there where he once again met Serina, this time as a fellow churchgoer.

Anthony Chua baptised

Anthony getting baptised at Centre of New Life.

Anthony became a regular at Sunday services, and also had weekly Bible studies with a pastor.

He also took a big step of faith, getting baptised at the church.

Going all in

Despite growing in his new faith, Anthony initially struggled to fully turn over a new leaf.

While still attending church, he and other gang members decided to start a loanshark business with money he had inherited from his father.

“Back then, I felt it was easier to just go back to what I was familiar with to make money,” Anthony admitted.

Putting a final nail in the coffin of his criminal lifestyle, Anthony decided to entirely cut off ties with his gangster ‘friends’.

However, this time, the inner conflict of his double life was too much to bear.

Putting a final nail in the coffin of his criminal lifestyle, Anthony decided to entirely cut off ties with his gangster ‘friends’. He also put an end to all illegal activities, once and for all.

Anthony went on to start his own legal businesses that involved selling lady’s privilege cards, promoting ad spaces and running exhibitions.

Between 2003 to 2005, he also received a diploma and bachelor’s degree from a popular Bible college.

In addition, Anthony pioneered a community church, as well as served in full-time ministry work.

Anthony Bible studies

Anthony, seen here with his classmates, signed up for theological studies at the Assemblies of God Bible College.

Radiant Community Church

Anthony celebrating his birthday with fellow members of Radiant Community Church – the church he helped to pioneer.

Today, he is the lead pastor of Sembawang Assembly of God.

“I’m always open to others about my gangster past,” said Anthony. “It’s by God’s grace that the leaders and congregation support me in leadership. I’m so grateful.”

Lead pastor Anthony Chua

Anthony preaching at a service, serving as Sembawang AOG’s lead pastor.

Getting married

Anthony drew closer to Serina over time. He started to court her a year after joining her church.

But Serina had early reservations about him.

For starters, she wasn’t sure what the boundaries were since she was his former counsellor in prison. Past broken relationships in her family also made her cautious.

However, as time went by, Serina grew to see something special in Anthony. She respected his sincere faith in God and saw first-hand how his life was dramatically transformed.

Serina Anthony

Early romance: Anthony and Serina on a mission trip to the Philippines.

As time went by, Serina grew to see something special in Anthony.

Thus, when Anthony expressed his interest in getting together with her, she said “yes” to him.

Out of professional accountability and other reasons, Serina chose to leave her job as a prison counsellor.

The couple went on to date for two years and got married in 2004.

Today, they have a fourteen-year-old son, Matthias, whose Chinese name means “to proclaim the grace of God”.

Getting Married

Anthony and Serina, right after tying the knot.

Gift of God

In 2008, baby Matthias Chua Yang En said “hello” to the world!

Family Married

The Chua family in more recent times.

Looking back, Anthony is grateful for his life-changing encounter with God in prison.

It has shaped who he is today, changing him from a hardened “Dai Gong” into a man who joyously shares the Gospel with others.

“That’s the story of my life,” Anthony concluded. “God’s constant grace draws me to Him, no matter what season of my life it is.”

Click here to join our Telegram family for more stories like Anthony’s.

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