Singaporean social enterprise The Caffeine Experience is a home for ex-offenders, a place where ex-inmates are accepted despite their pasts. Its co-founder, Matthew Poh, who is an ex-convict, is helping ex-inmates rehabilitate back to society one cup of coffee at a time.
Nobody understands dejection and losses better than ex-convict Matthew Poh, 50, who has been incarcerated for drug abuse and spent a great deal of time ruminating behind bars.
In 2013, Matthew lost everything. His mother had passed away while his wife had left him for another. Depressed, he began falling short at his job, where he was the owner of an interior design firm. Gradually, his business partners and clients left him too, leaving Matthew with a stream of lawsuits and needing to declare bankruptcy.
Lost, depressed and turning to drugs
Feeling morose, he found consolation amongst his “friends” who, according to Matthew, would do drugs outside his home, and he would join them. In Singapore, the possession, manufacturing, consumption and trafficking of controlled drugs are illegal. Those who are caught may face caning, imprisonment, and even the death penalty. For Matthew and his “friends”, their recklessness and irresponsibility were harbingers of their eventual downfalls.
Matthew’s “friends” were eventually arrested. One of them was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment, another was sentenced to 21 years, while an unfortunate soul received the death penalty. The news of their plights was a Damascene moment for Matthew, who realised he needed help and later decided to confess his actions to the authorities. On accounts of his immediate level of sobriety and his willingness to step forward, Matthew was sentenced to a year in prison.
In prison, Matthew spent much of his time ruminating on what he would do when he left. Throughout his time spent behind bars, many of his fellow inmates confided in him. They expressed concerns on seeking employment as well as woes rehabilitating back into society. “Most of them told me the same thing and it was how it would be difficult finding jobs when they finished serving their sentence,” Matthew says, noting how society at large still marginalises ex-offenders. “For many of us, some employers will still hold our past against us.”
Such interactions motivated Matthew. “I wanted to do something to help other ex-offenders who are looking for a second chance,” he recounts. Deep down, Matthew, with his pool of experience of managing a business, knew he had to do something. Envisioning a safe space for ex-convicts to rehabilitate back into society, he sat down with prisoner officer Hilary Lo, 51, who Matthew befriended, and discussed how to realise his plan.
Beating the odds: 40% of offenders return to prison
In April 2018, Hilary and Matthew set up the social enterprise cafe, The Caffeine Experience, at Tanjong Pagar Xchange. Within one year in 2019, the café expanded and the franchise could be located at The Centrepoint, Tan Tock Seng Hospital and 112 Katong. Late last year, the café shuttered their doors at all other outlets and was relocated to Outram Community Hospital.
For Hilary, who has since left his job as prison officer of 17 years, his motivation to help Matthew out stemmed from a sudden revelation and a genuine desire to change the plights of those with a convicted past. He realised many of those who left prison had difficulty adjusting to life outside of prison. Beyond being ostracised by some members of society, employment and employability became hurdles needed to be overcome. When such seemingly small problems start to snowball and get out of hand, some would rather re-offend and land themselves back in prison than to face financial insecurity or public backlash, he shares.
Hilary’s observation was not unfounded. In 2019, the Singapore Prison Service unveiled a worrying statistic: 40 percent of offenders released in 2013 reoffended and returned to prison within five years.
“With no social acceptance or recognition, and hardly any sources of income, the world outside becomes a prison to them, and the confinement of the cells suddenly seems merrier,” Hilary says in an interview with Humans of Singapore. “In prison, they’re given three meals a day, wages for their work, and a place to stay. Some of these basic necessities don’t remain easily available to them in the outside world.”
At The Caffeine Experience, each purchase goes to training the café’s baristas, counselling the staff, and developing other aspects of the staff’s lives. “I think the best thing that I can help all these people is to pre-empt what is going to surface in their lives after they finish serving their sentence. And when things come swarming in their face, I’d help them gain enough skills to handle that stress,” Matthew explains. “They need to be able to stand firm, be clear in their thinking, and assess what needs to be done first.”
From serving a 13-year sentence to brewing coffee
Head barista Shariff Hussain, 32, is one such individual who has received counselling and help from Matthew and the team behind The Caffeine Experience.
