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Singapore local village boy

to a Global Conglomerate Digital Leader

by Jacob Tong

“I am the Group Chief Information Officer of Keppel Group (Global Multi-Billion Conglomerate).
I am married since 20yrs ago. My wife & I are blessed with 4 kids, our joy. I was born in one of Singapore’s last kampong (village), as the only son in a broken family of 9 children.”

My father left us before I was born. My mother had to support the family of 10 single handed-ly. To make ends meet, my sisters and I helped mum in her farming, fish and poultry rearing. We bathed from wells dug from the ground, and collected branches in the kampong to be used forfuel for cooking.

Lorong Tai Seng, the kampong we called home, was notorious as one of Singapore’s last enclave plagued with secret society gangs. Historical data from the internet & books provide interesting & riveting details of its nefarious activities.

To put food on the table, mum had to hold multiple menial jobs besides farming. She gave up farming later. Waking up every morning by 4am, she would rush to clean a clinic in Geylang, thence to 3 other homes to do their laundry and household chores. Mum then rushed home to prepare a big pot of plain porridge for the whole family (for both lunch and dinner), and then to a Community Center by 1pm to do another cleaning job. She would reach home by 11pm and go to bed past 1am after doing some housework work at home. Such was her daily routine.

My school shirts, pants and socks were patched and re-patched. Textbooks were old books recycled by the schools. I frequently had to walk an hour to & from school. I could not afford to pay for the bus fare.

Unlike some of my schoolmates who had choices of destinations to travel to during their school holidays, my school holiday activities were consistent. Consistently predictable. I would follow my mum to her workplaces as there was nobody to take care of me at home. Most of the times I would stay outside the homes and loiter around the area, while mum finished up on her cleaning work.

I had to quickly learn how to survive the streets, which got me to mix with gang members.

As I do not have a father to protect the family, even our very own relatives who lived next to us, scorned at us. We would often sneak and peep through their windows to watch TV programs as we could not afford one. When they found out, they installed a metal fence and tied a big black guard dog to prevent us from climbing over their fence. Despite two of my sisters being bitten by their rabies infected dog, my relatives continued to keep that dog as they believed it brought them luck. Even our own cousins took the cue from their parents and scornfully threw stones at us, one of which found its spot on my forehead where it bled.

The physical pain paled in comparison to the internal frustrations and anger that simmered within me. Envy and inferiority deepened each time I saw my cous-ins next door or my schoolmates wear new clothes, have new textbooks, or parents dropping them off to school with packed lunch boxes.

Are the Gods unfair or was it retribution from a previous life? This was a persistent question I asked myself then. I hated my biological father, my relatives and the world for being so cruel to me. I yearned revenge. I also desperately sought acceptance and belonging, which I found in the kampong gangs who were always ready to protect me from my perceived evils in this world.
On the bright side, God blessed me with good grades and multiple education awards, including Singapore government scholarships. My sisters, who received Christ earlier than me, and my Christian friends often challenged me to find fault with the bible. I accepted the challenge and I did find a lot of defects. However these defects laid with me, not in God. The Holy Spirit convicted me in 1992 while I was in varsity. For as long as I live, I will always remember the night when I received Christ. That night, a sense of overwhelming peace and joy welled up within me.

CS Lewis wrote, “Inside the heart of everyman, there exists a God shaped vacuum that can only be filled by Him”. I declare, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me”.

When Christ entered my life, He started fixing my character flaws. Life does not magically become a bed of roses. Whenever I was at any critical points of spiritual and physical need, God protected me and gave me strength. I matured spiritually as I learned more about God and His Word, and became more committed in my daily walk with Him.

Slowly but surely and through the Grace of God, He started healing the pain and anguish within me. He also brought Angels into my life to encourage, pray and walk alongside me. God’s angels are my Church pastors, elders and fellow believers who travelled this life journey with me in the family of God.

However, soon after graduation as I embarked on my career aspirations, materialism and ego took over me.

