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A Teenage Drug Trafficker Turned Counsellor
He dared to change – After ending a 28-year struggle with drugs, Mr Tan Han Lay is now the operations director of his own cleaning company and volunteers his time to counsel ex-offenders.

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Tan Han Lay has been clean from drugs for 7 years. PHOTO: Olivier Lee

Primary Six and Already Trafficking Drugs

Tan Han Lay has come a long way since he was detained for smuggling drugs at the age of 12.

He grew up on Nankin Street, Chinatown, during the 1980s. Drugs were rampant and opium smokers were aplenty. Han Lay’s mother had passed away when he was six-years-old, and raised by his businessman-father, the youngest of four children was usually left unsupervised.

Han Lay started mixing with bad company. Introduced to drug-related vices, he became a drug trafficker. Led by older neighbourhood boys, he would travel to Johor Bahru and come back with drug supplies.

Returning from one such trip in 1983, Han Lay was arrested. Two packets of heroin, together weighing 68.62 g, were found tucked under his waist. He was only 12.

“I always say that I was lucky to be caught early – I was young, and I would have continued to bring more drugs in,” he said.

Fall Down Eight Times, Up By Ninth

Han Lay spent the next five years in a Boys’ Home. This marked the start of an almost three-decade-long downward spiral, during which he abused substances like heroin, cannabis, ketamine, sleeping pills, ecstasy and methamphetamine.

Unable to break the cycle of drug abuse, Han Lay was in and out of prison more than eight times. But he was not forgotten. “My father always came to visit me, even when he was suffering from cancer,” he said. “As long as there are people who are there to support you, there will always be hope.”

Han Lay was released from prison for the final time in 2010. He resolved to change his life, first by finding work – “it was tough,” he recalls, and he was rejected up to five times before landing a job as a pool cleaner at Hougang Swimming Complex.

Supporting Han Lay was his girlfriend, Helen Tan, whom he had met at church. He grounded himself further by enrolling in a theological college. “I would study and go home, study and go home. She told me I was kayu [dull and uninteresting],” he recalled in jest.

In 2012, Han Lay and Helen were married, and they pooled their resources to start T & H Cleaning Pte Ltd, a cleaning company where almost half of the 80 employees are ex-offenders.


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Together, with hope – Han Lay with his wife, Helen. They have been married for five years. PHOTO: Olivier Lee

“This award is not about me,” he said.
“I hope to show other ex-offenders that it is possible to change.”

The Only Way is Up

Han Lay doesn’t mask the fact that he was a former addict; in fact, he says being honest about the past is the first crucial step towards change. This is something he also tells other ex-offenders in prison, where he volunteers as a counsellor up to three times a week. “I always tell them to be honest with others, and to themselves,” he said. “They need to face the truth eventually.”

For his work on behalf of ex-offenders, the 47-year-old received the Merit Achievement Award during the Yellow Ribbon Celebrating Second Chances (C2C) Awards Ceremony in November 2017. During an interview with reporters, Han Lay was asked what he did today, to which he answered with a note of pride: “I am the director of a cleaning company.”

Though he had every reason to be proud, he was modest in accepting his award. “This award is not about me,” he said. “I hope to show other ex-offenders that it is possible to change.”

About the Yellow Ribbon C2C Awards Ceremony 2017

The Yellow Ribbon C2C Awards Ceremony is held to recognise and celebrate the efforts of ex-offenders who have stayed crime- and drug-free, as well as organisations that have supported the Yellow Ribbon Project. The Ceremony is organised by CARE Network. This year, 197 ex-offenders who have turned their lives around and successfully reintegrated into the community were presented with awards.

© 2019 Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. All Rights Reserved.


  1. by Muhamad Khair Home Team News Home Team News
  2. 07 December 2017
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