Family, Meaning of Life, Relationships, Work & Money

While in prison, the hardcore gangster tore up Bible pages to roll cigarettes

By Christine Leow , 2 July 2024

TRIGGER WARNING: This story contains a mention of a suicide attempt. Reader discretion advised.

When he was caned in prison, Benji Wong wouldn’t scream. 

“Our skin splits and we bleed when we are caned. The pain is so bad,” the former drug dealer, addict and gang member admitted in Mandarin.

“If the pain were a bull, it would run away so fast, it could win first prize in the Olympics.”  

“If the pain were a bull, it would run away so fast, it could win first prize in the Olympics.”

In all, Benji received 23 strokes of the cane over his 10 stints in prison.

But to show his defiance, Benji would still sit down even though he was in agony.

“Pride. Mianzi (save face),” Benji, now 56, explained.

“If you scream, you will have a hard time. The other prisoners will look down on you.”

Instead, Benji brazenly told prison officers: “Sir, caning is nothing to me.”

Benji Wong

By 17, Benji was a gangster dealing in drugs. He later became addicted to heroin.

Benji would also tear out pages from the Bible and roll them into cigarettes while in prison.

“The pages are very thin. So very good for making cigarettes.

“When the pastor asked, ‘Why is your Bible getting thinner and thinner?’, we would tell him, ‘We read the Bible and consumed the Word’.”

Wayward from the start

Benji’s own father was a gangster. He was sent to prison for being in a gang fight even before Benji was born.

His father was fierce when sober, violent when drunk. Benji was beaten every day – and once, pinned to the wall. 

“I grew up with gangsters, gamblers and addicts. I saw them fight, take drugs,” said Benji, whose mum was a homemaker.

Benji Wong

Benji quit school by Primary Two, and soon slid into a life of crime and drugs.

At the age of 13, Benji and friends stole shoes, equipment and blank cheques from a sports store. He was ratted out when his friends returned to steal some more and were caught. 

Benji was sent to a boy’s home. But instead of being reformed, Benji met others who introduced him to more deviant behaviour.

boys' home

By the time he was 17, Benji had served two stints in a boys’ home.

Six months later, when Benji was out on home leave, his friends asked him to join a neighbourhood gang.

“I thought ‘Why not?’ It was quite a powerful gang and I would have some backing. It would be so impressive.”

Addictive “little piglets”

After serving 18 months of his three-year sentence at the boys’ home, Benji stole a tee-shirt from a shopping centre “for fun, for thrills”. 

He was caught again and sent to the boys’ home once more. 

“I felt no remorse, no regret,” he said.

By the time he was released from the boys’ home, Benji was 17 and deep in gang activities and drugs. He sniffed glue, and he consumed and sold sleeping pills and marijuana.

Even getting sent to the detention barracks while serving National Service did not slow him down.

One day, he went to his supplier to get marijuana.

“He told me it was out of stock and offered me zhuzai (little piglets) instead,” said Benji.

He tried it and did not know that it was heroin.

drug addict

Benji was 21 when he was sent to prison for the first time.

When he did not get his fix, he got a runny nose, headaches and fever. He thought he was sick and went to see a doctor. But the medication was of no help.

Then he ran into a friend who told him the truth – that he was now a heroin addict.

Benji was subsequently arrested for drug consumption and trafficking, and sent to prison for the first time when he was 21.

“My heart wanted to get rid of the addiction, but my body was too weak.”

“My heart wanted to get rid of the addiction, but my body was too weak. The body aches, the yawning, the hot and cold, loss of appetite, diarrhoea – I couldn’t tolerate it,” he said.

In prison, he met other addicts and drug dealers, strengthening his network in the local drug scene.

“When I came out, I would look for them straight away,” he said.

9th prison stint

Benji went in and out of prison over the next two decades.

During his ninth prison sentence, when he was 38, a Christian prison mate secretly signed him up for Bible study classes.

Benji was so “fanpai (rebellious)”,  he warned other prisoners not to become Christians.

“Because that one is angmoh (Western) religion,” he explained.

“When the teacher asked people to pray, I would hide in the toilet. I was scared of being asked to pray,” Benji admitted.

After a few weeks, a fellow inmate confronted Benji.

