SINGAPORE - For the last 38 years, his life had revolved around alcohol and drugs. In between frying Hokkien mee, Mr Lee Eng Keat went at the bottle every day, while consuming and peddling drugs like heroin.
His offences landed him in jail every other year, with his sentences ranging between two and seven years. But, after finishing his latest sentence of almost eight years for drug trafficking and possession of deadly weapons in January, he has had enough.
Today, Mr Lee can be found busy at the wok, tending to his Hokkien mee business in a stall at the corner of Block 92, Toa Payoh Lorong 4.
Now 53, he decided that he "did not want to waste his or his family's time anymore" because since 1996, he has been out of prison for only a year.
"My family members have always stood by me," he told My Paper. "They were the ones who made it easier for me to make this change."
His daughter, Ms Janet Toh, 37, said that she can see a change in her father.
"I trusted him when he said he wanted to change, because he has always been a responsible father and he has never neglected the family," she said. "Also, you never give up on family."
Mr Lee added that part of his resolve to change also came from his religion. "I know God will not forsake me, so I have to live up to Him," he said.
He set up his first stall in Toa Payoh Town Centre in the 1980s, but the staff has not changed much since then.
Mr Lee's former wife and their three children can still be seen helping out these days. The only difference is that there are now extra pairs of hands, with the grandchildren helping out during the school holidays.
Despite the fact that he hasn't cooked for many years, Mr Lee's Hokkien mee still impresses. Property agents Andrew Ho and Sharon Tan, who are married to each other, both gave it the thumbs up.
"I like it because it is flavourful, the portion is big and the texture is very good," said Mr Ho.
"We have tried over 15 different Hokkien mee (eateries) and, I have to say, this is one of the best. We will definitely come back."
Mr Lee is one of many former convicts who are trying to turn over a new leaf. The most well-known example is Mr Benny Se Teo, the owner of local restaurant franchise Eighteen Chefs, which hires former convicts and provides them with a "safe and non-judgmental working environment".
Incidentally, Mr Lee shared a cell with Mr Se 20 years ago and they both have the same goal of wanting to be role models to wayward youth.
Mr Lee, who first joined the Hong Hong San when he was 13 as he had been "bullied", said that, this time, he will not be persuaded to rejoin the gang.
Pointing to himself, he said: "I want to let them (young people) know that if I can change, so can they."
He is also more than willing to offer apprenticeships.
"I am here only because people gave me chances along the way. So, of course, I have to give other people chances," he said.
"You cannot afford to buy a bungalow with this skill but, at least, you will be able to feed yourself and a family."
Moving forward, he is thinking of expanding his business. But, as of now, there is "no rush". He said: "If there is a chance, of course, I will expand.
"The job is tiring, but I am happy because I feel peaceful and also because I have God and my family with me."
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