A Singaporean ramen chain owner once convicted of sedition for writings that caused social discord says he is a victim of discrimination despite paying his debt to society.
Yang Kaiheng, who served five months in prison for articles published online, says he was denied space at a Clementi mall for his new shop after a deal had been struck. He said the lease holder cited his conviction for “not want[ing] to have any dealings” with him in an email.
“I personally felt very strongly when I read the email as I don’t believe that those facing discrimination should suffer in silence,” Yang told Coconuts Singapore on Friday.
He said he was also denied return of his S$16,000 deposit until after he went public with what happened in a post that included images of the email, his response and his police complaint, which has been shared more than 2,000 times. The money was returned Friday, two days after his post was published.
The lease holder, Ministry of Food, has not responded to multiple messages sent via Facebook since Thursday, though the company owner has publicly denied any wrongdoing.
Yang said he became aware of its reason to refuse to rent to him Jan. 23 when Aaron Siow, his property agent, forwarded him an email he’d received from Ministry of Food owner Lena Sim.
“Dear Aaron, it is to my horror to discover the background of Takagi Ramen’s owners. No wonder they are so aggressive, unreasonable, threatening and even abusive,” the email began.
“I have no discrimination, but I do not want to have any dealings with this young couple. The man was jailed eight months and the wife 10 months,” it continued. “He confessed he lied also. Both are convicted of sedition, which is a serious offense to the nation.”
In 2016, Yang and his wife Ai Takagi were handed down sentences of eight and 10 months, respectively, after being convicted of sedition for articles published on The Real Singapore, a now-defunct site they had started. Yang was freed from prison after only five months due to good behavior.
Yang responded to the email saying that the comments were “completely irrelevant and utterly discriminatory.”
“She has brought up old history which is completely irrelevant to my request for my goodwill deposit back … I have not been aggressive, threatening, nor abusive.”
Though Singapore has anti-discrimination laws in the workplace, they do not cover private contracts.
He said that he went public with the dispute because former prisoners are routinely discriminated against.
“I have a lot of friends I met in prison on my Facebook and through catching up with them over coffee I know that this type of discrimination is still very very common. That’s why I felt so strongly that I needed to share about it.”
Yang said he had submitted a letter of intent and the goodwill deposit through property agent Aaron Siow on Dec. 29 to secure the space for what was to be his fifth shop.
“They accepted the [letter] and sent us back a signed copy of [it] together with a photocopy of the cheque we had passed them prior to banking in the deposit,” Yang said.
Yang said it was “uncommon” for goodwill deposits to be banked until a tenancy agreement is signed. Yang said he gave the lessor three deadlines to return the money, which all passed.
“I was well within my rights to ask for the goodwill deposit back immediately,” he said, as he had a business deadline to find a new space.
In his Jan. 22 police complaint, Yang accused Sim and property agent Siow of using “delay tactics” which led him to believe his money had been “misappropriated.”
The S$16,000 deposit was deposited into Ministry of Food’s account Jan. 6, the police complaint showed.
While neither Siow nor Ministry of Food have responded inquiries from Coconuts Singapore, Sim denied Yang’s allegations to Yahoo Singapore.
Yang refuted her refutation, saying he had made no false statements or allegations.
He did post a photo of the returned check for his deposit Friday and asked readers to refrain from making “personal attacks” against Sim.
“While I was very hurt by her remarks, I also feel that making personal attacks against her is uncalled for and we certainly should not label her or her company indefinitely over this incident. In fact, doing so would go against my original intention in making the issue public in the first place,” he wrote.
Yang said he found his time in prison to be instructive, if boring.
“Prison is very clean, strict and organized. For me, the main punishment was the separation from our loved ones and the boredom. There is not a lot of mental stimulation and the daily routine is very strict,” Yang said.
The articles that had landed him and his wife behind bars were related to racial and religious issues and were deemed by the authorities to have sown discord among Singaporeans. At least one contained information deemed false.
“I think a lot of people who are not exposed to people who have been to prison have this misconception that everyone inside is a hardened criminal … Most of the people I met inside were first-time offenders and I could tell that most of them acknowledged their mistakes and that’s also why I feel strongly about the discrimination of ex-cons who have already made amends.”
Takagi Ramen was launched in 2015 and has outlets in Ang Mo Kio, Pasir Ris, Jurong West and the National University of Singapore campus. Yang’s family members had helped him run his business while he was behind bars.
More news from the Little Red Dot at Coconuts.co/Singapore.