I started to distance from God, especially after I started my dot.com startup in 1999. I became proud, obsessed with fame, making big bucks and yearned for industry recognition. I worked 24/7, driven by worldly dreams and greed. I skipped Church, ignored health warnings that I received now and then. Well-meaning advice from family and sincere friends were not heeded.
So God had to intervene. In my youth, I was strong and healthy. In fact despite insufficient nutrition growing up, I was interested in various sports and captained some teams. But by my 30s, I was hospitalized not once, but 4 times.

I will never forget the freezing cold metal hospital surgery bed on my naked body, the rows of ceiling lights flashing across my eye one by one above me as I was rolled into the operating theatre, and the huge flood lights blinding me before I faded into unconsciousness. Each time I work up, without fail, my wife and mum were always the first to greet me. On my hospital bed, burned out from the years of regular globe-trotting and nonstop work, and reeling from physical pains after the operation, God touched me again with Jeremiah 29:11: “For I Know The Plans I Have For You’ Declares the Lord, ‘Plans to Prosper You and Not to Harm You, Plans to Give You Hope and a Future.”

As I struggled with my selfish desires, finances, and worries for my young family’s future, He reminded me that His grace is sufficient for me. It was then that I knew it was time for me to come back to God.

At work, there continued to be challenges to deal with but God delivered me time and again. He demonstrat-ed that He is the sovereign who is always in control.

After some disagreements with a co-founder over business ethics issues, I decided to move on. Several job options were immediately opened up to me and I was back into the corporate world in a senior position. Amazingly, the dot.com crash came shortly and I realized then that God had protected me from potential painful financial loss-es. Reflecting on my life, I realized that God has been protecting me even before I became a Christian.

Allow me to share 2 experiences: I had fond memories of the clinic that my mum had to clean on a daily basis. Unlike the other employers, and their family members, who would ignore and leave me outside in the streets, the clinic owner’s wife would always invite me in when she saw me. She would offer me a cup of Milo and 2 pieces of plain biscuits. Milo was a luxury then that my mum could not afford. I would drip the Milo from the tip of the spoon, drop by drop, into my mouth. I still remember my mum’s eyes welling up with tears when she saw me enjoying myself. They were tears of appreciation and gratitude to her employer, and joy that I was enjoying myself. I realized now what this was all about – Jesus led a lady Angel to show His love to me!
In my youth, I was at the verge of joining one of the kampong secret society gangs whom I had mixed with for protection and belonging.

But one day, a senior gang member pulled me aside, looked intently into my eyes, and said, “Brother, I know you are trying to join our gang, but I cannot allow it! You have good grades and have a bright future ahead, please don’t throw it all away.
I’m stuck in this gang and can’t get out. Rival gangs will kill me for revenge, or if I leave this gang, gang members will kill me for betrayal. So please don’t throw your future away and I don’t want to see you in our activities again!”. I was in utter shock when I heard his advice. I met him only a few more times and then never saw him again.

The image of a hardened gangster as an Angel by God to stop me from a wrong choice is hard to accept, but I am sure it was God’s doing! We have an amazing God who has His mysterious ways of protecting and guiding us in our life journey with Him.
As I trust and seek God in my daily walk, He has blessed me and my family unceasingly and more than abundantly. My family and I have not just been blessed financially but also with fellow believers who are always there to support us in our journey of faith and blessing.

Today, as the Group CIO of a multi-billion global conglomerate, I have in turn channeled this blessing to bless others – helping companies in their future planning, serving in churches, charities and educational institutions in their advisory boards.

For 2020, I encourage all readers to reflect on all the blessings in our life, even the painful lessons from trials and tribulations.

For those who have yet to experience God’s wonderful love, I encourage you to consider giving Jesus a chance to come into your life and see the amazing work He can do for you and your family!

Galatians 6:9-10 New King James Version (NKJV):

And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. God bless you!