Benny Se Teo of Singaporean restaurant ‘Eighteen Chefs’ voices his concern over the current stigmatism of those in addiction recovery and hopes that he can help pave the way to a better future for those suffering from addiction in Singapore and around the world.
Singaporean ex-convict and former drug addict Benny Se Teo made a vow to himself back in 1993 after being rejected from six job interviews because of his prison record that he would do his part to help other people like him reintegrate into society. He is now doing just that by employing ex-convicts and people in addiction recovery at his restaurant, Eighteen Chefs.
Se Teo was exposed to drugs for the first time when he was just 10 years old. His father was an opium addict and ran an opium den. Not long after, he began experimenting and then became addicted to drugs and spent time in and out of prison.
A near death experience propelled Se Teo to get clean, enter addiction recovery, and change his life. He spent six years living in a halfway house struggling to find work and then working in disaster relief before following his passion for food and opening his own restaurant.
However, in his first restaurant his attempts to help provide jobs for convicted felons was a failure. He says his biggest mistake was hiring 90% ex-offenders. There were fights and relapses and the business eventually went under. He then apprenticed in celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s programme for ex-offenders and troubled youth. It was there that he learned how to manage and retain ex-offenders as team members and employees.
At his current restaurant Eighteen Chefs, 35% of the employees are ex-offenders and in addiction recovery. He says he now knows that quality training, good pay, and opportunities to feel pride in their work and to advance are all keys to success.
Se Teo goes on to say that a social enterprise such as his — where his passion and mission lies in helping others like him — must also be business savvy and sustainable. Quality is important and without a good product to sell, any business will eventually go under. Sometimes his employees do relapse and go back to prison, but Se Teo has learned how to balance his investment in hiring and helping ex-convicts with keeping business running so that he has jobs to give them in the first place.
While there are more felony friendly jobs for ex-convicts in Singapore now that the government has tightened control on foreign labourers, Se Teo airs a pessimistic attitude about Singapore’s ability to accept and help rehabilitate former drug users and convicts.
He says the idea that people who go to prison are bad and should be avoided is engrained from a young age. He believes that Singaporeans are taught not to have anything to do with these people, and that there is nothing good that can come from someone who has become an addict or went to prison because of it.
Se Teo suggests that in order to change things, the government should set an example by hiring ex-convicts themselves. If the government’s effort is there to show that people can change and recover, especially when given opportunities to contribute positively to society, others will follow suit.
Without steady employment, the chances of succeeding in addiction recovery decrease. And the negative stigmatisation and discrimination that convicted drug offenders face in the workforce is not a problem unique to Singapore. Other social enterprises similar to Se Teo’s Eighteen Chefs have been popping up around the world in an effort to support those in addiction recovery, who may have also spent time in prison, reintegrate into society.
Other Social Enterprises Helping those in Addiction Recovery
In the UK, actor and comedian Russell Brand’s recovery café Trew Era is also helping people in addiction recovery regain confidence through employment in a supportive environment. Trew Era employs only recovering addicts who are working an abstinence-based addiction recovery programme. The café pays its employees a London working wage and aims to bridge gaps between the local community and recovering addicts.
Long-term unemployment is a barrier that many in addiction recovery face, along with the potential barriers of having a past criminal record. Trew Era Café is not the first of its kind aimed to help people overcome these barriers. Others, like London’s Paper and Cup, also offer job training to people in recovery so that they are able to re-enter the work force after long periods of unemployment.
These recovery cafés not only provide jobs in a supportive environment, but also function as spaces for recovery meetings and other recovery-related events. The idea is to reduce stigmatisation by opening spaces that are shared by the recovery community and the community at large.
In America, after recognising the need for employment services for people in addiction recovery and ex-convicts, Larry Keast started a website encouraging employers to hire people in need of a second chance. The project, America in Recovery, is a non-profit platform aimed towards matching “America’s unemployables” to jobs. The site’s aim is two-fold. It not only helps those who have already been down the path of addiction and criminality and need a second chance, but also helps break the cycle of addiction early by providing scholarships for at-risk youth to get an education.
Work is still needed to End Addiction Stigmatisation
While small efforts are being made worldwide, the stigmatisation those in addiction recovery face continues to be a huge barrier. Stigmatisation is the main reason Se Teo says he is still pessimistic about Singapore’s ability to help to those who were once addicted become a part of regular society. Singapore has an especially harsh drug policy that keeps many former addicts looked down upon by society as second class citizens.
Treating addiction as an illness rather than a crime by offering appropriate treatment options is one step that can help change society’s view of former addicts. As the millions of people in addiction recovery can attest to, there is hope for those who struggle with drug addiction to recover.
The Cabin Singapore’s addiction treatment centre aims to provide Singaporeans with confidential and effective addiction treatment services. Because our clinicians fully understand addiction, treatment at The Cabin is based on both scientific and holistic methods, and we aim to help our clients overcome stigmatisation to live life successfully in addiction recovery.