“He said, ‘You take heroin, take knives to slash people and you are not scared. Ask you to pray and you are so scared, you hide.’”

Unlabelled Run

At the annual Unlabelled Run, organised by Christian halfway house The New Charis Mission to crush negative stereotypes and draw attention to the good work of former offenders.

“What he said was like a knife to my heart. But after I heard it, I forgot the words,” said Benji.

During chapel one day, the pastor spoke about Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11:1-44).

When he came to the Bible verse where Jesus told Mary “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” (John 11:40), Benji’s heart started “beating so fast”.

“The pastor asked me, ‘Do you believe in Jesus? If you want to believe, stand up.’

“I was like a man possessed. I stood up. My friend pulled my hand and said, ‘What are you doing?’

“I told him, ‘I want to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, I’m going to tear his ministry down.’”

Instead, something else happened when the pastor guided Benji into inviting Jesus into his life.

Benji (left) at a church anniversary celebration. He invited Jesus into his life during his 9th time in prison.

“I felt a peace, like cool air in me, like something was pressing on me. When I told my friend, he said, ‘You’ve gone mad!’” recalled Benji.

For the remaining years of his seven-year sentence, Benji dedicated himself to studying the Bible.

“I felt very proud to know God, know the Bible, know how to pray and sing worship songs. I felt I had changed and wouldn’t go back to taking drugs.”

A double life

When he was released in 2010, Benji refused to go to a halfway house. Because of his experience at the boys’ home, he thought it wouldn’t help him stay clean.

He did go to church, but still wanted quick money, a big car – and a big house “for my mum; I wanted to be filial to her”.

When he got out of prison the ninth time, Benji joined a church and started serving there.

“I also wanted to have a wife and support her,” he said.

As a contract cleaner, there was no way he could make those dreams come true. So he turned to old contacts, asking for a way to make a quick buck.

“They said, ‘Aren’t you a Christian? Didn’t you say you wanted to be a counsellor?’

“I told them ‘No money how to be a Christian? No money how to be a counsellor?’”

And just like that, Benji returned to trafficking drugs.

When the withdrawal symptoms came, he rushed downstairs to the rubbish dump to retrieve the drugs he had tossed out.

He felt God’s Spirit nudging him that he was not on the right path.

“I felt awful, very pek chek (frustrated), like I couldn’t breathe. I thought it was asthma,” he said.

A friend he confided in offered him alcohol – which drowned out the gentle promptings of the Spirit.

At first, Benji thought he could sell drugs without using them.

But before long, he was addicted again, even though he was still going to church and serving as a leader of a small group.

Though he was going to church, Benji continued selling and using drugs.

Increasingly, he felt that “life had no meaning, and I might as well die”.

In a drug-fuelled moment of despair, he went to the 10th floor of his HDB block and thought of throwing himself over the parapet.

As he was about to jump, he found himself calling out to his mother.

“That woke me up. It was as if my spirit came back. I told God, ‘Thank You God that I didn’t jump. I’m not dead.’”

Benji became determined to kick his drug habit. He threw away his entire stash of drugs. He prayed to God for help, for he had heard stories of people who had prayed their addiction away.

But within three hours, he had such bad withdrawal symptoms, he rushed downstairs to the rubbish dump to retrieve the drugs he had tossed out.

A second chance

Within six months, Benji was arrested again.

It was his third arrest for drug trafficking and his 10th arrest for drug offences.

“My mother came to visit me in prison and told me, ‘Your God has no power.’

The repeat offender was looking at least 15 years in prison and up to 17 strokes of the cane.

“My mother came to visit me in prison and told me, ‘Your God has no power.’

“I was so despondent, I gave up Christianity. And for a year, I refused to go for Christian counselling.”

Knowing that his situation was “very jialat” (desperate), he pleaded with his lawyer to get him a lower sentence of 10 years or less.

Said Benji: “My lawyer asked me, ‘Did smoking Ice (crystal methamphetamine) damage your brains? You’re hardcore. At best, you can try for 12 years.’”


Benji now serves in the prison ministry, sharing the Good News about Jesus with the “brothers” he once knew on the inside.

Benji lost hope, but His pastor and Christian friends did not. They wrote to him to encourage him.

When he asked a Christian friend why every one of them had mentioned the story of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), the reply was: “To encourage you not to give up. And also God wants to talk to you. He wants you to come back to Him.”

