[Above - BAD BOYS MADE GOOD:Mr Adrian Pang (left) and Mr Zou Fengquan turned their lives around after being arrested.]
By Shree Ann Mathavan
THEY made headlines in this newspaper nine years ago - for the wrong reasons. And it stung them into changing their ways.
Now they are back as success stories.
Teenage gangsters Zou Fengquan and Adrian Pang were charged with unlawful assembly in 2001.
The two, 18-year-olds then, were sentenced to two years probation.
They were among a group of 10 secret society members armed with knives who challenged another group of teenage boys to a fight in Toa Payoh in 2000.
Following a tip-off, police officers swooped in and arrested the group before blows were exchanged.
The publicity which followed was hard to handle. It was a wake-up call.
Said Mr Zou: "That report was very embarrassing for us, our family and friends because it identified us."
They received several calls from relatives and friends who asked if they were indeed the ones in the newspaper.
Mr Zou said: "It motivated us to do something different with our lives so that one day we could impress others instead of being an embarrassment."
And impress they did.
Today, the pair have turned their lives around and have become successful entrepreneurs. Mr Zou and Mr Pang, now 27, run a two-year-old online marketing company called Vertex Group.
The company provides online programs, including self-help and music therapy websites. They claim they earn $10,000 to $15,000 a month.
Not bad for the two young men whose lives seemed headed downhill.
Back in 2001, they could have been jailed up to six months and fined.
Mr Zou recalled: "When we got arrested, I was so worried, I felt like my world was coming to an end.
"I couldn't imagine what we would have become if we had been sent to jail. Perhaps our lives would have turned out very differently."
They left the gang when they were put on probation.
The two, who first met while studying in the same secondary school, dabbled in various fields separately like insurance and real estate, before coming together to form their own company.
Their achievements today are perhaps all the more remarkable given that they launched their company in the midst of the economic crisis in 2008.
Most of their software development skills are self-taught through experimentation and from books, they said.
Their life today is a far cry from their days of fighting and extorting money from other teenagers.
They were in the gang for three years before they were nabbed.
Mr Zou recalled that during his secret society days, one of the gang's favourite tricks was to place a mobile phone near a group of youngsters.
When one of the other teens took the phone, the gang members would walk over and demand money, threatening to report the matter to the police if they didn't do as they were told.
By both men's accounts, they were small-time gangsters. They would extort about $100 each time.
Mr Pang explained his gang involvement: "It was the friendship with the other guys, having friends you could talk to, who understood you.
"At the time, being so young, we didn't think about what we were doing or the consequences of our actions."
They managed to leave the gang without much difficulty and are still in touch with some of the former members.
Their current lifestyle is the envy of many of their peers.
Once their web programs are up and running, the sites become money generators with minimal effort, they said.
Work in casual clothes
Both work from home in their T-shirts and bermudas for only about an hour a day.
But when creating new programs and software, the process is more intensive, involving eight-hour days at their rented office in Geylang. Their clients are from countries such as Japan, Malaysia and the United Kingdom.
Mr Zou, a polytechnic dropout, has only O-level qualifications.
He lives with his wife, 31, a housewife, in a $100,000 bungalow in Chiangmai, Thailand.
The couple do not have children.
He often flies in for business.
When in town, he lives in an East Coast condominium with his housewife mum, 56, businessman father, 60 and brother, 32, a clerk.
Mr Pang, who graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic with an electronics engineering diploma in 2002, lives with his retiree father and his school administrator mother, both in their 50s, in a four-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh.
Mr Zou's advice for troubled teens: "Don't give up.
"We thought we were finished when we were arrested but we made use of the second chance we were given to change.
"Bad things can also be used for good."
This article was first published in The New Paper.