Family, Relationships, School

What this ex-gangster found in his late father’s secret cabinet moved him to tears

By Janice Tai  , 27 June 2023

TRIGGER WARNING: The following mentions suicide attempts that some may find disturbing.

When Samuel Phun was in Primary 4, the class monitress threatened to tell their teacher that he had not done his homework.

Angry that she was going to “pao toh” (betray) him, he flung a stone at her.

But the stone hit the discipline master instead.

For that, Samuel got three strokes of the cane on his buttocks – in front of the whole school. 

Top student, caned on the bottom

Samuel’s sister reported the incident to their mother, who scolded him soundly.

“The whole night, I kept thinking about how the whole school knows about me now, and how I belong to the category of students who always gets into trouble,” recalled Samuel, now 57 and a pastor. 

A top student in his class, Samuel felt lousy about himself and lost interest in studying.

Samuel Phun

Samuel (top row, third from the right) with his Primary 6 classmates after he was retained for a year.

He started hanging out with the more playful students in school.

By the time he was 15, public canings at school became the norm for him. 

Samuel joined gangs and also practised martial arts and lion dance almost every day at a place of worship.

Missing $5 note

Samuel grew up in a large family, but only saw his father about two weeks a year;  his father worked as a cook on a ship that sailed to places like Japan and the United States.

“He was like a stranger to me,” said Samuel.

“By the time he came home for good, I was quite a rebellious teenager.”

“I was influenced by what my friends said – ‘long zhong lau peh so siang (all fathers are the same)’.”

One day, his father noticed that $5 was missing from his wallet.

He asked Samuel: “Did you take $5 from my wallet?”

The question riled the young teenager so much that he threw a chair at his father and hurled vulgarities at him.

“He wasn’t trying to accuse me, but I got angry.

“In my mind, I believed that my dad didn’t like me.

“I was influenced by what my friends said – ‘long zhong lau peh so siang (all fathers are the same)’.”

McDonald’s kid

Lost, Samuel became a “McDonald’s kid”, hanging out with his friends day and night. They slept at the Liat Towers joint overnight, and washed up in its toilets before heading to school the next day.

Samuel (front row, bending over the table) with his secondary school friends.

Many of his friends experimented sexually.

“Without a father figure in my life, I was attracted to a man who showered me with affection and whom I thought understood me well,” said Samuel.

“I felt dirty but I could not get out of it.

“I felt so hopeless about my future” said Samuel who dabbled in part-time jobs as a welder, plumber, chef and baker. He also worked in a nightclub, whereas his siblings had respectable, professional careers.

Two suicide attempts 

Depressed, Samuel decided to end his life.

Twice, he went up to the 12th storey of his Toa Payoh block. He sat on the ledge, wanting to jump.

He was spotted by an old woman on his first attempt. A friend’s mother happened to see him during his second attempt. Their shouts shook him out of his daze. 

Twice, he went up to the 12th storey of his Toa Payoh block, wanting to jump.

Samuel spiralled further when his close friend killed someone in a gang fight and was jailed.

One night, as Samuel was praying to an idol in his living room, his brother came to chat with him.

His brother told him how much Jesus loves him.

Samuel retorted: “How can your God be alive? All I see in church is a wooden cross.”


Samuel (left) with his brother who told him about Jesus’ love.

But he asked his brother: “Can Jesus help me start my life all over again?” 

His brother suggested: “Why don’t you give it a try?” 

Out of desperation, Samuel did.

Changed or crazy? 

As his brother prayed for him, Samuel started to tremble.  

“My head and shoulder felt numb. I can’t explain the feeling. But for the first time, I felt that someone truly loved me,” said Samuel, who believes that God’s spirit touched him.

“I also felt that I became clean – like I had been forgiven for everything I had done wrong.

“I suddenly felt confidence and hope in the future.”

Samuel bought breakfast for his parents. Doubting that he had changed, his mother thought he had gone “siao” (crazy).

The next morning, Samuel bought breakfast for his parents. Doubting that he had changed, his mother thought he had gone “siao” (crazy).

Samuel also lost the urge to smoke, and also threw away his heavy metal music and pornographic videos.

He started going to church and tried reading the Bible. Understanding the English text was difficult as he was more fluent in Hokkien and Teochew.

“I flipped the Bible open near the middle and landed at the book of Proverbs.

“It seemed easier, so I started to read from there,” said Samuel, who went on to read another short book – Malachi.

A line about God turning “the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6) moved him.

“Father, forgive me”

Shortly after, Samuel went to his father and asked in Mandarin: “Father, will you forgive me? I am so bad.”

His father, who was not a Christian, encouraged him to take it easy on himself.

Three years later when Samuel was 21, he joined St Peter’s Church as a pastoral staff member.

St Peter’s Church

Samuel at St Peter’s Church.

Subsequently, Samuel was invited to preach one Sunday at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

After praying , Samuel was prompted to speak on Malachi 4:6.

“As he came forward, I thought, ‘Hey, how come that guy looks like my father?.”

Later, Samuel invited people who wanted to give their life to Jesus to come to the front. A man in the last row was the first to stand up. 

“As he came forward, I thought, ‘Hey, how come that guy looks like my father?

“‘But it can’t be  – my father is not a Christian!’” 

Indeed, it was his dad.

