ClementLim.jpgClement Lim's father was a Buddhist medium who had seven wives. During a period of 20 years, Clement was in and out of prison nine times for crimes that involved drugs, rioting and running illegal gambling dens. "It seemed alright (committing crime) at that time because I got what I wanted," the 49-year-old ex-convict shared. Then came his amazing change.

Amazing Grace,

How sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost,

But now am found,

Was blind, but now I see.

CLEMENT IS THE youngest of three siblings. His father was a Buddhist medium with seven wives and Clement did not receive the support needed from the family to grow into a responsible adult. Clement followed his father's "religious" practices and assisted him with the rituals even though he knew they were all faked and designed to con others. "But I did this because I wanted to seek my father's attention as well as to make some money," he confessed.

The philosophy of life that his father taught him was: "If you want something, you have to fight for it. Don't expect your family to  give it to you. Nothing is free." Knowing that he could never acquire things like fame and money from his family members, Clement decided to enter a secret society when he was 12.

During his National Service, Clement was locked in the detention barracks for a year for going AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave). In 1977, following his discharge from the army, Clement got married in a shotgun wedding to his first wife, with whom he had a child.

He returned to the secret society and got involved in drug dealing. He then helped to set up illegal gambling dens in Australia but after barely six months there, he ran afoul of the law. He fled to Thailand, where he was put behind bars for consuming drugs. This was in 1981. For the next 20 years, Clement would be imprisoned another eight times in various prisons in Singapore. His wife divorced him in 1984, citing his irresponsibility to the family.

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Life in prison

Prison life was harsh. Clement discovered that the first lesson inmates learn is to obey. There were long periods of time throughout the day where the prisoners do nothing but sit on the floor silently. During the first part of his final term in prison, Clement was assigned to work in a prison for psychiatric inmates, whom he also stayed with.

"I looked at all the mad people and started to ask myself if there was something wrong with me, being in and out of prison so many times over such a long period," he said. "I was tired of this life." "I felt sore and bitter. I asked [God], "Why so fast?" as it had been just two weeks after I was last released from prison (and now I am back in again)."

It was at this time when a fellow prisoner offered Clement a Bible and asked him to declare that he was a Christian as it was close to Christmas time. "Food for Christians was better on Christmas Day," explained Clement. "If I had been imprisoned close to Vesak Day, I would have claimed that I was a Buddhist. Also, I joined my other Protestant friends for counselling sessions, not because I wanted to join in their praise and worship sessions, but simply because I wanted to chat with them."

During one of the counselling sessions, Clement met a Catholic counsellor who greeted him with the words, "Peace be with you." He thought to himself, "What peace? I don't have any peace now." He told the counsellor that he didn't know anything about the faith but he wanted a Bible. The counsellor initially rejected his request, knowing that inmates had uses for the Bible other than reading them.

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A life changing experience

Since 1994 Clement had suffered from a hearing impairment. In addition, pus oozed from his ears. By 2000 he could not bear the disease any longer and he sought medical help. A visiting Justice of Peace arranged for him to be brought, handcuffed and shackled, to the hospital, where the doctor diagnosed that both his eardrums were torn and surgery was necessary.

However, the prison authorities told him that he had to wait for his prison sentence to end two years later before he could be operated on. In the meantime, he was given medication to alleviate the symptoms. When Clement told his friends about the doctor's diagnosis and his predicament, his Protestant friends told him, "God is the only one who can help you."

Clement was initially sceptical but after some time he agreed to give it a try. As he had never been taught how to pray, he simply prayed, "Jesus, please heal me," "Jesus, please heal me," again and again. He kept praying this until his next visit to the hospital two weeks later. There, the astonished doctor informed him that the tears in his eardrums had been cured and that his ears were restored to normal. The doctor even wondered if he had originally misdiagnosed Clement's disease.

"Are you surprised? Jesus healed me," said Clement to the doctor, and he replied, "If this is your God, you must pray to him, ask him to guide you, and praise and worship him." Following this, Clement yearned to learn more about this incredible God, this Jesus who touched his ears and healed him. He began to ask the counsellor questions and started reading the Catholic Bible, finishing it from cover to cover in eight months.

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Making the choice

As his release from imprisonment drew near, Clement inquired about Catholic halfway houses where he could go to. The counsellor informed him of Heartville, an aftercare centre for former inmates, run by Catholic Welfare Services.

On the day he was discharged from prison, an old friend of Clement's came to fetch him in a car with women to entertain him. Across the road was the aftercare officer, waiting for him. That day, Clement made his choice to turn away from his former life and begin a new one. He informed his friend that he would leave with the aftercare officer.

"Are you sure?" his friend asked him. Clement hesitated for a moment. He recalled, "At that moment of hesitancy, several Bible verses jumped into my mind, particularly that of Romans 12:2 - 'Do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modelled by your new mind. This is the only way to discover the will of God and know what is good, what it is that God wants, what is the perfect thing to do.'"

"I will go with the aftercare officer," Clement firmly told his friend.

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Receiving the sacraments

As part of his aftercare programme, Clement worked for the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM). Unfortunately Heartville closed down before he could be baptised. He then attended RCIA at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, where he was baptised by Father Benedict Chua on Mar 13, 2002. About 50 people, including all the FMM nuns, celebrated the joyous occasion with him and threw a party for him.

"I was very touched by the presence, love and concern of the people there," he admitted. "I asked myself why I had so many friends, and the verse from John 15:5 came into my mind - 'I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, as I in you and you will bear much fruit.' That was when I realised that all I had came from God. When I chose to remain close to God and to trust in him, God provided all that I needed and more."

After his baptism, Clement reconciled with his estranged family, and discovered that his own father too had converted to Catholicism and was baptised before he died. Clement also met with his son, now 29, and asked for his forgiveness. Reconciled, they now meet at least once a month.

"I came a long way, so I understand that I must cherish whatever comes my way," he said. In this case, what has come his way is Diana, a widow with two children. They first met when they both went with the Ministry for the Sick to pray for someone at a hospital. "Encounters come naturally when God plans them," he explained.

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Clement fell in love with her and, with her consent, approached Carmelite Father Thomas Lim to seek advice on the situation. After appropriate investigations and approval by the church, Clement married Diana on Jul 3, 2004 at the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul at a Mass concelebrated by Fathers Thomas Lim and Benedict Chua.

Clement now uses his prison experiences to minister and aid other counsellors in the Prison Ministry, where he shares his Catholic faith with the inmates. He shared his prison experiences and his conversion story to an interested audience at Cana - The Catholic Centre on Mar 8.

"In the Last Judgement, the King says to those on his right hand, 'I was in prison, and you visited me'. I've been in prison before, and I can use that experience to minister to the inmates in a way that the other counsellors cannot. I was given freely, so I now give back freely.

"I tell the inmates that they can be free, not just when they leave the prison and walk out the gates; they can be free even while in prison," Clement said during an interview at Cana, where twice a week, he volunteers as an odd-job man. "Even if you are free from prison, so long as your thoughts remain in there, you will return there," he emphasised.

Petra, another volunteer at Cana, who first met Clement in 2002 at the aftercare centre where he was at, said, "He's dependable, inspiring, and positive in what he says."

Kim, 32, a counsellor at the Church of Christ the King, attended the session and said that she was "interested to find someone who is involved in counselling but [who] has been on the other side [and] is now on this side helping others."

"I think his sharing experience is a unique gift!" she exclaimed. "I really admire … the hope that he gives to people who have been or are experiencing this, struggling with it, and he's saying, 'Look, there is always that ray of light; that you can do something different.'"

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