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Gangster Moves: How This “Bad Boy” from Singapore Became an Entrepreneur

4 lessons on how this “ah beng” was able to turn his life around

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BY Adelle Chua - 21 Jul 2017

Entrepreneur Singapore Asia Dive Academy

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Jacki Ng remembers an incident from when he was 14 years old. He was at a fast-food joint, looking at the menu. The fillet caught his eye, but he pronounced it wrong when he ordered it. The other customers and the staff snickered.

"I was so embarrassed. It was at that moment I became aware of the disconnect between myself and the society I live in," he says.

What a gap it was. He was not even in school at that time, having dropped out a few years before. Ng was a certified “ah beng”—local slang for hooligan or gangster. He became exposed to such a life as early as when he was nine years old and selling newspapers on the streets.

This circle of friends led him to experiment with a dangerous lifestyle—frequenting discos in the afternoon, drinking; doing petty theft; and serving as lookouts for older friends engaged in criminal activities.

"While I was never charged, or jailed, I was questioned during investigations," he says. Worse, he saw his older friends get locked up and meted out harsh penalties—some even the penalty of death—for a life of crime.

The change was never sudden, but more and more Ng felt this was not the life he wanted for himself. And the first thing he did to connect with society was to learn English. "It was not my native language. I wanted to improve my command of English so I can make new friends," he says.

His new friends exposed him to a new world of disc jockeying and motorbikes. These new fields piqued his interest and boosted his confidence; he decided he wanted to go back to school to make something of himself. “I started reading novels, even though I was so slow that by the time I was on page 20 I had forgotten what had happened on page 1.”

And because he found that he could learn a new language if he really tried, he realized he now had the ability to accept more knowledge. He enrolled in a vocational institution, satisfying his natural curiosity about how motor vehicles, and later on, computers, worked.

A gradual, but certain, transition

How was that open mind worked for Ng? He set up a business selling cars and air-conditioning units when he was in his early 20s. Unfortunately, the business failed. And then he worked for a series of companies where he built his skills in information and web technology.

He joined some friends for scuba diving one day and became interested in this sport as well. He became so eager to learn that in 2004, or just two years after his first dive, he became a diving instructor.

Testing the waters

At first blush, it seems odd that the Asia Dive Academy was established in Singapore—a city state with no natural reefs and a high cost of living. No doubt, there were highs and lows, but now under Ng’s stewardship, ADA seems to flourish.

His main contribution was the introduction of technology into what is a highly personally interactive business.  

"I noticed that 40 to 50 percent of my time was spent in work. I had to deal with registration, coordination, logistics, booking, replying to emails, and fund transfers among others. I realized that this kind of information-heavy business would be different in a city like Singapore, and also different in a rural area where the resort is located."

He started to develop a software with some friends for streamlining the administrative and customer-service functions of the business. Because of the enhanced tech aspect, “we are able to know the preferences of the customer, assess their risk level, help them plan their trips, and offer discounts and packages for them,” he says.

Asia Dive Academy caters mostly to Singaporeans or Singapore-based expatriates. In the beginning, the diving resorts were in Pulau Tioman, Pulau Dayang, and Pulau Aur in Malaysia. These days, most of the customers—urban professionals who cannot afford to be away from their jobs too long and so can only spend a brief weekend away—prefer Pulau Tioman.

Looking back

Curiously, Ng likes to look back on his beginnings and marvel at how his experiences, good and bad, helped him become the entrepreneur that he is today.

1. Openness to diversity

Different people have different perspectives. "Since we have different backgrounds, we do not see the situation in the same way," Ng says. This is how he is able to put himself in the shoes of others in the process—understanding them more.

2. Worst-case situation mindset

As a child, Ng was used to seeing things going wrong. He became more realistic because of this, and has become more accepting of risks he encounters in the business.

3. Resilience

As a child of 12 or 13, Ng saw one of his closest friends getting the death sentence. Compared to this predicament, bankruptcy in a business pales in comparison. “I have learned, early on, to withstand anything that life throws at me,” he says. 

4. Purpose

"Profit is good, but it is not the be-all and end-all of business," Ng says.

According to Ng, to truly be successful, one has to be able to do his part in solving real problems. For example, in ADA, Ng encounters children in resort communities who could have been him when he was younger. “I am able to relate them to my own childhood and I understand why they make such decisions. These children do not have many options so we do our best to engage them and teach them about environmental conservation, marine life, business, and the like.”"