Family, Meaning of Life, Relationships

His dad once told him to jump from their HDB flat. What healed their relationship?

By Janice Tai , 6 May 2022

One night in November 2002, Robin Tay heard music playing softly through the speakers in his prison cell.

Volunteer carollers were singing Yi Jian Li Wu (A Gift).

As the beautiful melody and words echoed off the walls of his cell, Robin found himself having flashbacks to key milestones in his life.

He remembered his parents’ divorce when he was only seven years old. His mother left home and he saw his father come home drunk on most nights.

He recalled seeking solace by going down the slippery path of drinking, stealing, smoking and gambling at age 10. And joining a gang when he was 14 years old. 

He suddenly remembered an odd request from a drug enforcement officer just before he was sent to jail.

By the time he was 18, he had been in and out of detention barracks and prison six times. Robin then spent another 12 years behind bars, receiving eight strokes of the cane.

He was charged with drug trafficking, extortion, insubordination, and criminal breach of trust.

His family, devastated by his repeated arrests, lost hope in him.

Once, Robin’s father asked his son to jump from their 12-storey flat. Better for him to be dead than to cause so much hurt and trouble, his father thought.

Robin, who is now 46, understood his father’s anguish. He too, doubted if he would ever be able to change for the better.

A smoke and a prayer

Alone in his cell, Robin, then 30, wept bitterly as he thought about all the mistakes he had made. He had made them from trying to run away from his pain.

That’s when he suddenly remembered an odd request from a drug enforcement officer just before he was sent to jail.

The drug enforcement officer had accompanied him to the carpark for a smoke. 

As Robin smoked, they talked. 

“I instinctively clasped my fingers together. It was easy to, as I was handcuffed.”

The officer told Robin that he found him to be a responsible man. But it would be almost impossible for him to change unless he finds an “answer” in life. 

That was when the officer asked Robin a surprising question.

He asked if he could pray for Robin.

“I found him a bit weird but instinctively clasped my fingers together. It was easy to, as I was handcuffed,” said Robin.

The officer said, “Lord, bless him and change him. Let him encounter You in prison.”

This officer who prayed for him was the same officer who was charging him with drug trafficking.

Smacking his mouth

As Yi Jian Li Wu filled his prison cell, Robin remembered that prayer.

That’s when something clicked in his heart.

He had tried to change many times before. Yet, by his own strength, he always failed.

He began smacking his mouth with his hand each time he used vulgarities.

But this time, maybe God could help him finally change for good.

The very next day, Robin asked a prison officer to sign him up for a Christian counselling programme.

This choice marked a real turning point in Robin’s life.

Multiple vulgarities used to pepper his sentences. But he began smacking his mouth with his hand each time he said them. His fellow inmates thought he had gone crazy.

When he officially renounced his gang in prison, they ridiculed him and threatened him.

Other prisoners came to regard Robin as a well-mannered man who was serious about his newfound faith. His behaviour and reputation was very different from before.

The prison officers also noticed the change. They soon appointed him as the prisoner-in-charge of the Christian programme.

Washing away the hurt 

However, Robin still did not trust the prison wardens completely. This was a common feeling among inmates.

“There was always a distance between us,” said Robin. “We wore different uniforms.”

It did not help that before the prisoners returned to their cells each day, they would be stripped naked and made to squat on a mirror to check that they had not brought back any foreign objects from the workshop where they worked.

The senior officer then started to wash the prisoner’s feet in a red bucket.

Then on a Sunday in October 2006, as inmates were getting ready for chapel service, Robin saw several high-ranking prison officers walk in with red buckets.

They were not in their usual uniforms but in civilian clothes. It was very strange.

One of the officers was Jason Wong, who was the Deputy Director and second in command of the Singapore Prison Service at the time.  

Jason asked Robin to represent the other inmates and invited him to sit on a chair.

To Robin’s surprise, Jason knelt down in front of him. The senior officer then started to wash the prisoner’s feet in a bucket.

“I finally experienced what unconditional love felt like,” said Robin as Jason washed his feet. Posed photo by the Thirst Collective.

He asked Robin to forgive the prison officers for the times they made inmates feel like they were worth less than other people.

“My heart melted even before he started washing my feet.”

“My heart melted even before he started washing,” recalled Robin.

“I finally experienced what unconditional love felt like,” he said. 

On the other hand, he felt humbled. “I felt undeserving of such love. But it is different from the shame that accompanies the strip search which only brings humiliation, not humility.

“Dignity came back to me at that moment. I felt a sense of release and breakthrough.”

Out of prison – for good

Robin was released from prison in 2007 – and has never gone back.

He checked himself into The New Charis Mission‘s rehab programme and finally kicked his long-term drug addiction.

Robin worked hard to get an education. In 2009, he earned a diploma in counselling psychology. He is also a certified behavioural consultant and a graduate of the City Harvest School of Theology.

In 2011, he was nominated for the Singapore Youth Award. Since then, he has travelled all over the world to share his faith journey with others.

Robin (circled) went from being an inmate to a counsellor who gives motivational talks to prisoners.

Robin with his peers from The New Charis Mission.

Today, he is a counsellor and trainer who helps inmates and at-risk youth in prisons and schools. He also heads the residential rehab department at The New Charis Mission.

Robin stays in touch with some of his former prison wardens. He now calls them friends.

Dad is coming to stay

After Robin was released from prison for the last time, his relationship with his father, who had not wished to have anything to do with his son, healed dramatically.

From a relationship marked with fist fights, they were reconciled to the point that his father moved in to live with Robin and his new wife.  

Robin invited his father (seated) to live with him and his wife. Robin and Kelyn tied the knot in 2009.

“It was a miracle,” said Robin. “There was no quarrel between me and him or between him and my wife.”

Washing his dying Dad

In September of 2016, Robin learned that his father had stage four pancreatic and liver cancer. 

Robin felt prompted to take his dad to The New Charis Mission, where leaders prayed for him. There, his father accepted Jesus into his life.

Over the next three weeks, his dad’s condition declined steeply – from using a walking aid to a wheelchair, to eventually being bedridden.

Robin and Kelyn took his dad to Genting Highlands, just before his father fell ill.

Every day from 6am in the morning, Robin would care for his father for 16 hours.

His father often had diarrhoea and needed his diapers changed up to 20 times a day.

“We had a helper but I changed and washed him myself,” said Robin. “As a son, I wanted to do it for my father.” 

The sheer emotional strain was almost too much to bear.

“I changed and washed him myself. As a son, I wanted to do it for my father.”

Then Robin heard God say to him, “When you were young, your dad washed you and changed your diapers. Now that he is old, you are able to do the same for him. This way, you will have no regrets later in life.”

Robin’s father passed away five days after he was baptised.

“In my life, I’ve seen the impossible become possible. I’ve seen conditional love turn to unconditional love,” said Robin. “Division transforms into reconciliation.”

Robin believes his second chance at life truly began when he let God into his heart, and exchanged his old ways for the new.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in Salt&Light.

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

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