One individual, one organization, one nation through one person’s God
By Goldie Chong
“We don’t talk about God here,” his colleague advised him in the prison. Jason Wong was working as a prison officer. Graduating from the University of Western Australia on a Colombo Plan scholarship he applied to join the Singapore civil service in the prisons department. “You’re so shy, so soft spoken and skinny, you’ll not make it in the prison,” his mom sighed. His girlfriend’s mother sent a message indirectly through a relative, “Mommy said sayang! (you are wasted there)”. These sentiments were understandable as the prison dept. under the Ministry of Home Affairs had difficulty attracting talent and suffered from low staff morale. As in all prisons there was much tension among the prisoners who regarded the staff as cruel captors and themselves as victimized captives. At the job interview, noting that he had filled the form 1st choice: prison dept. 2nd choice: prison dept. 3rd choice: prison dept. the interviewer joked, “why do you want to work with prisoners? You won’t be able to set them free you know!” But that was what he did in the next 17 years.
This was a job which nobody wanted but Jason believed that if Jesus were on earth He would be a prison officer because He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me….. to set the prisoners free…” “Did God really call me to do this job?” he doubted. Like Peter walking on water he needed assurance to hear Jesus say “come”. Around that time he attended a talk where a pastor taught “how to listen to God” – “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe out all the evil spirits, breathe in the Holy spirit…ask the Lord to speak to you….” That night he had a dream. There was a lot of trash everywhere….everyone was going about their life, yet no one noticed the rubbish, which was up to the knees …….across the road, an old woman was sweeping…… he didn’t know what it meant. The next day as they were worshipping, the dream came back.
He heard words being typed out on a dot-matrix printer. His eyes were closed, yet he saw three words moving from the right to the centre: “Trash of society”. He heard God ask, “are you willing to walk amongst the trash of society? Others will not see it, but you will see it everyday.” That was the confirmation to “come”. With tears he responded “yes”.
The “trash of society” was not easy to handle. In his second year of service, Jason met with a “sit down protest” by about 100 hardcore drug inmates. They were supposed to finish their assigned tasks before being allowed to join in other activities. Because they did not finish, they were therefore not allowed to participate. Being the most senior officer on duty Jason was called to deal with these hardcore inmates who were defying the rules. With his heart beating and his legs trembling, he walked into their midst praying. Then God gave him a sudden burst of righteous anger. Boldly he declared, “we had an agreement and you are all gentlemen here. You know what to do”. And he walked out. From the CCTV he was amazed when he saw that one by one they got up and went back to work. Some of Jason’s favourite scriptures are, “do not worry about tomorrow… do not be anxious about anything….the plans I have for you are to prosper you….” He explained, “If God does not reveal His plans to me I wouldn’t know what to do. I cling to the fact that He wants to tell me what to do, so I don’t worry.”
God revealed His plans to Jason starting with him becoming a Christian in his first year in the Overseas Christian Fellowship in Perth. He started serving by arranging chairs for their meetings. One time, he asked a student in the Fellowship to help carry chairs. His friend remarked disdainfully, “I don’t do chairs. I only do evangelism”. But Jason was faithful in small things like arranging chairs and in his second year he became an assistant bible study leader. He became president of the OCF in his final year. At the year-end retreat the speaker urged, “before you start becoming somebody, before you start accumulating wealth and status, are you willing to surrender to God now everything you will have in future, before you have anything?” Each time Jason got a promotion, he knew it was not for him to keep. Each time he acquired an asset, he knew it was to be used for God’s purposes. Jason felt his university days were a preparation like Joseph who served in Potiphar’s house with no position, no possessions and no power. It was before he had anything that he promised to surrender everything. God took his promise seriously when he was eventually promoted to be the Number 2 of the prison – chairperson indeed.
When he was a superintendent of 1,200 prisoners, one day Jason saw a picture of Jesus walking in the prison. “Bring God into the dorm” he heard Jesus tell him. How to do it? He decided to wait until 7pm when most staff left and the prisoners came back from work. He walked into their dorm, praying, “I brought you in now, God. What do you want me to do?” Not knowing what to do he sat down on one of the bunks. The prisoners were shocked, “Why is he here?” they must have wondered. But some came and talked. One went to get a mug of water from the tap for him which he drank. In the meantime some of his fellow officers became alarmed, thinking he might have been taken hostage inside. But this incident produced result. A year later a man came to speak to him after church. “I was the prisoner who gave you a mug of water and I was touched that you drank it. That made me eventually go to church. I am now a Christian.” A small gesture, a big outcome. In another small incident, he was the duty officer inspecting the prisoners when he noticed that a junior prison officer was limping. Going to him he asked, “what happened to your leg?” The man began to tear. Jason said, “is it really bad?” The junior staff said, “no sir. I am very moved because no one so senior like you has asked me how I was.” Jason realized that prisoners as well as the staff were human beings. He needed to treat them as such.
Jason related another incident, “The first HIV prisoner was in isolation, locked up in the hospital ward by himself. He was allowed to walk outside on the grass patch for a short time each day. I walked and talked to him. “I can’t sleep” he complained. “I see dark shadows, I’m scared.”
“Why don’t you pray to Jesus?” I suggested.
“But I don’t know Jesus!”
“Well you can borrow my Jesus.”
Two days later the man was smiling, “It worked. What shall I do now?”