“It was not chance or luck. I could see God’s glory.”

Said Benji: “I was so moved. Tears were going to come out. But I controlled myself because I believed a man cannot cry.”

With nothing left but faith, Benji prayed for a lighter sentence. Against all odds, he was given nine-and-a-half years.

Said Benji: “That was a miracle. When I went back to my cell, I prayed, ‘This is You, God.’

“This time I had the courage to give God the glory. It was not chance or luck. It was not a coincidence. Now I feel He will always be with me.”

Halfway house, whole-way hope

When he had finished his 10th jail sentence, Benji went to halfway house The New Charis Mission.

There, he was continually immersed in God’s Word and supported by fellow Christians who were key to him giving up his old life.

The New Charis Mission

Benji and his wife (right, in red) with friends and their family from The New Charis Mission, which helped Benji kick his drug habit for good.

“When we talk about worldly things like how we spend our money, what gangs we were from, those who were more mature (in the faith) would tell me, ‘You have to change your mindset.’”

The New Charis Mission also helped him cut ties with his old friends and turn to new ones. After completing the nine-month programme, Benji signed up for more time at the halfway house. In all, he spent four years there.

“I wanted to stay longer because I saw my own change and my family’s joy. I realised I could make my family happy and not worried,” he said.

The new Benji

The new Benji surprised his family.

Six months into the programme, Benji could chat with his father without raising his voice or spewing vulgarities. He was also gentler with his mother.

But on one particular visit when Benji went to the bathroom, he overheard his father say: “He hasn’t changed.”

His father had wrongly assumed that Benji had gone to the bathroom to take drugs, as he had done in the past.

“My tears fell. I thought, ‘How come my family also do not believe me? What must I do for them to believe me?’”

“After I washed my face, I told them, ‘I hurt you for over 20 years. You don’t trust me anymore because I kept saying I wanted to change, but I never did.

“’I can’t prove myself. But God can.’”

Then he told his parents about Jesus.

The power of change

The old Benji had once threatened his father with a knife. But in time, the new Benji asked his father for forgiveness. 

“I saw his eyes become red when I apologised. I cried. He told me, ‘You have changed. I see hope.’”

A year after that, his father became a Christian. 

Benji Wong

Benji’s parents became Christians after they saw how their son had changed.

“But my mother told me, ‘I can’t because I still want to pray to our ancestors. And this new God – cannot drink, cannot gamble, cannot swear, cannot buy 4D.’”

Benji understood her hesitation as he, too, had once thought that Christianity would rob him of his freedom.

“I saw my father’s eyes become red when I apologised. I cried. He told me, ‘You have changed. I see hope.’”

“I thought that I could have freedom without God. But, in reality, I didn’t. I had no choice not to smoke. I had no choice not to take drugs.

“Now I have the freedom to choose. I can choose not to smoke. If I don’t want to take drugs, I can.”

He prayed for her for three years. 

Then one day, his mother fell and could not walk to her mahjong sessions.

Benji’s pastor visited her and prayed for her. When he asked her if she wanted to invite Jesus into her life, she told him she did.

Recalled Benji: “I said to her, ‘Don’t say yes to humour them. Why do you even want to be a Christian? You don’t go to church or read the Bible.’

Tung Ling Bible School

Benji (centre with flowers) at his graduation from Tung Ling Bible School, where he now works as a maintenance provider.

“She said, ‘It’s you. I see your life changed.’”

Seeing her mother weep as she said that, Benji was moved to tears as well. He guided his mother into inviting Jesus into her life. 

Benji also reconciled with his younger brother who had once told him to “die in prison and don’t come out”.

The New Charis Mission

Being at halfway house, The New Charis Mission, helped Benji kick his drug habit for good.

During one Chinese New Year, he told his brother: “Please forgive me. I have not been a good brother. I have not cared for our parents.”

The apology plus how Benji now led his life changed his brother’s attitude towards him.

Benji, who once tore up the Bible and once used its pages to roll cigarettes, now goes back to prison every month to share God’s love with the inmates.

“I am different from the past,” he said.

This is an excerpt of two articles that first appeared in Salt&Light. Read them here and here.

If you would like to know more about Jesus, click here to find a church near you.

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


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