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Gentle Ah Longs: A Day With Debt Collectors Who Won’t Beat You Up

Gentle Ah Longs: A Day With Debt Collectors Who Won’t Beat You Up

  • Culture
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This post is not sponsored by KX-Unit. 

Reagan Wong looks like he could easily fit into a gang.

At about 1.78m, he is larger than the average Singaporean man. The 35-year-old also sports a heavily tattooed upper left arm. His long brown fringe is swept to the right in a hairstyle reminiscent of the gangsters we know in secondary school.

His boss, Winston Chin, 33, could pass for a mob boss. Winston’s slicked back hair, flashy silver watch, and gold wedding band make him look straight out of The Godfather. He is also of a bigger build than Reagan.

Individually, each man is an intimidating presence. Together, the two might make you shit your pants. In reality, their physique is a huge bonus in their line of work.

They are debt collectors with debt collection agency, KX-Unit.

The company, which has been around for 2.5 years, is headed by Winston. Reagan has been a full-time employee for two years.

He says, “Most of the employees have a bit of gang background. More ‘refined’ people with higher education won’t pick this job. So I was shocked that Winston is a degree holder. Frankly, that was even more why I was tempted to join him.”

While a period of two years might be dismissed anywhere else, I understand this is considered a significant time to stay in the debt collection industry. Most debt collectors quit after an average of three months, and most new companies shut down after a year.

In addition, very few part-timers are willing to take on debt collecting as a full-time job.

“The cases you see will change you, and your emotions will take a toll. This job has made me realise this world is very grey. I meet all sorts of people. For example, rich folk who don’t want to pay, people who lie like it’s the truth, and those who do a lot of wayang,” says Winston.

“As time goes by, you either get used to the pressure or you break from it.”

Reagan (left) and Winston (right).
Many assume debt collectors are hooligans with low education. This strong public perception makes it even more jarring when I realise debtors are the ones who usually get offensive instead.

Under my request, Winston willingly lets me shadow him and Reagan on the job for a day. They take me to collect cheques from two debtors who have agreed to pay up, and chase two other debtors for their outstanding debts.

Our first stop is a swanky condominium along Lorong Ah Soo. This debtor owes their client $3 million. Despite being sent an official court order to pay up, he hasn’t complied. This is their 10th visit to the debtor’s home. He’s not home, so Reagan calls him.

On the phone, Reagan’s tone gets increasingly loud and forceful, yet the content of his speech remains professional. He sticks to the issue at hand, and there are no personal attacks nor vulgarities hurled.

In return, Reagan is met with patronising replies from the debtor, who deflects the issue by threatening to file a lawsuit against whoever he owes the money. I am astounded by the degree of self-importance someone must possess to spend effort and money on getting a lawyer instead of paying up their overdue debt.

“Temper control is important for this job. You will meet debtors who try to provoke you, say you’re an uncultured gangster or a criminal, and so on. Winston teaches us how to negotiate, and what we can and cannot do within the law,” says Reagan.

“You also need a lot of patience. Sometimes, you need to stand very long. We can go to a house and wait outside the door for an hour. My longest case involved chasing a debtor every day for a month.”

On average, Reagan handles five to six ongoing cases like this per day. Occasionally, the debtor will agree to pay up. But even with successful cases, I imagine it takes someone incredibly self-assured not to get worn down from the constant personal attacks.

I suppose they don’t have much choice. Reagan explains that all of KX-Unit’s debt collectors strictly adhere to three rules: no vulgarities, no vandalism, and no violence. The moment anyone flouts a rule, they are immediately terminated by Winston.

No one has been fired so far.

At the Lorong Ah Soo unit, Reagan attempts to reach the debtor on the intercom before finding out he's at work.
Whoever Reagan speaks to in the debtor's home adamantly asks us to go away.
To reinforce their professionalism, the debt collectors never work on a case alone. They always go in pairs at least. While one negotiates, the other stands behind with a body camera. This body camera records everything that goes on from the moment they step out of their car.

