Family, Meaning of Life, Relationships, School, Work & Money

“My JC classmate has dedicated his life to helping the poor – I was one of them”: Kampong boy who now pays it forward

By Gemma Koh , 3 October 2023

His family was so poor, they didn’t have enough money to add a concrete floor to their attap house.

As a child, he promised his mum he would make it to university so that they could “have a better life”. 

Chow Heng Kwang

Heng Kwang (left) with two brothers and their parents at their kampong home. Photos courtesy of Chow Heng Kwang, Teo Tee Loon and Lakeside Family Services.

But he didn’t do well in his ‘A’ Levels.

When he repeated the exams – not once, not twice, but four times – a kind JC (junior college) classmate tutored him through it all. 

Today, Chow Heng Kwang (also known as Charles), 55, is an entrepreneur with successful automotive businesses in Singapore and Vietnam.

His classmate, Teo Tee Loon went on to become the first social worker at Lakeside Family Services in 1992. He is now its executive director.

Lakeside Family Services

Tee Loon (right, in white) and the early Lakeside team in the 1990s.

Tee Loon didn’t tell friends about how he had helped Heng Kwang achieve his dream of going to university. Neither did Heng Kwang – until a JC class reunion 30 years later.

“The walk is also symbolic of our journey of life. During difficult times, we need to help one another,” said Tee Loon.

The story emerged.

A few classmates – including Heng Kwang – had accompanied Tee Loon and some Lakeside staff and supporters on an epic 40km overnight walk between Jurong to Changi in 2020.

It was the first of an annual event that raises funds for Lakeside’s work with prisoners and their families.

The cross-island treks are symbolic of Lakeside’s commitment to walk the long journey with ex-prisoners towards rehabilitation and reintegration – helping them start a new life, reconciling them with their families, finding a job and a home.

(From left to right) Tee Loon, Heng Kwang, and their former JC mate, Daniel Koh, during the overnight walk from Lakeside’s office in Jurong to Changi Prison in 2020. The walks represent Lakeside’s commitments to help the incarcerated, as well as broken families, children and youth, seniors, and women with unsupported pregnancies.

“The walk is also symbolic of our journey of life,” Tee Loon had said. “During difficult times, we need to help one another. Walking together makes the journey safer and easier to bear.”

Heng Kwang never forgot how Tee Loon had helped to change his lot in life.

He told Stories of Hope: “Tee Loon has dedicated his life to helping the poor and underprivileged – and I was one of them.” 

Lakeside Family Services

Singapore’s President Tharman Shanmugaratnam (then Deputy Prime Minister) presented Heng Kwang with the Valued Partner Award at Lakeside Family Services’ 25th anniversary gala dinner in 2018. The award was in recognition of his generous contributions to the social service agency.

“He has also inspired me by his example, to give back to society regardless of race or religion.” 

And so, he was determined to support Tee Loon, just as Tee Loon had supported him.

Heng Kwang shares his story not to draw attention to himself, but to show “how a friend’s kindness can give someone a leg up in life – and come 360 degrees”.

A son’s promise

“From a young age, I was conscious that my family was very poor,” Heng Kwang told Stories of Hope

“My dad was an odd job labourer. If it rained, he couldn’t work, and didn’t get paid.

Chow Heng Kwang

Heng Kwang (front row, centre), age 5, outside the home he shared with his four siblings and his cousins.

“My mum worked in an electrical factory and also was a washerwoman for three wealthy families. And if we still didn’t have enough money, she borrowed money from the neighbourhood hardware shop.

“I promised my mum: I will go to university so that we can have a better life.”

“Other people looked down on us. We were always short of food and space. Our shoes, clothes and books were hand-me downs,” he shared.

Before Chinese New Year, the children helped their mother to make love letters, kueh bahulu and kok chai (mini peanut puffs) to sell at the factory where she worked. With the extra money, she took the family to Chinatown to buy new clothes, and paid for books for the new school year.

Chow Heng Kwang

“On top of working in a factory and doing laundry for three families, Mum walked far to do the marketing. After work, she cooked for us,” said Heng Kwang, recalling how hard his mother toiled for the family.

“When I was five, a childless auntie told my mum to give me up for adoption.

“But when she came to take me, my mum held me very tight and refused to let me go.”

Later, when Heng Kwang graduated from kindergarten, he promised his mum: “I will wear a mortarboard and gown for you again. I will go to university so that we can have a better life.”

Smiley’s secret

True to his word, Heng Kwang studied hard. He was thrilled to get into Anglo Chinese Junior College (ACJC).

Heng Kwang’s classmates affectionately nicknamed the pleasant boy “Smiley”. But few realised the pain he hid behind the smile. 


Heng Kwang (front row, right) made it to the best arts class in ACJC, where he met Tee Loon (front row, third from right).

“Coming from a poor family, a kampong and a neighbourhood school, I had problems adapting. 

“Most of the other students came from ‘good’ schools. They were outspoken and confident. Some were driven to school in luxury cars. It was easier for them to fit into the new environment because of their commonality. 

“I felt left out even though I was not ostracised. I became more withdrawn, and avoided extra-curricular activities.”

