'I don't regret I was once a drug addict': Eighteen Chefs' Benny Se Teo on retiring and his journey
SINGAPORE: Fourteen years after becoming the face of restaurant chain Eighteen Chefs and a symbol of hope for ex-convicts, Mr Benny Se Teo has retired.
A former heroin addict, Mr Se Teo famously turned his life around, then forged ahead with his efforts to give fellow ex-offenders a chance to be employed – at a time when it was not common.
Reflecting on his journey, he told CNA: "I don't regret that I was once a drug addict. If I did not go through these difficult times, I am unable to help people who are going through these difficult times.
“Somehow maybe God wants me to go through every single thing so that I can be a blessing to a lot of people who are going through this.”
Mr Se Teo, who was in and out of prison for years until a near-death experience changed him for good, was last released from jail in 1993. He had trouble getting a job at the time.
"I feel very special to be given this opportunity to experience that – from someone who is having difficulty to get a job, now I'm providing jobs," he said, speaking at his home on Depot Road on Friday (Dec 3).
One lesson he's learnt from hiring ex-convicts is this, he said: "Don't judge a book by its cover."
From his years of experience, he's found that how a person is dressed for an interview does not indicate how they will perform at work, he said.
Those who are hungry, who have nothing to fall back on will make it, he said.
GIVING SECOND CHANCES
While he resolved to help troubled youth – an initiative he counts as his most meaningful accomplishment – the process was not always smooth-sailing. He has had to post bail for his employees, and had the Central Narcotics Bureau turn up at his restaurant.
“I have boys who failed me many times,” he said. However, those who were sincere and returned always got another opportunity.
“Why? Because I myself received many chances. If not, I would not be able to accomplish what I have accomplished,” he said.
Mr Se Teo's journey was not without problems. Shortly after he started the business, in 2007 or 2008, he encountered a situation that tested his will.
The business had not started to make money, he recalled. He was going through depression and it was one of the lowest points in his life. He was in the lift on the way up to his home on the ninth floor when he saw a straw of heroin in the lift.
“I said wow, devil you actually caught me at the right time,” he said. Although the temptation to “chase the dragon” – slang for smoking heroin – raged through his mind, he eventually threw the straw downstairs, into a construction site where digging works were going on.
He said that moment was the turning point in his life.
“I didn’t give in, I didn’t let drugs solve the problem for me this time. I solved the problem head-on.”
The year after the incident, the business started to prosper, he said. Even then, he didn’t have grand plans, and thought that he would be living "happily ever after" with one "small" stall.
"Never, never thought it'll be so successful. Never, never," he said.
"So there's hope for any entrepreneur. When you start small, struggling, you know, you never imagine you can be so big.”
DECIDING TO RETIRE
When asked about his decision to retire, he said: “I can’t fight the war anymore. I’m in my 60s, I cannot be a soldier anymore,” he said.
While Mr Se Teo did not seem to be able to pinpoint the time he made his decision to retire, everything seems to have fallen into place for him.
He moved into his home, “away from the maddening crowds” in July this year. In September, he received a Harley Davidson motorcycle he ordered a few months before and his wife retired in November.
His excitement seemed to come from being able to exit all his work-related WhatsApp groups, something he did less than a week ago.
“WhatsApp groups cancelled, wow, shiok man. If not, every moment you have somebody message you and you have to (do) firefighting,” he said.
“Now I am free, man.”
His retirement announcement on Facebook went viral, receiving 7,000 likes and almost 2,000 shares as of Monday. He noted that articles were also written based on the post.
“They give me so much attention. Probably I might have done something right … A lot of people one way or another do look up to me,” he said.
LIFE AFTER RETIREMENT
He may be free from work, but he's certainly been busy. Following his announcement, he has had "a lot" of job offers, he said.
He's currently helping two hawkers improve their business pro bono. He’s also found a new group made up of other riders of the same bike he now owns – an adventure bike.
“My kind of destressing is ... I hit the highway, go to the airport, turn around, come back and park my bike,” he said.
While he drives as well, driving is “safe” and does not give him the same thrill as riding, he said.
Next on his retirement checklist is hosting private dining sessions when restrictions ease, a dream he said every chef has.
Having emerged on the other side of a hard-earned career, Mr Se Teo shared his secret for success: “Believe in what you do. Along the way, there's a lot of naysayers … you persist on,” he said.
“If you do it with all your heart, all your mind and all your soul, it will happen.”