Ex-Convict Boon Keng Is Now A Forklift Trainer
Prison might seem daunting before you enter for the first time. It is natural to have your worries, fears, and an element of doubt.
While life outside goes on, it can feel like time has stood still inside. After all, inmates only receive newspapers dated two weeks after their release.
This was how Daniel Tian Boon Keng, 35, found out about his mother passing away in prison.
Her death, he says, changed his entire outlook on life. It also marked a coming around to how he used to be as a kid before he ended up mired in gambling and drug addictions from 13.
Now a forklift trainer with Wong Fong Academy (WF Academy), Boon Keng realises that his mindset needed a fundamental shift — away from bad influences and harmful thought spirals.
Prison has been a harsh life lesson, and he no longer wishes to take the easy way out.
‘Always smiling’ Boon Keng wasn’t actually smiling all the time in prison
Less than a year after Boon Keng’s release on 20 Jul 2022, he is now occupied with a full-time job.
After working as a foodpanda delivery rider for several months, he accepted a job offer from WF Academy after his boss saw CNA’s Inside Maximum Security and became a fan.
Since his appearance, Boon Keng has been recognised by many people, but is bemused that most of them don’t seem to approach him directly.
Incidentally, he seemingly appeared in the CNA documentary by chance.
Describing the selection process as “a bit ‘tikam’,” Boon Keng only knew that the five inmates, including himself, had served their sentence for at least a year at the time of selection. The inmates were also in the same row.
He didn’t know why he was chosen, but he felt it was okay since it was for a good cause.
It’s not hard to see why viewers were captivated by Boon Keng. Of everyone, he seemed to be the most cheerful and also appeared personable.
But of course, one cannot always be smiling, let alone in prison. Boon Keng said his appearing cheerful is merely due to how his face naturally looks.
“It’s not that I’m cheerful or laid back,” he explained. “It’s just that my features make it appear like I’m smiling.”
Rather than being cheerful, Boon Keng thinks he is simply good at compartmentalising his feelings during the documentary.
Boon Keng & his spiral of addiction
Boon Keng found himself in a spiral of addiction when he turned 13. Gang fights escalated into drug taking, rampant gambling, and subsequently committing crimes to fund his addictions.
With a mostly-absentee father and a mother whose mode of discipline was to cane her son, Boon Keng soon stayed out of his house and got into bad company, eventually becoming a loan shark runner to repay his debts.
Then came his first sentence when he was caught while about to splash paint on a debtor’s house.
Although he decided to leave his gang after his first prison sentence, he found himself returning to drugs whenever he faced issues in his life.
“My beliefs and thinking were because of my group of people (I hung out with),” Boon Keng mused.
Why I kept taking drugs, I realised, was because the only way I knew to release whatever emotions I felt was to turn to drugs.
Either way, prison life taught him a lesson the hard way: you can’t change anything outside.
Mum’s death pushed him to change
This proved especially true when he came across his mum’s obituary while in prison.
Inside Maximum Security captured the heartbreaking scene of Boon Keng finding out about his mum’s death while reading the newspaper.
“Last time when I gambled and lost money, I thought it was the end of the world and had to do something,” he said.
“But when I was inside, and I lost my mum, that was the biggest thing (that felt like) the whole world collapsing.”
As the only family member who did not give up on him, her death meant that much more — and he found after her passing that he’d truly let her down.
Yet, this was what Boon Keng needed to realise that the issues he previously faced weren’t insurmountable.
Wants to share his story & never return to prison
It’s been a long journey for Boon Keng, from being a quiet kid who needed others to ‘speak’ for him to being obsessed with ‘face’ and playing himself up to look tough to others.
And now, after his fourth sentence, Boon Keng says he’s back to being that quiet kid he once was, something he finds somewhat ironic.
“Last time, I kept going in a circle,” he said. “My friends see me with no money, and I want to do something, very paiseh. I went to gamble, want to win back money, so I got money I can show people.”
That circle of always caring about what other people thought of him was what landed him in prison.
But he realised that quiet past self of his that was bullied and outcasted actually had a point.
Boon Keng found he did not need to change himself just to fit in with others — he simply had to lead his own life without caring about others’ judgment.
People want to judge, scold, it’s their choice. Everyone has choices. Last time, I feel I must look good in front of you. (If) I think it’s right, I do. If you judge, then you’re not a good friend.
And because of this, Boon Keng now believes he won’t return to prison anymore.
“This, I think, is what stops me from going back. Prison life, my past life, my realisation is that it’s not what I want.”
And he wants to tell others that how they appear to others isn’t as important as they think. Hopefully, he says, by sharing his story, he can also help others find their paths in life.
Would not have made it without support
Among the people Boon Keng wishes to thank is his rehabilitation officer Simon.
Going above and beyond, Simon still checks up on Boon Keng nearly eight months after his release. He’s also done even more stuff for him behind the scenes, including trying to get his estranged family to forgive him.
While he hasn’t succeeded yet, Boon Keng is still grateful for Simon’s constant support.
His fiancée, whom he met in 2017, has also been a pillar of support for him all these years.
She should have left him, he thinks. After all, he was on drugs for much of their time together, finding it his only way to deal with the stress while going through a divorce with his ex-wife.
But she refused, seeing something in him beyond his identity as a convict and drug addict.
“She said she sees something good in me, that I’m not evil… she believed I only had a bad childhood and believed I’ll change.”
And she stuck with him throughout his latest incarceration, writing letters weekly and even bringing his mother to visit him.
Now, he wishes to pay her back by working hard for both of them — and for being absent all those years.
A new life
When Boon Keng started his Instagram and TikTok accounts, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
But the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and he draws encouragement from them to continue being a content creator, albeit on the side, as he now works full-time.
Boon Keng is also currently waiting for his turn to be a counsellor for other prisoners, just like others such as Bruce Mathieu have done for him.
Life used to be about taking the easy route, even if it meant he’d go to jail. But now, Boon Keng is prepared to work for his goals the hard way.
“Nowadays, I’m behind my peers, but I accept it ’cause I chose the wrong path… when you realise what is important, you will go for it.”
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Featured image by MS News.
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