I sent a counsellor to tell him more about Jesus.”
When Jason first worked in Changi Prison, he noted that the prisoners had no love for the staff, greeting them under their lips and in their hearts with curses, anger and four-letter expletives. But when the chaplain Rev. Henry Khoo visited, he was always greeted with respect. Jason related, “once he introduced me as a new officer to an Indian prisoner condemned in isolation who on seeing me said, “I’ve been praying for you.” Rev. Khoo would introduce me to other prisoners saying, “this inmate is leading worship….this one is very close to becoming a christian….”
Improvements in the workplace seemed to have been achieved through Jason’s hard work and clever strategies. Indeed they were but not always in the usual sense. Jason is quick to credit it to God’s specific guidance. One particular “not so usual” assignment from God was when God asked him to do a tremendously difficult task: to wash the prisoners’ feet. He received this rhema word when he was praying for prisoners at home one day. How preposterous, how utterly humbling, he argued! God countered, “I was whipped for you. I was caned for you. I was made a fool for you. Why aren’t you willing to be a fool for me?” With tears in his eyes, Jason responded with “Yes, Lord. I’m willing. Tell me when.” It was a few years later that it happened. Jason was reminded of an incident that happened in 1963, when Daniel Dutton the then Superintendent of prisons was murdered in the prisoner riot at Pulau Senang Jail. 18 prisoners were given long sentences, 18 given short sentences and 18 were hanged. As a result, there was enmity between the “captors” and the “captives” and it was felt that the “curse of Pulau Senang” needed to be broken. Jason and a Christian colleague were given the impression that an extraordinary act of reconciliation may break the curse and repair relationships between staff and prisoners. Nevertheless wanting to be very sure it was from God, he asked for confirmation. He was given three. The first was that Jason was holding the appointment of Deputy Director (DD) then. The Superintendent who was murdered was Daniel Dutton (also DD). Secondly, when the riot took place in July 1963, Jason was in his mother’s womb waiting to be born. This he felt was God preparing to use him for this purpose. He was 42 years old when God told him it was now the time to do this act of reconciliation. The third confirmation was there were 42 inmates in the faith-based section of the prison where this act would be carried out. That morning as they gathered, a pail of water was brought out. Everyone fell to their knees. The atmosphere was electric, they were on holy ground. After the reconciliatory act, Jason told the prisoners, “You are God’s sons. I am God’s son. So, you are my brothers….” They could not believe that such a senior prison officer would call them “brothers”. Many were sobbing uncontrollably as they encountered Abba Father’s unconditional love. Jason went to each of them, gave each a hug, and said, “You are my brother…..and you are my brother…….” Subsequently breakthroughs came.
To interact more closely with the prisoners Jason served as a prison volunteer after office hours. Firmly believing that to set one person free from the shackles of crime, many others would also benefit. One ex-offender who did well after release was Ah Seng who came back to testify, bringing hope to the other prisoners who remarked, “If Ah Seng can do it, so can we.” Another ex-offender also managed to do well, opening 4 restaurants specializing in Bakut Teh (a herbal pork soup), employing mostly ex-offenders. Testimonies like these inspired and encouraged the prisoners to change their captive mentality to become captains to take charge of their own lives. Their greatest enemies – blame and fear were thus conquered. Not only were individual prisoners set free but the prison environment was transformed. 75% of ex-offenders did not offend again. The Director of Prisons Mr Chua Chin Kiat, a bold, visionary committed Christian worked passionately supported by others like Jason, applying their vision that they will be Captains of Lives, instrumental in steering those under their care to be responsible citizens, with the help of their families and the community. They succeeded in changing the whole prison morale so much so that in 2007 according to the Hewitt survey, the Prison Dept. was ranked no. 8 in the Top 10 best Singapore companies to work for, being listed among well-known institutions as Ritz Carlton, Raffles, Marriott, etc. Before the new vision was in place, and before the prison transformation process, the Singapore govt. had drawn plans to build 20 prisons to replace the old prisons to cope with the rapidly rising prisoner population (projected to increase from 18,000 then to 23,000) but scrapped the plans when instead it decreased to 12,500. In the end, only 10 new prisons needed to be built to replace the old prisons.
Not only individuals were transformed and not only was the prison transformed but society was impacted. In 2004 the Yellow Ribbon Project alerted the community of its responsibility to give ex-prisoners a second chance by receiving them back into their families and given jobs in the workplaces. Their theme song “Tie a yellow ribbon on the old oak tree” told the story of a released hesitant prisoner asking his family to give a sign that he would be welcomed back by tying a yellow ribbon on the tree outside their house so he could see it when he passed by on the train. To his joy, the whole tree was ablaze with yellow ribbons. Within a few years, the Yellow ribbon Project reached the national level spreading awareness among the Singapore population. Jason reminded us that the originator of this project who tied the first yellow ribbon was Jesus Christ who brought the message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jason is sure that it is Jesus Christ who can effect transformation in individuals, society and nations. END
Read more about Jason’s story in this blog:
Transformed (2016 May Issue # 17) about how Jason founded the Yellow Ribbon project for ex-prisoners.
my journey as a father (2016 June Issue # 18a)
Every child needs a dad (2016 June Issue # 18a) in this issue about how Jason founded Dads For Life in Singapore
Also Jason Wong is the speaker at the Perth Governors Prayer Breakfast 1 Sept 2017[/ebs_column]