From gangster slasher to chef at posh restaurant

 Mr Kenneth Tan, a former gang member, drug user and loanshark runner, turned his back on life as a thug after he was imprisoned twice.

SINGAPORE:

As a child, Mr Kenneth Tan had an unusual ambition.

He wanted to be a gangster.

"I thought it was very 'wei feng' (prestigious and powerful)," Mr Tan, 28, says.

And he built up quite the resume too - he took drugs, stole, got into fights, got fierce-looking tattoos and worked for drug dealers.

Then in 2003, he armed himself with a cleaver and attacked a drug dealer, slashing him in the arm. Reflecting on the recent slashing incidents that took place at Cathay Cineleisure Orchard and Ang Mo Kio, he is glad that he decided on a career change after he was released from prison.

The father of a six-month-old girl now works as a sous chef in The Exchange, a posh restaurant in the Central Business District here.

The tattoos on this gentle giant's chest hint at his colourful past.

Having done time twice in his life - both while he was still in his teens - he acknowledges how fortunate he is to have found his way back onto the straight and narrow.

Growing up tough...

The eldest of four children grew up in a broken family - his mother left his womanising and gambling father when he was just eight years old.

"I didn't have anything I wanted... which is why I learnt to steal at the age of nine. I stole toys, comic books, and money from my mother's wallet just so I could get coins to put into a vending machine which churned out shiny sticker cards.

Back then, I couldn't afford these things," he says with a shrug and smile.

Once, he got caught stealing a toy by a security guard and received a sound spanking from his mother.

"That taught me a lesson but not for long," he says matter-of-factly, his stern look breaking into a cheeky grin.

Mr Tan, who attended Montford Secondary School, had a bad temper, a rebellious streak and frequently became aggressive.

"I didn't only fight. I was so aggressive, I threw tables at teachers and little things would set me off," he says, adding that he was suspended from school on several occasions.

His mother recalls attending meetings with the principals because her son had been hauled up for being a troublemaker.

"He has always been someone of few words, preferring to keep things to himself," says Madam Asmine Tan, a 48-year-old housing agent.

Mixing with the wrong crowd...

While he never joined a gang formally, he mixed frequently with those who belonged to one.

He started smoking at the age of 14 and started doing party drugs, including Ecstasy, ganja, and ketamine, soon afterwards.

"I just got to know people and so when they did drugs, I would get some too. I wasn't really addicted, but I have to say I enjoyed it a lot," he says.

Whenever he ran out of money for drugs, he would lie to his mother and tell her he owed someone a debt and did not have enough to repay him.

"Somehow she would come up with the money for me," he says of his mother, who was then a hairdresser.

Reflecting on her son's journey, Madam Tan says: "It's also my fault. I still gave him an allowance even when he didn't want to study or work. Maybe I should have told him, no work, no food," she says.

To earn some extra cash, Mr Tan worked as a "runner" for drug dealers, delivering the stuff to those who were hooked.

The law caught up with him when he was 17, just one semester into his time at hospitality school Shatec, where he was taking a culinary course.

"It was a depressing day. I was sleeping in the afternoon at home. At first I thought it was my stepfather waking me up, only to realise that it was a group of CNB (Central Narcotics Bureau) officers, who had been tracking me for three months.

"Thankfully, I had nothing on hand, so they just charged me for drug consumption," he says. Asked if he was ever fearful, he simply shakes his head.

"Maybe I was young and fearless. I knew I would get caught... but I had the mentality of living in the moment, and doing things I wanted to do with no regrets," says Mr Tan.

He was sentenced to a year in jail. He remembers the unwavering love of his mother during this time.

Says Madam Tan: "I woke up between 3 and 4am, because I wanted to be in the first batch of visitors allowed in once the prison opened at seven or eight in the morning. Even then, there would already be five or six people there when I arrived. I remember sitting on the bench outside, waiting. Sometimes it rained and was cold."

Back in jail

Within three months of being released from his first stint in prison, Mr Tan found himself back in the familiar confines of jail.

This time, he had to serve a longer sentence, and endured three strokes of the cane.

"When I came out, it went downhill pretty quickly because I went back to mixing with the wrong crowd. This time it got deeper," he says.

Mr Tan and his group of friends had quarrelled with some others over drugs.

"They were selling it too expensive, so we argued over that. I told him, 'Let's meet at a place and talk', but actually I didn't want to chat. I just wanted to hurt him," he says.

The impulsive teen chose a 21-inch cleaver as his weapon, hiding it within his baggy, three-quarter pants, which was all the rage then.

"I think I watched too many movies, I just take, chop only lor," he says.

When the two men met, they didn't speak.

"I just said, 'You're the one, ah', then I just went for him. He raised his arms to block my blow, making contact with my knife. The next thing I knew, he... started running away. He was too fast for me to catch up," he says.

After the attack, Mr Tan went back to his friend's home, washed the knife and put it back in the kitchen.

Within three hours, the police had come for him.

