SINGAPORE: Chef Benny Se Teo is pessimistic about the acceptance of others like him in Singapore - because he is an ex-offender.
"In my lifetime, I will never be able to see Singapore society really helping ex-offenders, hiring them, helping them integrate, giving them a chance," Mr Se Teo told 938LIVE's On The Record on Friday (Oct 16). "The Government should come out and start the ball rolling by hiring ex-offenders themselves."
Mr Se Teo is a former drug addict who is now better known as the owner of Eighteen Chefs, a restaurant chain that hires ex-offenders and troubled youths.
His first contact with drugs started when he was 10 years old, when he started helping his father pack opium to be delivered to drug pushers in Chinatown.
“My father was a Chinese immigrant from Guangzhou. He was an opium addict till the day he died, and he was also running an opium den,” he said. “When I was young, I was very inquisitive. I wanted to know everything. If there was a doubt, I would want to find out and that caused me to find out that drugs were something out-of-this-world.”
“NEAR DEATH” EXPERIENCE LED HIM TO GO CLEAN
It was about five years later that he succumbed to the influence of friends, and began smoking marijuana. “The first few times you take drugs, I would say it's hundred times better than sex,” he said. “But when you get addicted to it, you need to have a larger amount, larger dose, to keep you normal. So that's really miserable.”
Mr Se Teo went in and out of prison, but it was only after a “near death” experience, where he developed intestinal ulcers, that he decided to go clean.
“I was attached to a machine which pumped cold water into my stomach, and whatever came out was all red. So I told myself, ‘If this time, I'm going to get out alive, I really want to do something with my life,'” he said.
Upon his release, Mr Se Teo enrolled himself in a halfway house, and stayed there for six years.
Yet he soon realised how difficult it would be to find employment as an ex-offender. He was rejected several times, eventually became a dispatch rider and then started a restaurant that failed. He later started Eighteen Chefs, naming it “Eighteen” after his late father’s gang. His hope was that it would inspire people to turn over a new leaf.
GETTING INTO THE FOOD BUSINESS
Mr Se Teo's love affair with food started when he was a child. “I used to run to my neighbour’s house, an Indian family. I was mesmerised by the lady (cooking) in the kitchen - how she would put different types of spices into fish curry. But when it came to mutton curry, the formula was totally different. I would go home and ask my mom for some money, and I would buy the same ingredients and cook it up.”
After Mr Se Teo had left prison and joined the halfway house, he went to Turkey three times as part of his involvement in disaster relief work. There, he helped to build tents and kitchens, and fed healthcare workers from Singapore and Malaysia.
“After a meal, they would come and talk to me. They would say, ‘Benny, your cooking is so special. Why don't you think of doing some work related to food?’”
So he did.
“MY BIGGEST MISTAKE ... HIRING 90 PER CENT EX-OFFENDERS”
Mr Se Teo then started a Chinese restaurant with a partner, but it later failed. And one of the reasons for the failure was because they had hired “about 90 per cent ex-offenders.”
“Drug addiction is contagious. If one is affected, it's just like a domino effect. It'll affect the whole team. There were fights. Some went back to drugs. That was the biggest mistake I made,” Mr Se Teo said.
But when he was under celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s apprenticeship programme for ex-offenders and wayward youth, he learnt the secret of hiring and retaining ex-offenders.
“It’s not about the mass - how many percent ex-offenders, that's not important. The quality, the training that you are giving to the ex-offenders, it counts. So when I went to Jamie Oliver's Kitchen, I saw in every department, there were two international chefs mentoring one ex-offender.”
Today, just 35 per cent of Eighteen Chefs’ staff are ex-offenders, with the restaurant having a similar mentorship programme for its staff.
TAKING THE LEAD
On top of its training programmes, Eighteen Chefs gave its workers a three-month bonus last year - something apparently “unheard of in the F&B industry.”
More employment avenues are also opening up for ex-offenders, thanks to the Government’s tightening of the foreign labour inflow. Yet he struck a note of pessimism when he said that such employers had “no choice” but to hire ex-offenders.