Winston also shares that they willingly hand over the footage from their body camera if the police get involved and need some form of evidence.

As I discover later in the day, running into the police is a common occurrence for them. We arrive at a creative agency to collect a debt from the managing director. Not only does she not bother to explain her debt, like a normal person would, she immediately takes on a condescending tone and calls the police on us.

“Ok I am calling the police now. You wait there,” she repeats.

It takes everything in me not to laugh out loud.

In situations like this, KX-Unit’s standard operating protocol is indeed to wait for the police to arrive. Over the next 30 minutes we stand stoically outside the company, I experience a fraction of what Reagan meant when he said this job requires patience.

Winston adds, “We will never avoid the police, since everything we do is legal. Before we approach a debtor, we make sure we have proof of everything, including receipts, IOU, and documents of their debt in our tablet.”

This degree of thoroughness and a firm grasp of the various laws are necessary when dealing with “assholes on a daily basis”.  

As a result, KX-Unit hasn’t had a single criminal charge under the Protection of Harassment Act since they started.

The managing director of the creative company isn't in, so they put her on loudspeaker when they reach her via phone.
We all have to hand over our NRICs when the police come. All goes smoothly and they hand us the official case card within 15 minutes.
Their other cases yield equally interesting insights into colourful characters. For starters, they have observed that the richer someone is, the less likely they are to return the debt.

Reagan says, “There was this man who lived in a landed property, but he didn’t want to pay his debt of $1,200. Even the dog that he keeps is worth more than $1,200!”

They also share that the two things able to sway even the most stubborn Singaporean are pressure and embarrassment.

In another case involving a rich dude, this debtor threatened to “kill [them] all” by attempting to run them over with his car. In the end, after four shameful visits to his home, his brother offered to pay off the debt.

The amount in question? A measly $6,000.

Most of the time, their job is safe. But they admit there were a few instances that put their lives in danger. Some debtors slam doors into their face or hand, and they were once almost beaten up by 10 men whom a debtor sent after them.

But perhaps the most off-putting aspect of these debtors’ behaviour is their profound sense of entitlement. Usually, debtors resort to ‘pulling the education card’ by talking to debt collectors in legal terms, assuming they wouldn’t understand anything.

“There was a PE teacher who said I used abusive language on him, but I didn’t. So I informed him I could sue for defamation, as well as escalate the matter to his principal and MOE. That was all it took for him to comply and pay up,” says Winston.

“I remember he even asked my client if he could pay in sperm. Who says that?!”

People like the teacher, according to Winston, make him question whether anything can ever be strictly black or white. After all, don’t we expect a teacher to display better behaviour?

After two years on the job, he firmly subscribes to one phrase.

“There is no right or wrong, just who has more legal resources.”

Collecting a cheque from a debtor who has decided to pay up is easy and quick. It just takes us a maximum of five minutes.
That said, legal knowledge can be taught. Instead, Winston looks out for three inherent criteria when recruiting new debt collectors: courage (to talk to people from all walks of life), EQ, and street smarts.

In particular, high emotional intelligence is the top priority. It is the first thing Winston tests during the hiring process. He hurls insults at potential debt collectors and asks them how they’d cope with being on the receiving end of these words several times a day.

“That’s when you start to read the person’s facial expression. If they have a hard time answering, you know they’re not ready for this job. They will only get themselves into more trouble.”

Once they pass the test, the next step is getting trained in negotiation. This is where KX-Unit’s unique selling point comes in: they take pride in presenting an assessment and solution of the case to their clients. These hinge on several factors, such as the debtor’s personality and experience of how similar cases have gone.

They also come up with strategies for emergency situations, such as when a debtor changes his mind at the last minute and decides he doesn’t have the money to pay up.