But Heng Kwang made a few close friends. Among them, Tee Loon, who came from Anglo-Chinese School (ACS).

Lakeside cross-island walk

The friends practising for Lakeside’s second cross-island walk in 2021.

“Tee Loon befriended those of us who couldn’t fit in well and was always reaching out to us, mixing around with us.

“Even though he came from a different background, he never differentiated himself from us. He tried his best to make sure we didn’t feel out of place.”

“Tee Loon befriended those of us who couldn’t fit in well. He tried to make sure we didn’t feel out of place.”

Heng Kwang recalled an incident during a donation drive that didn’t help his awkwardness in school. In front of the class, the students’ names were read out, along with the donations they had collected. 

“Do you know how embarrassing that was? We felt so low class,” said Heng Kwang.

Not even Tee Loon knew that Heng Kwang often didn’t have enough pocket money for recess.

“Why are you helping me?”

But Heng Kwang shared with Tee Loon his childhood promise to his mother.

“One week before the ‘A’ Level exams, my cousin committed suicide on his birthday. I was heartbroken.”

“I struggled with literature and poetry appreciation. He and a few friends tried to help me with it.”

But one week before the ‘A’ Level exams, tragedy struck.

“My cousin committed suicide on his birthday,” recalled Heng Kwang.

“I was heartbroken because he was like a brother to me. I didn’t know how to control this emotional grief.”

Heng Kwang (front row, left) with his cousins.

Heng Kwang didn’t do well enough to get into university.

There were other routes he could have taken to give him a good future. But he was determined to re-do his ‘A’ Levels as a private candidate to fulfil his childhood promise to his mum.

He didn’t qualify for university on his second, third or fourth attempts at the national exams. 

“He showed me that giving was not about class or family background.” 

Throughout these attempts, Tee Loon tutored his friend in literature once a week, or once every two weeks.

Heng Kwang attempted his ‘A’ Levels twice while they were serving National Service. He retook them another two times while working at an electrical store in Holland Village (where he became their top salesman), and while Tee Loon studied social sciences in NUS (National University of Singapore). 

Every year, the two books in the ‘A’ Level syllabus changed. So each year, Tee Loon had to read the new texts to see how he could help his friend unpack them and spot exam questions.

In short, Tee Loon studied ‘A’ Level literature five times along with his friend. 

“When I asked Tee Loon why he was helping me, he said it was because of his Christian faith.”

“Tee Loon was such a dedicated and compassionate teacher. He coached me well, and I fell in love with the novels and Victorian writers we had to study,” said Heng Kwang.

“When I asked why he was helping me, he said it was because of his Christian faith – it was what God wanted him to do.

“He never looked down on me. He showed me that giving was not about class or family background. 

“I was very encouraged by his upbringing and by his Christian faith even though I am not a Christian,” said Heng Kwang.

“He showed me how a human being can be kind.”

Fulfilling his promise

After his fifth attempt at the ‘A’ Levels, Heng Kwang scored a place at NUS. His results included an A for history and a B for literature.

“Mum and Dad were so happy. You can’t imagine my joy. I couldn’t sleep for a few days.

“You can’t imagine my joy when I got into NUS. I couldn’t sleep for a few days.”

“I did my family proud and I have Tee Loon to thank.”

Heng Kwang studied political science at NUS, where he was able to coach others. He threw himself into student activities that he had missed out on in junior college.

To supplement the $300 a month his mum was able to contribute towards his school fees and expenses, he took on jobs in his spare time and during the term break. They included auctioning Middle Eastern carpets and working in an electronics factory. 

Graduation day: Heng Kwang fulfilling his childhood promise to his mother to wear a mortarboard and gown. “No one looked down on my family after that,” he felt.

Tapping on his gift for selling, he started a business with friends after graduation. 

Later, he identified a business opportunity in Vietnam, predicting a rise in the demand for passenger cars and commercial vehicles.

His mum, who had since retired, was reluctant to let him go, and cried. But he was determined to have the security of providing a better life for her and his extended family by being his own boss – instead of working for others.

Walking with the friend who once walked with him: When Tee Loon’s wife Serene was diagnosed with late stage cancer in 2021, Heng Kwang did several things to care for them. They included buying Serene the best cod he could find, and delivering homemade meals to the family three times a week. Serene passed on in June 2022.

Heng Kwang’s desire to provide extends beyond family, business partners and staff. 

“I want to do well in business so that I can redistribute wealth. I tell my partners we need to give back to society,” said Heng Kwang.

“I want to do well in business so that I can redistribute wealth.”

In Vietnam, his company gives back by building homes, schools and libraries for those who fall between the gaps, and building bridges to enable villagers to travel between mountains. They also donate to families affected by Agent Orange

“There is this phrase in Chinese: 舍得 (pronounced “she de”). You mustthen you can 得. Tee Loon showed me very clearly that he was willing to give without expecting anything in return,” said Heng Kwang.

Walking with Lakeside

When Tee Loon put out a call for friends to accompany him on Lakeside’s inaugural cross-island walk in October 2020, a few JC classmates responded.

