The Portrait of a Pioneer
(April 9, 1931 – January 3, 2019)
Hailing from four generations of preachers, from Xiamen, China, to Malaya and Singapore, he was born April 9, 1931, in Seremban, Negri Sembilan, Malaya, into the family of an itinerant Methodist minister and his prayerful wife. It was to become a family of nine, five girls and four boys. The austere thrift and discipline, as well as the piety and scholarship of his family life, would be a hallmark of his later work.
Prospects looked good as the boy excelled in studies, debate, and sports in various Anglo-Chinese schools. But it was no silver-platter success. As a head prefect during the Japanese Occupation he narrowly escaped the samurai of a visiting military officer. He struggled with his brothers and sisters to survive the privations from war and church politics. During the John Sung evangelistic campaigns he made a decision to enter full-time church work, that he would never forget.
Fresh out of school and bursting with enthusiasm and energy, he became a teacher and rapidly rose to the position of scout-master and a senior assistant within nine years. But his dissatisfaction over the abuse of church ministers, especially the victimization of his own father, drove him to law school, with revenge not far from his mind.
God had other plans, and his mother prayed hard. One year into law, and the young undergraduate about-turned and entered seminary in America. At Faith Theological Seminary, New Jersey, he encountered the “dryness” of theological and language studies. So he would walk from school to Philadelphia to preach in the open and reach the poor on the streets, and he found the experience deeply fulfilling. It was also at Faith that he would meet Timothy Tow and embrace the doctrine of separatism. For graduate school it was at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas. Working part-time throughout, even as barber to fellow students, he graduated early but boycotted the ceremonies for conscientious reasons. His dissertation topic was on separatism.
On returning to Singapore, he was ordained assistant pastor to Rev. Timothy Tow at Life Bible-Presbyterian Church, appointed a lecturer at Far Eastern Bible College, and elected president of the Singapore-Malaya ICCC. Married to Timothy’s attractive youngest sister Siew Mui, a US-trained musician, it looked like a promising career path ahead, but something was nagging. He noticed the slums of Singapore in the sixties, filled with street urchins growing up in neglect to become tomorrow’s Communist insurgents and gangsters, all seething with misguided energy and lost without Christ. Inspired by Jesus’ compassionate ministry (Matt 9:35-38), he knew he had to do something about the situation, whatever the cost.
Straight to the heart of Chinatown he went and found the cheapest place available, a haunted house in whose toilet two men recently hanged themselves. He quit his career, rented No. 20A Craig Road, and proceeded to begin a Sunday school, church service, kindergarten, free clinic, tuition, and social relief. Concerned people from established denominations, seminaries, and mission boards volunteered to the cause of the new Jesus Saves Mission (JSM). They scrubbed the floor and walls of joss paper and filth, painted the place, assembled some benches, and on August 8, 1964, held a service at which veteran missionary John Kuhn officially opened JSM.
The pioneer’s vision grew beyond the bundle of creaky floor-boards that hung over a print shop, under an opium den, and between the Barisan Socialists office and Chinese temple in the Chinese gangland. New housing estates sprouted up all over the island, and so did JSM stations, in Persiaran Keliling (now Circuit Road), Bukit Ho Swee, and Balestier. His family, too, had grown with the addition of sons Joseph and Benjamin, and they all lived in the shophouse church in Perisaran Keliling. For them, there was never a dull day in early JSM, with open-air evangelistic crusades, vacation Bible school sports day for over 1,000 children, daily kindergarten classes, weekly free clinics, boys and girls club, table-tennis evangelism, and clothing distribution, to name just a few activities.
The vision kept growing regional and international. The pioneer set up JSM stations in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang, Malaysia, and soon into the rest of the Far East. His trips to international Christian conferences and missionary itineraries took him to Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, the United States, Norway, and other far-flung countries and gave him the ambition of reaching the poor of the five continents for Christ.
Realizing the need of training missionaries for slum ministries, he founded the Bob Jones Memorial School of Missions (SOM) as a boot camp for disciplined “commandos” who would be able to withstand the difficulties unique to slum missions. Leading by example as SOM’s president, he would fast and pray, sleep on hard tables without pillows, live on a tight budget and wardrobe, engage in active sharing of the Good News, all on a structured timetable and in addition to his regular duties of seminary life. All kinds of ministries sprouted from the students’ (SOMers’) activities: sailor outreach at dockyards, Bible study groups at schools, Vietnamese refugee outreach at Hawkins Road Camp, and a wide sprinkle of vacation ministries in Malaysia, from Seremban to Langkawi, and from Pangkor to Kuantan. SOM graduates went as far as Belfast, Seoul, Madras, Solo and Taichung. Non-SOM missionaries were also recruited in Egypt, India, Burma, Scotland, and Kenya.
One of the highest tributes paid to the pioneer was the honourary Doctor of Divinity degree he received from Bob Jones University in 1973. His relationship with the University was to continue for many years through his membership on its board of trustees and its Chancellor’s and President’s support of and visits to JSM and SOM. But the task of pioneering did not come without some difficulties. On top of the “routine” slum works of counselling, visiting, and even exorcising, there was the friction of working with SOMers and fellow ministers, SOMers’ parents, and the authorities. JSM and SOM went through a period of frenzied revivalism that led to their suspension in 1982; for the next 3 years , activities were dormant or subdued under the pastoral care of Rev. James Tan.
The pioneer – well, he pioneered, in Birmingham, Alabama, USA. After scouring the slums of San Francisco and all the way to the ghettos of New York City, he decided to plant a station in Elyton Village, a housing project littered with broken beer bottles and scarred with violence and matriarchal families. From a rented two-storey terrace house and a donated station wagon, the pioneer and his family invited neighbours for Sunday services at home and staged gospel rallies at other housing projects and childcare centres. Again, many Singaporean and American friends came to help with the youth camps, rallies, and ministries to the unemployed. One even donated a beautiful piece of forested land for future projects.
In 1986, the evangelistic potential of Philippines became apparent, and the pioneer relaunched SOM as the International School of Missions (ISOM) in Cebu City. He also started a Summer Bible Institute in India and resumed the pastorate of the Singapore station. A grandfather at the age of sixty-three and thirty-three years into pioneering amongst the poor, he has never forgotten the goal of reaching the five continents where poverty exists. Nor has he deviated from his Paul-like principle of not receiving a salary for his efforts. In his mind is always the next step: good, strong churches for the poor masses of Central America and Russia, an AIDS victims’ haven in the Philippine, an ISOM in India, and so on. As the saying goes, “Once a pioneer, always a pioneer.”
Rev. Dr Peter Ng continued to pray for and plod the world’s scruffy backyards to plant the Good News that Jesus saves where white-cuffed executives fear to tread till he was called home to be with the Lord on January 3, 2019.
A compilation of eulogies of the late Rev Dr Peter Ng Eng Hoe can be found here: “All for Jesus” – Remembering Rev Dr Peter Ng Eng Hoe.