“When we are young we are taught by our parents and when we watch TV, the guy who goes to prison is a bad guy. You must never have anything to do with this person. But the one who is doing good, the policeman, for example, is the good guy. So we have been ingrained with this idea that once you go to prison, there is nothing good that can come of it,” Mr Se Teo said.
“So I will say in my lifetime, I will never be able to see Singapore society really helping ex-offenders, hire them and help them to integrate; to give them a chance.”
And Mr Se Teo believes the first step in integrating ex-offenders is for the Government to “come out and start the ball rolling by hiring ex-offenders themselves.”
“I don't expect the Government to hire ex-offenders on all levels. Certain jobs that are sensitive might not be appropriate for an ex-offender, that is understandable,” he said. “But certain jobs … if the Government comes in and sets a good example, I think everybody would follow.
"The culture of Singapore is still ‘I want to see a clean sheet of record from you.’”
Benny Se Teo
"In my lifetime, I don't think I will ever see Singapore society really helping ex-offenders integrate; a society that hires them, gives them a second chance. The government should come out and start the ball rolling by hiring ex-offenders themselves." Benny Se Teo is an ex-offender who is now known as the owner of Eighteen Chefs, a restaurant chain that hires ex-offenders and troubled youths. He told Bharati Jagdish "On the Record" this morning, why he is so pessimistic about Singaporeans' sense of acceptance and compassion, the art behind hiring ex-offenders and how he's keeping his business afloat even amid a labour crunch. #OnTheRecordPosted by 938LIVE on Friday, October 16, 2015
At the same time, Mr Se Teo admitted that his method of hiring and training ex-offenders is not always successful – there were times when staff relapsed and returned to prison. Because of this, the hiring of ex-offenders requires “an investment” in time and money on these individuals, in order to integrate them back into society.
And having experimented with this method “for a long time with a loss", Mr Se Teo said that they are now better equipped with the know-how – in understanding, relating to and engaging the ex-offenders.
He also revealed the secret of getting and retaining his service staff: Paying them well, and instilling a sense of pride and belonging in the company.
“The first day a staff member joins us, full-time or part-time, I start creating a career path for them. That is our HR policy,” he said. “In the past, getting from service crew to supervisor took a long time. So we created more positions in between, (which) means more opportunities for promotions and pay increases."
"You have to treat your staff well.”
“A SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IS NOT A CHARITY”
When asked about his advice for fledgling social enterprises, Mr Se Teo quipped that success depended on a finding the right balance between charity and business.
While social entrepreneurs may have “very good intentions”, they must also be “business savvy”.
“A social enterprise is not a charity. You have to produce a good product to sell,” he said. “The social aspect is important but it should not be the marketing point. If I can meet my bottom line, if I can pay my rental and workers … I'm able to help.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
When faced with a question about motivates him, Mr Se Teo paused before answering.
“I made a vow in 1993 - when I came out from prison for six job interviews, and each time I was rejected very politely. I realised that in our society, there is a lapse where once you have a criminal record, you may never be able to live a normal life (or) integrate back into society,” he said.
"(So I vowed that) if one day I become a business-owner, I want to hire this group of people. So right now (when) I look back, what I vowed has actually happened. This motivates me.”
He shared an incident back in 2007 when he first started out with Eighteen Chefs, and wanted to engage a well-known PR company to help with its marketing.
“The woman came to my restaurant and I was willing to pay her whatever she asked for, but when she looked at my restaurant, she said that I'm not marketable,” he said. The restaurant was blasting rock music like that from Linkin Park, and its staff were tattooed - some even had a big ring on their nose.
Even when faced with that rejection, Mr Se Teo refused to change what he was doing.
"We're still doing the same thing," he said. “I am a very focused person. I do not believe in plan B’s. If plan A doesn't work, I make sure it works.”
And if it doesn’t?
“Anything can happen, so I will not think too much of that. These are hypothetical scenarios. So I will just focus on what I have in hand today and want to do the best that I can to make it work."
"At least for today.”