"I was feeling hungry, went downstairs to buy a prata, when a group of officers nabbed me near the prata shop," he recalls.

"Running away would be stupid. How could I challenge them? There were eight policemen," he says, adding that he has no idea what became of his slashing victim.

In 2004, Mr Tan was sentenced to 1½ years' jail and three strokes of the cane for voluntarily causing grievous hurt.

It was this period which left the biggest impression on his mother.

"As a mother, I really felt the pain. I've never laid a finger on my children.

"I don't even pinch them. But the caning strokes were completely out of my hands.

He had to face the consequences of what he had done," she says, adding that she hardened her resolve in order not to cry in front of him.

Turning point

Several encounters during his second time in prison changed his life, says Mr Tan.

"I met a childhood friend sentenced to eight years for drug trafficking, as well as the guy who was instigated to kill Anthony Ler's wife," he says, referring to one of Singapore's more infamous murder cases.

Former graphic designer Ler, 35, offered the 15-year-old boy $100,000 to kill his estranged wife, Madam Annie Leong, 29, in 2001.

Ler was hanged for the murder in 2002, while the boy was sentenced to indefinite detention due to his age.

"We were the same age. I started to reflect if I really wanted this kind of life... I also felt very moved by my mother's visits," he says.

"She never gave up. The crowd I mixed with didn't send a single letter or visit a single time." His daily musings in his solitary cell, the size of a toilet for the handicapped, strengthened his resolve never to get arrested for a crime again.

"Before I came out, I set a goal... I won't be back here (in jail) again," he says.

To prevent himself from returning to his old ways, Mr Tan stayed away from his old friends. Instead, he found a job working at a store assistant at a minimart.

"I came out (of jail) with no friends. It's like I pressed the reset button on my life."

The self-confessed lazy bum surprisingly excelled during his national service stint, which he had to serve after being released from jail.

"I became overzealous, putting all my effort into exercising, a habit which started when I was bored in jail and had nothing to do," he says.

His hard work and determination clinched him several awards while he was in basic military training. After completing national service, the school dropout returned to the same course at Shatec, which gave him a second chance.

"I received subsidies from the Workforce Development Agency, as my family couldn't afford the fees for my two-year course at Shatec," he says.

But it wasn't always easy.

The culinary course he enrolled in required students to perform a 21-month internship at an F&B outlet. He applied to a total of seven hotels, but was not contacted by them.

"I was quite down. I mean, I applied to so many," he says.

Eventually, he landed a spot at upscale French restaurant St. Pierre. He then moved on to others like Picotin and Les Amis before leading the first brigade at The Exchange.

Group executive chef at Tadcaster Hospitality, Mr Kacey Whaitiri-Roberts, says jail records did not matter when it came to hiring Mr Tan.

He says: "It was his attitude and honesty that got his foot in the door. Kenneth has made great progress and is very determined once he puts his mind to something. He has continuously encouraged and inspired the team around him and is a great asset to the company."

The journey has been bumpy, but his never-say-die attitude got him through, says Mr Tan.

"I didn't even know what was rosemary and thyme when I first started, much less how to cut ingredients the proper Western way. I got yelled at for months whenever I made mistake. If not for the guidance of chefs I worked under, I really wouldn't be where I am today," he says.

Persistence

His career is not the only thing which has taken off. Two years ago, Mr Tan married Madam Angelique Alfaro, a Filipino waitress who was working in Singapore when they met.

"At first, I thought he was scary and I was a bit wary of him because where I come from, tattoos mean that you're a bad guy," she says.

His persistence - which led him to visit her hometown in Cavite, near Manila, to ask her family for permission to marry her - soon won her over.

"I know about his past, but he's now a changed man. He's a very good father to our daughter, and was very hands-on especially during my confinement," says the 22-year-old.

The housewife, who takes care of their daughter at the family's four-room HDB flat in Punggol, is happy to accede to his request for another three kids: "I just want to make him happy," she says.

Looking back on how one stupid act of violence almost ruined his life, Mr Tan has this piece of advice.

"Ultimately, how you want to live your life is your decision, and honestly, no one could change my mind if I didn't want to live differently. My advice would be just to think long and hard before going down that road. Don't be too rash."

Avoid friends from the past

Staying on the straight and narrow after serving time in jail can be tough.

Mr Bruce Lim, in-care coordinator at Prison Fellowship Singapore, which works with prison inmates before, during and after their sentence, gives some tips on staying out of trouble for good.

- There is nothing more important than personal resolve to turn over a new leaf. The will to change must be strong.

- Avoid friends from your past, who may encourage you to return to a life of wrongdoing.

- To fill this social void, look for a new group of friends so that you feel a new sense of belonging and identity. This can be in the form of a support group, hobby or joining a religious organisation.

- Teens trying to get out of gangs may feel threatened or face teasing from other members, although physical abuse is uncommon. It's important to make a stand, stating firmly a change in direction. Older gang members might find it easier to detach from the group with a change in phone number and gradually drifting away.


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