I have written previously (“Christmas in Singapore – My Christmas Carol”) that Yvonne and I spent consecutive years in Singapore over the Christmas season. That was in the early 1980’s when we were part of the Youth With a Mission team from Kona, Hawaii.
Each year with students from the Crossroads Discipleship Training School we preached, witnessed and shared the good news of the Gospel in schools, shopping malls, on ships in the great, expansive Singapore harbour, in hospitals, door-to-door, in a leper colony and even in the notorious Changi prison.
Changi is remembered in Australia for the Aussie prisoners of war held there during World War II. Most of the Australians captured in Singapore were moved to Changi on 17 February, 1942.
The digger history website reports, “They occupied Selarang Barracks, which remained the AIF Camp at Changi until June 1944. For many, Selarang was just a transit stop as before long working parties were being dispatched to other camps in Singapore and Malaya.” (http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-battles/ww2/changi/0-changi-cat-index.htm) The invitation for me to preach a Christmas message in Changi was deeply moving.
When I returned for the next year, the prison chaplain Rev Henry Khoo asked me to share with the prisoners in maximum security, a privilege I had the following year as well.
Henry was a dedicated man of God who was bold and compassionate too.
Chuck Colson had the same experience. “As I went through the prison I discovered that Henry Khoo was a legend among the inmates. He loved them, cared for them, spent his time among them, and through him many became devout Christians,’ wrote Colson.
Preaching in a prison was nothing new for me. I had worked in a juvenile detention centre in Australia for a short time. Previously I spoke in prisons in Australia, Thailand and America but I had never experienced the aura I found in Changi.
According to Amnesty International, “Singapore carried out 54 drug-related hangings in 1994 and another 52 in 1995, after an early-90’s pace of under ten per year. It has maintained rates in the dozens of executions per annum since then, making it the heaviest per-capita user of the death penalty in the world.”
Changi maximum security was the last earthly home for many who attended our Christmas chapel back then.
I prayerfully prepared for this meeting. I had a strong sense that men would seek the Lord today but I did not realize what was to come.
When I arrived in the chapel I was moved deeply to observe plaques provided by Australian military units covered the walls.
“The prison chapel, originally meant for Christian prisoners and constructed inside the prison in 1953, was made into a chapel for commemorating the POW experience by returning ex-POWs, who began placing the plaques of their military units on its walls in the 1950s,” the Australian War Memorial reports.
The chapel was full. The men leading worship were prisoners and I remember how anointed and gifted they were.
As I began to speak, one prisoner seated in the back row glared at me. He was baldy headed and surrounded by inmates who I suspected followed his lead.
Nevertheless I challenged him. At the end of the message I said, “I believe there are men here today who want to know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. Please come forward now and we will pray for you.”
As soon as I said those words I knew we needed a miracle. The men were confined to their seats but as those chains began to rattle security guards came forward and allowed them to move to the front.
Men came forward. I looked at the glaring antagonist and said, “You may be tough around the guys during the daylight hours but how are you at 2 o’clock in the morning when you face your own fears and concerns? Now is the time to give those feelings to the Lord.”
Again he glared, then he frowned and then he looked for a security guard. He chose to come. As he did, the men seated with him came too. That day 16 men found new life in Christ despite the sentences they faced.
After the meeting, Rev Khoo was very excited. He had prayed for those men. He counseled them. He loved them. He was thrilled by the faithfulness of the Lord to them.
The Jesus Factor
After we left Changi Henry took me to a Chinese restaurant and there we met Christians who supported his work. As we shared lunch, he told me stories of his chaplaincy and what a joy it was to serve the Lord in Changi. Henry was in fact, following his dad who had served as the Changi chaplain too.
He told me of a man who found the Lord there. This man was guilty of drug offences and was sentenced to death, under Singapore drug laws. But knowing the Lord turned his life around. The man began to share his faith with others. He encouraged many and became a close friend of the chaplain.
Attempts were made to have his sentence commuted to life but without success. When Lee Kuan Yew rejected his final appeal, it was just a matter of time before he died.
Part of the chaplain’s duties was to witness hangings. Finally the day he feared arrived and the prison governor notified the chaplain his friend would die early Friday morning.
The chaplain gained permission to stay in the cell for the days leading up to the hanging. The two men prayed, read the bible, sang hymns and choruses and shared days, nights, hours and minutes of deep emotion, even joy.
The gallows was just a small walk from the cell and as the moment approached the chaplain quietly prayed he would have the strength to encourage his friend and not to cry.
As they walked into that room he prayed one more time with the man who would soon die. The prisoner reached up his hands and placed them on the chaplain’s shoulder.
‘Brother,” he said. ‘You don’t understand, in a moment I am going to see Jesus face to face.”
In between his sobs the chaplain smiled and said, “Please tell him I’m ready to come home too!”
We are all destined to die. This Changi story reminds me that we can all be ready. He is just a prayer away.