“In this job, you have to be able to think on your feet. We will ask the debtor whether we can negotiate. Can we do some reduction? Discount? Instalment? I will also try to understand the grievances involved. Sometimes it’s a personal dispute, and not really about money,” says Winston.

“When we meet with the 10% whom we can’t recover money from, we will help them look for jobs, so that they can pay back the debt in instalment. Then we will recommend this solution to the client.”

For example, Reagan once helped a debtor who was bankrupt land a job as a waiter at his previous company.

I’m beginning to understand that their unorthodox methods and forthcoming personalities are what help them attract and retain bigger clients. As Winston shares, KX-Unit just won a “big case” because their client’s lawyer actually recommended them.

I am told lawyers typically avoid getting involved with debt collectors, so I know this news can only be a good thing.

The team at KX-Unit; Reagan (bottom left) and Winston (second from left).
Despite the nature of their job, it’s not all doom and gloom. Both men believe one of the surprising upsides to the job is becoming friends with debtors. Because of KX-Unit’s professionalism, debtors can end up respecting them.

In rare cases, debtors even become their clients.

“Once, there was a debtor who hated me so much that he sued me. That was my first lawsuit. But last month, he called to engage my services! Of course I was shocked at first, but then you start to realise you did a good job after all,” says Winston.

The two men also count their blessings whenever they can.

For instance, Winston’s aforementioned first lawsuit was completely settled by a previous client who became a friend after Winston handled the case.

And Reagan states that his favourite case was the one he did pro-bono for two migrant workers, whose employers refused to pay them a single cent. Successfully getting them the money they deserved made Reagan realise that there is deeper meaning to what he does.

These groups of people who don’t have the assistance to address their grievances are precisely why they believe debt collectors exist. To these people, debt collectors are also career counsellors, psychologists, and saviours.

In a way, debt collection is a last resort for many of their clients.

“It’s hard for them to take the legal route because they don’t have the resources. If the legal system were able to address their problems, and if the debtor merely hasn’t repaid for one to two months, do you think we would still be engaged? We may be cheaper than a lawyer but we are still not cheap.”

Winston explains that KX-Unit charges a 10% admin fee (minimum $526) and gets a 20% commission upon any amount collected. In other words, for retrieving a $2,500 debt, they already collect about $1,000.

“So if a person has an alternative, they wouldn’t approach us.”

Winston (left) with the two migrant workers that KX-Unit helped for free.
On this job, people skills are everything.
Because they meet people from all walks of life, from those living in one-room flats to bungalows, the job stretches one’s compassion and empathy. While they’re cautious not to fall for debtors who fake emotions, as well as remember that they represent their clients, they also understand the struggles these debtors face.

“The only thing we can do is think harder, such as how to strategise and negotiate our way through.”

Luckily for Winston, he loves these challenges of the job, particularly because debt collection lets him use his skills that he learnt from his previous jobs in sales.

“I used to negotiate with people to buy my product. Now, I am asking them to pay me without giving them anything in return. That’s something I’ve never done before.”

Essentially, debt collection is just another form of sales. It requires a specific skill set that involves having excellent people skills, even greater patience and perseverance, and unparalleled negotiation skills. Perhaps ‘ah longs’ are the best people for the job, after all.

And so, armed with a successful 2.5-year run in this industry and his prior career experience, Winston hopes to set up a consultancy next year where he can consolidate his experiences and empower more debt collectors. By training them, he hopes to raise the standard of the entire industry and attract people of better calibre.

Throughout the rest of the day, I also see his focus, drive, and smarts shine through in everything he does. So something tells me he will succeed in achieving his dream, and his men will be right there with him.

For one, I know Reagan will be. He truly enjoys this job—minus one tiny inconvenience.

Just before we part ways for the day, he shares that he recently went to view three HDB flats with his wife.

“The first two happened to be right next to homes of debtors that I’d been to before! Where got so suay? My wife just looked at me and said, ‘How about you tell me where we can actually live in Singapore?’”


Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer