KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 ― It was the mid-1980s and Malaysia was in the economic doldrums when Daniel Lew took up a part-time job as a driver make ends meet.
His most regular route was up-and-down Genting Highlands ― Malaysia’s sole licensed casino resort ― almost every weekend.
He used to glance at the casino occasionally, just to kill time. But after a while, lured by tales of easy money, he decided to try his luck and stepped inside.
Yes, he made some money, but he made more losses than gains. The losses grew and Lew started dipping his hand into the funds of the company he worked for to finance his gambling addiction.
When he could no longer deal with the hefty losses, he confessed to the white-collar crime, was charged and in 1987, sentenced to spend three years of his life behind bars at the infamous Pudu Prison that has since been demolished.
“I sat among murderers and drug addicts. You name it, they are all in there, but unlike what some would think, my fellow inmates were helpful and supportive,” Lew told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
It was a painful life lesson, and one that Lew, now 65, would never forget.
Turning over a new leaf
Once out of prison, Lew tried to find a new job, but was repeatedly turned down due to the stigma attached to being an ex-convict.
After months of rejection, he decided to see Malaysian Care, one of the non-profit organisations that had visited him when he was in jail and thank them for their concern.
“Upon seeing [my] predicament, they offered me a job as a helper to visit families of convicts during Christmas as well as other occasions.
“I also visited prisoners, as being an ex-convict myself, I understand which words of encouragement they need,” Lew said, adding that doing social work soon became his “hobby”.
In the early 1990s, Lew convinced Malaysian Care to work with him to help former inmates get back on their feet.
It was a tough work, but in 2003, he managed to get some money to rent a flat near Old Klang Road in the city to serve as a halfway home to “just-released-prisoners”.
But the two-bedroom flat was just not big enough to shelter these ex-convicts, including those who had no homes to return to.
Getting them back on their feet again
It took five years, but in 2008, Lew learnt of a vacant bungalow nearby the flat that could house more people.
The rental was RM3,500 a month, he said, but the owner agreed to lower it to RM2,500 after finding out about Lew’s purpose for the house.
“After speaking to my friend, a former MCA man, he agreed to sponsor the rent for that whole year, which was a great thing since I didn’t have that kind of money that time,” Lew said.
The bungalow is now known as the Second Chance Community Home (SCCH), which Lew says is the only private and non-profit organisation for male ex-convicts in the country.
It has been also been home to nearly 200 residents, about 20 of which are parolees.
SCCH, parked under the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, provides a home environment for offenders who have served their time to re-enter society while undergoing vocational training and finding employment. There is no age restriction.
The home survives on donations and contributions in kind from Christian groups and the general public.
Each resident at SCCH stays between six months and two years.
During this period, Lew assesses their behaviour and ensured they are not tempted to return to a life of crime.
“Many find it difficult to adapt back to society after coming out from prison.
“In here, we are all the same and we all understand each other, so it is easier to fit in to society once they are comfortable,” he said.
Lew said most of SCCH’s residents are skilled, independent and are able to work well.
“They can cook, repair broken pipes, leakages or any plumbing works, gardening… you name it, most of them who are here can do most of the much sought after skilled jobs,” he said.
Lew also finds jobs for the residents after they have “passed” his assessment.
One of the residents Lew is proud of is Nga Kor Poh, nicknamed Ah Por by the others.
Nga was arrested in 2014 for drug abuse and he was sent to a drug rehabilitation centre for 10 months.
When he got out, Lew was already waiting to take him in.
Nga left SCCH six months ago but is now living at the two-bedroom flat that Lew kept on. While he does not pay rent, Nga helps pay the utility bills, thereby easing Lew’s financial burden.
“I thank Daniel, if not for him, I don’t think I will be working in this café today,” said the skinny 49-year-old who currently works as a cook and kitchen helper at Charlie’s Café and Bakery.
Desonny Tuzan, 43, who runs the café in suburban Taman Desa, refers to Nga as “the missing jigsaw puzzle” in his establishment .
“He is very hardworking and he cooks really well…he needs no supervision,” the Kadazan from Sabah said.
Tuzan praised Lew’s effort to give ex-convicts a second chance at life and hoped other employers would similarly provide similar work opportunities.
“It is hard to find the right fit in the food and beverage industry and you will be surprised to know how good some of these ex-convicts can actually work,” he told Malay Mail Online.
Tuzan sees his restaurant as a social enterprise, which helps feed those in need with its “pay it forward” initiative.
“I am hoping to open another branch soon and when I do, I hope to employ another Ah Por there,” he said.
SCCH is currently looking for donations to buy a new lorry to create job opportunities for its residents.
Those who wish to contribute to SCCH’s course may do so through cash donation or cheques made in favour to Yayasan Ozanam or bank transfers to its Hong Leong Bank account at 2640 0008 716.
Lew can be reached on his mobile phone at 012-3246-480.