SINGAPORE - It's difficult to link this man in front of me with the loan shark I had met several years ago.
He is smartly dressed in a long-sleeved shirt - sleeves rolled up - and trousers, with neatly combed hair.
His once loud and uncouth voice is now considerably toned down and he speaks in English, albeit with a strong Hokkien accent.
And under his self-given English name on his name card reads: Managing director.
Mr Peter Lim, 50, now runs his own company that provides air-conditioning maintenance services.
Except for his family members and his staff, few in his line know of his past: He was a loan shark.
I approached him and a few others in the line after yet another spate of attacks and arrests earlier this week.
His advice comes in the wake of the news that police have arrested three men aged between 28 and 35 for being involved in three separate cases of loan sharking last week.
I wanted to know more about this underground network whose runners are so willing to splash paint and harass not only debtors but their neighbours. Mr Lim agrees to this interview only on condition that I do not name anyone who has worked with him in the past.
He says: "No point in getting people into trouble. They have their lives to lead, and I have mine."
He has almost cut off his ties with his ugly past, he insists, except for contact with three former jailbirds - a drug addict and two loan shark runners who now do honest work for him in his company.
Mr Lim still swears by his code of brotherhood and says: "If I don't give them a chance, no one will. And they will end up getting themselves into trouble again."
As insistent as he is that we do not name his company, he says he is not afraid that his clients will identify him from this report.
"Everyone has a past. If they mind, then I'd just write it off as a business loss. What to do?" he says, with a shrug of his shoulders.
Mr Lim adds that he is willing to talk only because he feels it's important to "educate people" on the perils of turning to loan sharks, and "of course, into loan sharks" or their runners.
Mr Lim, who was in the business for about 15 years, confesses that it wasn't easy for him to leave the "special banking industry" at first.
"You need to have a lot of determination to do it," says the stocky man, who counts his wife and teenage son as his inspiration to stay clean.
Mr Lim recounts how his "dark career - it's the same old story for most of us" - started with his father, who first took an $8,000 loan to clear horse-betting debts.
"Of course, my old man could not pay up, and by the time we found out, his debt snowballed to nearly $15,000," he says.
"I went to the loan shark boss and told him, 'How ah? We have already sold off everything we could and the last thing left is the flat. But if we sell that, we would have no roof over our heads. Like that how can?'"
Mr Lim, who was working as a mechanic then, was the sole breadwinner. His father, an odd-job labourer, earned only about $800 to $1,000.
His mother could not work because she constantly fell sick.
His elder sister had just moved back into their three-room HDB flat after her divorce.
Says Mr Lim: "I told the boss, 'I consider myself 'sibei suay' (very unlucky) but I think you 'lagi suay' (even unluckier) because you lent money to the wrong man.'"
But it turned out that he wasn't so unlucky then. The loan shark chief took to his streetwise sense and offered him a job - where he could earn enough to slowly repay his father's loan.
"Of course I agreed. I was only earning $1,200 a month as a mechanic. Here, my salary depended on how hard I worked," admits Mr Lim. "I felt it was an easy way out for me."
In 20 months, he cleared the debts and by the third year, he became his chief's right-hand man.
He recalls: "I think the 'tao-a' (head in Hokkien) liked me because I worked very hard. I collected money quickly and brought many new clients to the business."
Mr Lim declines to elaborate on the modus operandi, adding that "from what I know, much of it has changed".
"I have resigned for so many years, what for talk about it and get myself into trouble?" he says.
"All I can tell you is, we were all about the same - lend people money 'swee swee' (nicely in Hokkien), so they should pay money back 'swee swee'.
"When they didn't, then it became very 'bo swee' (not nice) lah."
His tools of the trade used to be a laptop (yes, they use Excel), some cans of paints which "by the way, don't have to be red paint, any colour will do as long as it's gloss paint", brushes, markers and a calculator.
Gloss paint, by the way, because it's harder to wash out, he supplies.
And no, no pig's heads were used. "You watch too many TV shows, this is way out of date," says Mr Lim. Noting the number of debtors, he snorts: "Where to find so many pig heads?"
In his heyday, he had up to 50 debtors to chase at one time. For debts ranging from $50 to "a few thousands".
And he says rather sadly: "Would you believe? People can't pay off $50. I have had people begging me on their knees, clutching at my legs. Sometimes, I really had to resist kicking them off."
Another former runner, who wants to be known only as Ah Tee, 32, tells The New Paper on Sunday: "Many runners don't just throw paint, scrawl graffiti or seal the debtors' gates with locks."
Ah Tee, who served time for loan sharking activities and was released in 2010, says he was recruited by the illegal moneylenders while he was hanging out with some friends at a playground.
"They approach guys who look like 'Ah Bengs' (Hokkien slang for uncouth youths)."
Ah Tee says he usually worked alone and was given a list of debtors who could not repay their loans.
He also helped the loan shark and their "clients" to open bank accounts for money transfers.
He recalls with horror how he'd shoved an old woman who'd been trying to stop them from beating up her debtor son.
He'd shoved her so hard she fell back and the back of her head hit the floor with an audible thud.
"I ran away," he confesses.
And felt so lousy that he didn't go back to chase that particular debt, but transferred that debtor's account to another runner.
The old woman did not die, he says. He had been disturbed enough by the incident to find out.
He says he decided to quit when one of his friends' mothers committed suicide after the family was harassed by loan sharks over her son's debts.
"It had nothing to do with me, but I felt so bad," says Ah Tee.
Yet while he was "serving notice to quit", he was arrested.
"In some ways, I was happy because it meant that I have paid for my mistake."
Ah Tee now works as a hawker's assistant. He declines to provide more details as he wants to leave his sordid past behind.
Mr Lim says that once you are recruited into the business, it is hard to get out. His turning point came when his boss was arrested.
Mr Lim was away on a holiday in Thailand and returned to find the business crippled. The law caught up with him six months later and he was given a five-year jail sentence.
He served his term and when he was released, he was determined to put his past life behind him.
He says with utmost seriousness: "I think Heaven wanted to give me a second chance, so I must do 'swee swee'."
Mr Lim went on to sign up for basic English class and he found a job as a sales representative in an air-conditioning company.
"I told the boss honestly that I had been to jail, but I also told him firmly that I will turn over a new leaf. I promised I'd work harder than anyone of his other staff," he says.
Five years later, he became a manager. And in another three years, he was made a partner.
He took over completely two years after his former partner retired.
He says: "But you know, sometimes I feel very fed up when I read reports of how debtors are harassed by the loan sharks and their runners.
"Who should we blame? The loan shark? The debtor? Or, the fact that there are people who are still struggling to survive day to day?
"I don't have any sympathy for those who are caught by their gambling habits, but when innocent families are torn apart, it's a different thing altogether."
Mr Lim shares how there were times when he found that there were debtors who had borrowed money to make ends meet and really had difficulty paying up, and the family got torn apart.
He would then speak to his boss to work out a new repayment period.
He sums it up: "Look, much as there is a clampdown on illegal moneylending, there are still people who will get into this mess because they need money.
"I think a person must always remember, however desperate you are, before you 'kiam lui' (owe money), be sure you can pay back.
"If not, the one who suffers is not just you. Even if you die, your family will still continue to suffer.
"Don't be stupid."
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