Firsthand: S’porean man fled the law & hid in M’sia for years, now helps others with regrets

Making up for lost time.

Mothership | May 01, 2024, 10:31 AM



By Choo Jing Yin and Nurul Adriena Bte Adnan

Nelson Lee, 49, knows a lot about regrets.

When Lee was in his early 20s, his family found themselves burdened by debts amounting to S$60,000 and involving 16 loan sharks — due to a business failure.

“At that time, we did not have a lot of money. It may seem very little to some people, that could be easily paid off but it was a huge sum to us because I wasn’t from a very well-to-do family.”

Desperate and feeling that his options were limited, Lee found himself delving into the world of drug trafficking as a means to clear his mounting debt. He had been a member of a secret society and tapped on his connections to purchase and distribute drugs in Singapore.

While he managed to pay off his debts in about a month, Lee found himself in another crisis when he was caught by the authorities.

Unable to face the consequences of his actions, Lee fled to Malaysia in 2003.

“At that time, I got on a fishing boat and when it reached the border between Singapore and Malaysia, I jumped on the speedboat on the other side and they immediately zoomed off.”

The turning point that changed Lee’s life

What followed was a six-year-long period of hiding. During that turbulent time, Lee had no legal identity — he was essentially an illegal immigrant in Malaysia. However, he also saw the escape as an opportunity to start over.

The early days of his new life were particularly challenging, as he initially earned a living by working in a nightclub, where police raids were a common occurrence. Afraid that he might eventually be caught and sent back to Singapore, Lee decided to seek more inconspicuous work.

Leveraging his knowledge from his past work experience, he joined a logistics company and played a crucial role in the successful establishment of the brand.

It was also there that he crossed paths with the woman who would become his future wife.

Despite his dedication and hard work, his pay remained stagnant and there were no career advancements in sight.

“The boss knew my identity, and my salary was all paid in cash. I worked for him for 2 years but no matter how much sales I was bringing in for the company, my salary was still below RM2,000 (S$572).”

With the support of his future wife and her family, Lee left the company and started his own business.

During that period, he continued to maintain a low profile, spending his days working  regular office hours and returning straight home afterwards. He relied on a forged identity card and license to go about his daily life, actively avoiding crowds and unnecessary outings at night to evade spot checks.

Yet, Lee found that his past was harder to shake off than he imagined.

One night at 3am, six cars encircled Lee’s property as he and his wife were asleep.

As the blaring sirens and the doorbell informed Lee of the gravity of the situation, he once again considered escaping. However, with the back door blocked by the authorities, his options for fleeing were severely limited.

Eventually, his wife encouraged him to surrender — it was the safest option.

Lee later discovered that his former boss, struggling with financial losses due to competition from Lee’s company, had tipped the police off.

“At that moment, all I could think of was taking revenge. I tried to bribe the officers to let me go. I honestly do not know what I would do if I managed to escape. Maybe my life would be completely different from today. I am thankful that they were not swayed by my offer.

And just like that, I was arrested and brought back to Singapore.”

Life behind bars

In 2009, after six years on the run, Lee was caught and sentenced to five and a half years in jail for the possession of drugs and drug trafficking.

Unfortunately, at the time of his arrest, his wife was heavily pregnant and was about a month away from delivery.

At the time of his sentencing, he received an unexpectedly warm gesture which took him by surprise.

“My baby was crying very loudly outside the courtroom when I was being sentenced and I just kept looking at the door. The judge heard it and asked if it was my child crying outside. From the moment my baby was born, I didn't even get to see and touch her once. I asked for a chance to touch her before I had to leave and the judge agreed.

At that moment, I cried. I don’t know why but I just did. I was very thankful to the judge for accepting my request because by right, (it) shouldn't be allowed.”

Life behind bars became a place of reflection in Lee's life. It was there that he confronted his own regrets and reflected deeply on the choices that had led him astray.

He found himself sharing prison cells with people from vastly different walks of life, including those facing death sentences.

"When you are in jail, you see a lot of things. [I thought to myself:] ‘Some people don't get to leave this place, but I still have a chance’."

Initially, the majority of his time was spent in his cell, with just an hour allocated for exercise. As a Buddhist, he started attending religious classes, viewing them as a means to get a break from his cell.

