Bankrupt, divorced, then son dies of cancer: How one man survived to rise above it all

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SINGAPORE: Jobless, divorced and bankrupt, Mr Jimmy Ong thought he had finally hit rock bottom. Until doctors revealed to him that his son, Shaun, had brain cancer.

The 11-year-old boy was given between nine months and five years to live in 2003, but he lost the fight to the disease just seven months later.

“During the journey from the crematorium to home, my mind was running wild. I thought that everything was just over.

“I went up to the 11th floor, the room where I lived. I remember that I held my son’s portrait and went straight to the window. That’s where I wanted to end it,” said Mr Ong.

But that’s when three promises he’d made to his son before he died came to mind – to love his parents, to work hard to buy his own property, and to stop smoking.

Those unfulfilled promises were what saved his life. He decided to pour himself into work to escape his grief and to try to repay the S$600,000 debt that he owed.

It would yet be a tough road ahead – but Mr Ong survived bankruptcy and tragedy, and today uses those experiences as a motivational coach to help others with their own struggles.

He shares his story on the On The Red Dot series about survivors, Singaporeans who have overcome various struggles and difficulties. (Watch the full episode here.)

Mr Jimmy Ong, former bankrupt and now motivational coach and author.

LEFT WITH JUST S$12.95

The youngest of eight children, Mr Ong was not an academically-inclined student and failed Secondary 3 twice.

But he was hard-working and had the gift of the gab. After serving his national service, he worked as a salesman and was promoted to a director within six years. All seemed well, and when he married in 1990, he blew some S$80,000 on his grand wedding.

Shortly after, his two children, Shaun and Demi, were born. His audio equipment business with two partners flourished, with shops in Choa Chu Kang and Boon Lay.

Then things went south. “Sales were bad and the company went into financial difficulties. There were a lot of disagreements between me and my partners, and we decided to go our separate ways,” he said.

He took over the Choa Chu Kang outlet and opened another outlet in Jurong. “That’s where the whole thing got even messier,” he said. “I was finding every means and way to keep the company afloat, and I took personal loans and from the banks.”

He chalked up some S$600,000 in debt, the bulk of it owed to one of his ex-partners.

It was like a living hell. We had collection agents knocking at the doors. The only time that I had peace was after 6pm when the banks were closed, and after 10pm when the collection agents were off.

Mr Ong was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1995, one of 1,276 cases that year.

“I still remembered the part where I had to declare what I had then – just S$12.95,” he said.

LOST FRIENDS AND WIFE

Mr Ong started hunting for a job and thought he could easily get a position as a general manger or a sales manager, given his experience.

Unfortunately, without good paper qualifications, few companies called him for an interview.

Being a bankrupt also brought its own roadblocks. “Each time I went for a job interview, it became an interrogation about how I ended up being a bankrupt.

I tried every job there was, from being a car salesman to a delivery man. I also became a forex trader and lost between S$10,000 and S$40,000 with a few friends. I lost those friendships as well.

His marriage suffered from the financial strain, and the couple divorced in 2001. His wife had custody of the kids and he moved out on his own.

GAMBLING AND DRINK-DRIVING

He finally found a full-time job, where he was promoted to a senior sales and marketing manager within three years. He also started to pay S$200 to S$300 a month towards his debts.

But he also began to gamble, spending up to half of his salary on lottery and 4D. Soon, he was out of a job again, after clashing with the managing director.

He worked at a 7-11 to make ends meet, and by a stroke of luck, he got another job after his ex-colleague contacted him to do overseas marketing. Things started to look up again – until he was told his son had been diagnosed with brain cancer.

WATCH: Pulled back from the brink (4:21)

His son’s death was the lowest point. And though Mr Ong stepped back from the ultimate brink and buried himself in work, his troubles were far from over.

In 2005, was arrested for drink driving and was confined to a lock-up cell. “It (being locked up) was new to me. I was wondering what was happening to my life?

I was thinking that if I walked out of those gates and behaved the same way, I’d probably end up back at the same place – or even worse. And I told myself, no, this is not going to happen.

He cut down on smoking and drinking, and decided to set himself some goals – to forge new friendships and to have a new family.

FINALLY DISCHARGED FROM BANKRUPTCY

He started to do well at work, earning an annual income of about S$150,000, and wrote to the Insolvency Office to explain what he had been doing.

To his surprise, they decided to discharge him in 2007 – 12 years after his bankruptcy,

He had paid about S$100,000 of his debt but was let off without having to pay the full amount. Credit Counseling Singapore’s general manager Tan Huey Min said that a person does not have to repay 100 per cent of what he owes before he can get a recommendation for discharge.

“If one is co-operative and makes an effort to pay the best that he can (with no objections from the creditors), the Official Assignee can make recommendations and the courts will discharge the person,” she said.

Incidentally, reforms to Singapore’s bankruptcy framework also kicked in last year, where first-time bankrupts will generally be eligible for discharge within five to seven years, and for repeat bankrupts, within seven to nine years. Said Ms Tan:

The new law is to make it more rehabilitative. Sometimes people do get bankrupted over reasons that may not be within their control. This could be a sudden or a serious medical problem that cost a lot of money.

For Mr Ong, being discharged from bankruptcy was a huge weight off his shoulders. Life also began to take off again in other ways.

He met his future wife Tricia on a flight, and they married in 2008. They bought a condominium shortly after, and they now have two boys. 

He also set up a company, Jimmy Ong Motivation and Coaching, and published a book in 2014 to share his struggles with others. “I believe that all things are possible if you set the mind to achieve what you want in life,” he said.

“My advice to those facing bankruptcy or in some financial difficulty is, don’t worry about face. Face won’t help you get anywhere.

“Just come to terms that this is where you are now, and what you are going to do about it. Change is the only way to get out of any situation,” he said.

Watch Jimmy Ong’s story, and that of other survivors, on On The Red Dot here. New episodes every Friday, at 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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