They included Heng Kwang who told him: “I want to do this with you”. 

Heng Kwang, who was suffering from Bell’s Palsy, had not trained for the walk as his mum passed away from pneumonia in June, and his dad was dying from stomach cancer. 

(Editor’s note: Consult a doctor before embarking on a new or strenuous activity, especially if you suffer from a medical condition).

With MP for Jurong GRC, Shawn Huang, who has been Lakeside’s guest-of-honour at the cross-island walk since its inauguration in 2020.

Heng Kwang “walked like a duck” from the blisters all over his feet – but he completed the 40km trek. 

Heng Kwang couldn’t walk for three days after that, revealed Tee Loon.

“The walk, beginning in the evening from Jurong and ending at dawn at Changi Prison is symbolic of walking from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from brokenness to restoration,” said Tee Loon, pictured with Lakeside staff and supporters at the end point of their walk this year.

The social service agency’s services for the incarcerated and their families has a special relevance to Heng Kwang as two of his relatives have been in prison.

“When a relative was in Changi Prison, I saw how long it took for the family to travel there and wait to see him,” said Heng Kwang, highlighting how Lakeside’s tele-visit service (pictured) gives families a cosy and safe place in the west to connect with their loved ones behind bars in the east. Posed photo.

He is also one of Lakeside’s major donors.

“It is because of the help that Tee Loon gave me and my family that I am able to do what I am doing.

“Tee Loon never gave up on me.”

When Stories of Hope gently pointed out that Tee Loon would take no credit for the transformation in Heng Kwang’s circumstances, but would give all credit to God, Heng Kwang said: “‘Yes! The credit goes to Tee Loon and Tee Loon’s God!’

“Till my dying day, I will never forget this.”

“Why I helped”

Tee Loon shared that he befriended Heng Kwang and others after “a faith crisis” in his first year of junior college.

He became a Christian four years earlier while in Secondary 1.

“By the time I got to JC, I had been a Christian for four years but was not attending church because of parental objection,” he said (Tee Loon’s mum became a Christian later on.)

Tee Loon (fourth from left, with JC classmates) was in Secondary 1 when a Sec 4 boy he didn’t know told him about Jesus. During that 20-minute recess break at ACS, Tee Loon gave his life to Jesus. Heng Kwang is second from right.

“I had a faith crisis. I thought, ‘If Christianity is true, I should give it my all. But if it isn’t true, then I shouldn’t waste time and might as well spend my life doing other things.’

“If Christianity isn’t true, I shouldn’t waste time and might as well spend my life doing other things.”

“I spent the next few months refusing to pray or read the Bible. Instead, I searched for answers from history, archeology and what others who had written, both for and against Christianity.

“I interviewed people around me whom I thought were good Christians. But they couldn’t give me satisfactory answers.

“I didn’t get visions or any miracles. But over the next few months, God spoke to me.

“I reached three conclusions.

“First, there was overwhelming evidence that the Bible is the most historically reliable book in the world.

Teo Tee Loon, Chow Heng Kwang

During his faith crisis, Tee Loon (right, in glasses) searched for answers from history, archeology and what others who had written, both for and against Christianity. Heng Kwang is seated diagonally behind him.

“Second, it became clear to me that the resurrection of Christ was a historical fact that could not be refuted by his fiercest opponents, whether in ancient times or the present. This pointed to the truth that Christ was indeed whom He claimed to be, the Son of God who came to die for the sins of the world.

“Third (and this is completely my personal experience), I sensed the reality of God deep in my soul and an anguish when I was not near to Him. I felt this during the few months that I intentionally stopped praying and reading the Bible. It was as if life itself had been cut off from me.

“So I came back to God and told Him, ‘Okay God, I know you’re real.’

“With a new resolve, I committed myself to serve Him wholeheartedly with my whole life.

“That included telling others about the precious message of Jesus Christ and the salvation He came to bring to all who believe.”

The friends at Changi Chapel and Museum in 2020 – the end point of the cross-island walk.

When asked where his kindness to Heng Kwang stemmed from, Tee Loon said: “It came from wanting to share the love of God with someone else through my actions and lifestyle.

“It was true that I had a passion to see my friends know Christ, and I was always praying for them and helping them in any way I could – whether through school work or anything else.

“But I would never force them to listen to me talk about God if they were unwilling to listen.

“They knew that I genuinely cared for their well-being, and that included their academic, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

And so the friends’ journey with each other continues.

Will you help Lakeside transform lives?

Lakeside Family Services is a social services agency which has served the community since 1993, regardless of race, language, or religion. They develop resilience in disadvantaged children, mould troubled youths into contributing individuals, empower active seniors to help lonely seniors, assist ex-offenders in reintegrating into society, and help women with unsupported pregnancies.

Lakeside hopes to raise $3,000,000 (from May till end December 2023) in their 30th year of changing lives. 

Click here if you are moved to find out more or to donate. 

Donations are eligible for 250% tax deduction and qualify for one for one matching grants from the government. 


Answering God’s call to serve Jurong: Teo Tee Loon and Lakeside Family Services

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