“I met Matthew through a mutual friend who had worked at The Caffeine Experience before,” Shariff, who was involved in a tragic gang fight in 2010 and was subsequently charged with culpable homicide with a common object in court, says. “I was fresh out of prison, having completed two-thirds of my 13 years prison sentence.”
Shariff’s character today is a departure from his rebellious, adolescent self. Despite being sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, Shariff was released after serving two-thirds of the sentence, under Singapore’s Conditional Remission System. He remains deeply remorseful of his past behaviours, in particular for joining a secret society and for being rash. Discipline and patience, Shariff tells me, are virtues that stick close to his heart today. “I do enjoy serving coffee and meeting new people here,” Shariff confesses. “Making latte art is fun.”
Even so, Shariff and Matthew admit that there have been incidences where staff shirk their duties. Beyond skipping their work shifts or coming late, there have also been incidences where the staff were provoked and an occasional row would occur.
“When such incidences happen, the first thought that runs through my mind is to find a way to connect with them. I need to know why this is happening, what are the triggers, and how best to address the issue,” Matthew clarifies. “It’s all about empathy and that’s the way we correct these behaviours. We are humans, we make mistakes, we err.”
But not all acts of truancy would go unpunished. Beyond counselling and lending a listening ear, Matthew instils discipline by reducing the number of working shifts to any of those liable. “Most of them would want more shifts. Reducing the number of shifts goes against what they want and, in my opinion, that’s punishment,” Matthew says.
From abusing drugs to becoming head chef
Another individual who has received aid from Matthew is “Saulvinton” Kelvin Yeow, 37, who is presently the head chef at The Caffeine Experience.
For the past 12 years, Saulvinton has been in and out of prison for drug-related offences. In the past, whenever he was released, he would give in to temptations and relapse, despite attempts to quit. Back then, Saulvinton was also depressed. Paranoid of the world and of the constant “surveillance” he felt, he would shut all windows and doors, watch the TV on mute, and huddle in a corner. He even tried ending his life by hanging and overdosing on sleeping pills. Both suicide attempts failed. For the most part, he was afraid he would be arrested and thrown back to prison and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. To him, his addiction to heroin, a Class A controlled drug, was a coping mechanism to life’s hurdles.
“At one point, Matthew even gave me allowance — enough to go about eating my meals — to stay away and quit drugs,” Saulvinton laughs, recounting how he had known Matthew for years. “That’s crazy right?”
When Saulvinton was serving his third prison sentence, news of his father’s passing reached him. He was only allowed 45 minutes to bid goodbye and it was a closed casket ceremony. The prison officers never told Saulvinton the cause of his father’s death, he had assumed it was of natural causes. As it turned out, it was suicide. And that broke him. “My dad died because of me,” he says wistfully.
Determined, Saulvinton returned to Matthew, who welcomed him in open arms. Today, Saulvinton has since steered clear from his unhealthy past connections. He lives by the motto, “Be willing to change, be ready to change, and be able to change.” Such is a testament to his desire to change for good. In fact, his mother also works with him in the same café today too, and in many ways, this is a newfound bonding activity that the mother-son duo enjoys.
Beyond coffee and café offerings
“As a leader, my job is to create a safe and peaceful environment for those working alongside me,” Matthew says, looking at Saulvinton and the rest from afar. “Over here, people are lost and some of these kids do look up to us. We don’t want to mislead them. We want to guide them.”
Matthew remains honest about the discrimination ex-convicts, like himself and most of the staff at The Caffeine Experience, receive. The discrimination, while subtle, is pervasive. Matthew himself was even scoffed at and looked down upon when he founded the café. “Some strangers and even some shareholders would cast doubt on my character. They claimed I would misuse the profits to do drugs,” he shares.
Matthew is set on changing that with his social enterprise and through empowering his staff or sharing their stories. Beyond coffee and other café offerings, The Caffeine Experience is a safe space for ex-convicts and those with troubled pasts looking to empower themselves in society. For now, Matthew is content with bringing home just a little over S$1,000 a month. Money is no longer important to him, he tells me.
“But the disadvantaged youths, youths at-risk, and those with a convicted past are.”