In 2003, he was imprisoned for 2½ years for renting cars, selling them and making a run for it with the money.
Mr Eric Lai was also declared a bankrupt.
There was more bad news: A few months before his release, his prison officer handed him divorce papers from his wife.
"When I received the divorce papers, I was so close to losing hope," he said.
"Even the officer didn't know how to break the news to me."
Mr Lai, 56, eventually found a second chance in a Workforce Skills Qualifications (WSQ) programme.
He was part of the first batch of inmates who was sent for the programme, which was aimed at helping them get jobs after their release.
"I got into landscaping under the programme where I worked as a landscape technician," Mr Lai said.
"I proved myself there and after my release, the boss kindly offered me a job."
Mr Lai was grateful for the chance, even though his salary was only about $1,000 every month.
Not long after he started working there, he was promoted to a supervisory role.
"I looked after a few landscape technicians," he said proudly.
Mr Lai knew then that horticulture was his calling.
He made friends with the management teams at the various condominiums he worked at during his time at the company.
"They kept encouraging me to start my own business, saying they will support me. That made me think seriously about it."
In 2010, he and another former inmate set up Palm Landscape and Design.
Two years later, his partner pulled out of the company and Mr Lai took over.
The company, which began with three employees, now has more than 30 employees.
Last year, it made just under a million dollars.
He said that with a lot of hard work and determination, "dreams sure can happen".
Now a support company under the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (Score), Mr Lai also hires ex-offenders.
"I've had a couple join me, but they have moved on to other job opportunities. But even that is good enough for me. I want to help them in any way possible, even if I'm just a stepping stone."
This article was first published on June 16, 2015.
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