Offering prisoners ray of light and hope

Reverend Timothy Khoo who joined the Prison Fellowship International (PFI) as a director of training in 1989, has gradually risen through the ranks of the organisation, which has special consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council. He is recently appointed president and chief executive of PFI.

As a boy, Reverend Timothy Khoo used to help his family pack thousands of chocolate eggs and bars for prisoners every Easter and Christmas.

His inspiration was his grandfather - Singapore's first prison chaplain.

"He told us that the inmates... would feel especially lonely during holidays," said Rev Khoo, who was recently appointed president and chief executive of an organisation that aims to help inmates around the world.

"So he mobilised his own family to give them some hope and cheer.

"Even his dying breath... was to make sure the inmates from Changi Prison, where he was based, would be getting their presents and to make sure we remembered to care (for) and love them."

Rev Khoo, 48, has since dedicated 30 years of his life to the same ministry as his late grandfather, Reverend Khoo Siaw Hua, and late father, Reverend Henry Khoo.

But while their efforts were focused on helping prisoners in Singapore, his role has been an international one.

He joined the Prison Fellowship International (PFI) as a director of training in 1989 after completing his studies in psychology and theology at the Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma.

Since then, he has gradually risen through the ranks of the organisation, which has special consultative status with the United Nations' Economic and Social Council. His past roles include director for the Asia-Pacific region and executive vice-president.

Founded in 1979, PFI has increased its membership from five founding countries to 127 - including Germany and Nigeria. So far, 45,000 people have signed up as volunteers.

Rev Khoo's appointment comes after a two-year global search and a recommendation by the outgoing president, Canadian Ron Nikkel.

Singapore, where Rev Khoo is based, has also been named as the association's new headquarters.

Its previous headquarters in Washington, D.C. now serves as its fund-raising office while its office in Switzerland is focused on partnership development.

"We want to have a significant and symbolic presence outside America and to expand our role in Asia especially with numerous emerging countries in the region," said Rev Khoo.

He added that Singapore was also selected for its progressive prison system, which serves as a model for good practices.

Rev Khoo now wants to persuade more countries to join, such as Haiti. He also has three goals for PFI with the deadline of 2020 in mind.

The first is to improve living conditions in prisons, especially in developing countries where diseases such as hepatitis B, tuberculosis and HIV are rife.

The next is to rescue vulnerable children of prisoners. There are about one million of them worldwide and an estimated 10 per cent are subjected to abuse and neglect, or at risk of being sold into the sex trade.

The final goal is to restore hope to prison inmates via Christian outreach programmes.

"Prison is one of the darkest places on earth," said Rev Khoo. "It's when someone has hit rock bottom.

"What we try to do is to shine light into darkness and bring hope to those in despair."

He pointed to the success of a faith-based prison run by PFI's Brazilian affiliate, which has managed to reduce re-offending rates to 12 per cent - far below the national average of about 80 per cent.

Rev Khoo said his heart was also warmed by news earlier this year that a young boy who had been living in jail with a parent and was at risk of losing his sight had become a commercial pilot in India.

He told The Straits Times how PFI's Nepalese partner organisation "took him out of the prison, provided medical care and gave him education for more than 10 years".

Rev Khoo added: "Rescuing these children helps break the cycle of crime and gives them a chance at their own lives.

"This is a shining and tangible example of what we do, who we are and why we exist."

His passion has also rubbed off on his two sons, aged 17 and 18, who have expressed an interest in following in his footsteps by joining the ministry.

"It's a meaningful endeavour to reach out to prisoners and to care for them," he said.

"When crimes are committed, trust in society is broken.

"But if we successfully transform their lives, help them mend relationships and reintegrate into the community, it also means restoring peace in our society."

melodyz@sph.com.sg

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