“I had to find something to pass time, and so I can get out of the cell for some fresh air.”

Often, his thoughts drifted to his family back at home, leading lives drastically different from his own. They were the sole reason he continued to persevere through each day despite how endless his sentence felt.

A new journey begins

Lee was eventually released in 2013 with a reduced sentence of 3 years 8 months for his exemplary behaviour.

Life after prison wasn’t exactly straightforward; Lee found it very difficult to find jobs as a former inmate, a challenge made bigger by his tattoos.

“I have gone through so much in life so I know how it feels like to be judged by my tattoos. Up until today, there is still a stereotype out there even if nobody talks about it.”

Thankfully, an ex-boss gave him an opportunity to venture into the shipping industry, despite Lee having no experience in the field.

While his logistics business back in Malaysia continued to be run by his wife, Lee focused on his venture in Singapore and after a couple of years, added tattoo removal services to his business portfolio.

The tattoo removal business — InkOut Sg — was a start-up founded with his childhood friend Mark Lai, 46, which opened its doors in the first quarter of 2023.

During the days when Lee was on the run, Lai would check on the former’s parents. He stood by Lee as a loyal friend and despite the challenges they each faced, they’ve managed to maintain their friendship over the years.

A new beginning: In an attempt to remove their own tattoos, Lee and Lai experimented with laser removal on each other upon getting their first laser machine together, back in 2015. Photo courtesy of Mark Lai.

In 2015, Lee and Lai purchased a tattoo removal machine together out of sheer curiosity. They experimented with removing each other’s tattoos.

“It was quite a funny thing, I ‘lasered’ him and he ‘lasered’ me. We wanted to remove our tattoos, then we decided why not get a machine to try it ourselves,” said Lee.

Initially, Lai started providing tattoo removal services in another shop, though he didn’t like how things there were run because he felt that the environment was very profit-driven.

“I didn’t like how things were like there. Their main purpose was to earn money so there was no room for discussion when it came to the prices,” said Lai.

A shared mission: Lee and Lai had been friends for over 20 years and began their shared business with a common vision of helping others. Photo by Choo Jing Yin.

At InkOut Sg, Lai is in charge of the tattoo removal, while Lee manages the business. The pair said they aren't driven by profit but rather the idea of extending their help to people that wish they had a chance to reverse a past decision.

"Some things, when you regret, you can still do something about it and start over again, and a tattoo is one of them because there are a lot of things that you can't change," said Lee.

Amending regrets: The newly launched InkOut Sg outlet in November 2023, located in City Gate along Beach Road. Photo by Choo Jing Yin.

Their mission

In Singapore, tattoos are historically associated with secret societies and gangsters.

There are implications. According to a survey in 2019 by YouGov, 47 per cent of employers are less likely to hire individuals with tattoos; stereotypes are still prevalent in this day and age when it comes to accepting those with tattoos.

“When you get a tattoo at a young age, there is a chance of you regretting it afterwards because you are not mature enough to think at that point in time. I only understood after I stepped into the society and experienced it for myself.”

The last ink: Before removing a 10-year-old tattoo regret for a new customer that is visiting the store for the first time. Lai evaluates her pain tolerance prior to the removal. Photo by Choo Jing Yin.

InkOut Sg has a scheme providing assistance for just this audience — subsidised rates for youths below the age of 21. Lee and Lai’s motivation to help the younger generation stems from the understanding that there are youths that have made mistakes and have regrets in life.

While some regrets cannot be changed, tattoo removal provides an opportunity to start a new chapter.

“Always think twice before you do something,” both Lee and Lai said separately.

Behind the Ink removal: The team behind InkOut Sg. Photo by Choo Jing Yin.

"It's the stages of life. Everyone will go through different stages in their life. It just depends where it'll lead you and how you make important decisions when you step into a new stage,” said Lee.

In a world filled with regrets, those that have once experienced it found purpose in helping others rewrite their stories, one tattoo at a time. Lee’s journey is a testament to the power of second chances, recognising that while some regrets are irreversible, others are not.

This article was produced as part of Republic Polytechnic's media practicum module collaboration with Mothership.

Top photo by Choo Jing Yin