“I haven’t been a good father”

Samuel was shocked.

“You once threw a chair at your father … You are not fit to be a Christian.”

Self-accusations came furiously to his mind: “You once threw a chair at him. You are not fit to preach. You are not fit to be a Christian.”

Samuel felt like running out of the church.

“When my father reached the front, he touched my elbow and said in Mandarin, ‘Son, can you please forgive me? I haven’t been a good father.'”

Samuel Phun

Samuel (right) with his brother-in-law (middle) and father.

Later, his father shared how he ended up coming to the very church where Samuel was preaching. 

The day before, Samuel’s dad happened to pass the church and saw the service timetable at its gate.

Samuel’s father told him: “When I was reading the signboard, a thought – ‘Why don’t you try going to church?’ – came into my mind.

“So I went.” 

The memory still moves Samuel. 

“That was the beginning of how God showed Himself to my dad, and our relationship began to heal,” Samuel said.

First father-son outing

After their encounter at church, Samuel told his father: “In my entire life, I have not gone out with you.

“Now that I am an adult, I want to take you on an outing.”

“I asked him to throw the feathers away but he wanted them to remember the day his son had taken him out.”

His father smiled and suggested going to Jurong Bird Park, which they did.

When they passed a photo booth, his father suggested taking a photo together with the macaws.

His father kept the photo.

Samuel Phun Jurong Bird Park

Memory of their first father-son outing: The photo that Samuel’s dad suggested that they take together.

He also picked up two feathers – one blue and one brown.

“I asked him to throw them away but he said he wanted to keep them to remember the day his son had taken him out,” said Samuel.

“Robbed” of his own father

As father and son walked and chatted, God’s Spirit prompted Samuel to ask: “What was Grandfather like?”

Samuel had not met his grandfather.

Samuel’s father stopped walking, thought for a while, then said in Mandarin: “I don’t know.”

Shocked, Samuel asked: “How come you don’t know your own father?”

His father replied quietly: “When I was around four years old, my father passed away.” 

“You always thought that your father didn’t like you … Do you know why your father didn’t know how to father you?”

Then the spirit of God whispered to Samuel: “You always thought that your father didn’t like you. That he was not there for you. That he loves your siblings more than you.

“Do you know why your father didn’t know how to father you? It is because he was robbed of his own father.”

For years, Samuel had believed in the lie that his father didn’t love him.

But that day, he knew the truth.

Tearing, he apologised to his father: “I am sorry.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” his father assured him.

The secret box

After his father died in 2003, Samuel’s mother asked him to pack away the contents of his father’s cabinet.

The first things he noticed when he opened the cabinet were two feathers – the ones his dad had picked up during their outing.

“The feathers had meant so much to him that he had kept them in his cabinet.

“It touched me,” said Samuel, who sat on the bed and thanked God for healing his relationship with his father.

Jurong Bird Park feather

The brown feather that Samuel’s father kept to remember their first outing. The blue feather has since disintegrated.

Next, Samuel saw a photo album. He opened it. The very first photo was the one he and his dad had taken at Jurong Bird Park.

Samuel broke down and wept.

“The lie I had believed in – that my father did not love me – was completely broken then,” he said. 

“As a kid, my father used to tell me that I was not to open or touch the box.”

There was also a wooden box in the cabinet.

“As a kid, my father used to tell me that whatever I did, I was not to open or touch the box,” he said.

“So I was very curious about what secrets lay inside.”

secret box

The mysterious wooden box that Samuel’s father had warned him not to touch.

Opening the wooden box, he saw a golden whistle (given by the captain of a ship his father worked on), and the first type of MRT card in Singapore.

Samuel also saw two items he had gifted his father: His own good service award as a sergeant and a tie pin.

secret box

The wooden box with three of the four items that Samuel found within – the good service medal, the MRT card and the golden whistle.

“I had given them to him because he liked them very much,” said Samuel, who started a church four years before his father passed on.

That day, Samuel’s heavenly Father had opened his eyes to remind him how much his earthly father had loved him. 

“Jesus opened up my eyes to see and set me free from all the lies I had believed in,” said Samuel.

“Though I had made so many mistakes in my life, God still helped me.

“Both my father and I had a missing piece in our hearts and God allowed us to see that and heal our relationship in His time.”

Soft spot for broken families

Coming out of the early rocky years with his own father has given Samuel a soft spot for children from broken families.

Pastor Samuel Phun

Samuel is now senior pastor at River Community Church, which he started in 1999. He has two sons; one is the lay pastor at its the youth service.

He and his wife have fostered a number of them over the years, and his church makes it a priority to reach out to children in the community. 

Samuel Phun

Samuel and his wife – pictured with their sons and their daughter-in-law in Malacca – have fostered a number of children from broken families.

Samuel encourages fathers who need to reconcile with their children: “Spend time with your children so that they have a role model to follow.

“Love them and influence them.”

“Spend time with your children … Love them and influence them.”

If you are Christian, pray for them, he said.

“Strengthen your relationship with God so that your children can see how you live.”

For children struggling to love their fathers, Samuel hopes that they are able to look past the faults of their parents and, instead, see to their needs. 

“There is no perfect parent and our fathers have needs as well.

“Since God has shown us His love, it is up to us to show God’s love to our fathers.”

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

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