our dad

our dad

That was yesterday, yesteryear, my paternal grandma, mom of my dad, with us. She wasn’t with us anymore, so was my dad.

Yesterday was my dad’s 8th death anniversary.

Dad and mom weren’t really around much when we were growing up. They were so busy with their work. He was travelling a lot. Mom was stuck behind the desk in a bank job nine to five. Keeping us fed and educated and housed comfortably. That was what they had in mind. He kept the tremendous stress of his job to himself, and mom, kept a brave front (not always succeeding) despite feeling aggrieved, negative and unhappy due to myriad of reasons!

As such, the four of us, all pretty close in age, learn to be pretty independent (mentally/psychologically). Even now, we were never ‘needy’ people. We lead. In our work, in our relationship with our spouses; we have our say, we are no pushovers, we solve our problems without overt song and dance. And we contribute and provide. In our parents’ absence, we spent quite a bit of time with our grandmas, our older cousins, our aunts at one time or another, our various private tuition teachers and our domestic helps. They entrusted us in good hands.

And I am glad all my siblings are successful in their own right, have kids of their own and have all done very well. And turn out ‘right’. All decent good people I can trust. May be we were lucky, we have no one to lead us astray, or really, our parents did a good job.

I think what is important in parenting is setting examples by deeds not just words. What parents do, their actions, not mere words, would shape how their kids turn out. My dad didn’t say much, or lecture or ‘taught’ us; no pep talks. I only remember two instances when dad chided/corrected me. But those were done with great timing and effect. I still remember the exact instances when that happened. One was when I damaged the Nissan Cefiro (never to assign blame on someone else), and the other, when I pestered for my contact lens prescription when I got drafted into my college tennis team (it is wrong to have a sense of entitlement when you have not earned it).

He pretty much gave most of us freedom to do what we want with our lives and education (though my sister is going to have something to say about that!) When I was doing my degree in Australia, I knew he was having difficulty paying my school fees, but he sold a property in Sydney (at a loss) to fund my studies. That somehow, was a guilt I have born, for a long time.

My dad was a resourceful person who rarely complained (unlike me, so I didn’t learn that from him.. yet!). A hard worker who managed to start from scratch and managed to set up a garment factory hiring more than 100 workers, he was an entrepreneur. When the factory wasn’t doing well due to the government’s plan of making labour-intensive manufacturing industries obsolete in Singapore, I knew he went to great lengths to keep it going because he felt the responsibility of ensuring the livelihood for this staff.

I remember how late he used to come home from work for quite a few years. We were living then in Jurong area (till 1978) and I remember that white round clock on the wall. Dad will come home and I will look at that clock. 10:10 pm, almost invariably. And it was also when some of those wonderful TV dramas (martial arts drama from Taiwan, not from Hong Kong, yet) would have ended.

Dad also went into barter trading in Karzahkstan. How did he get that opening? There were other myriad business ventures. I only had a glimpse of what was going on. None were quite successful, some were disasters, all by virtue of him being so trusting and generous to his business partners (a lot of them turned out to be swindlers and cheated lots of money from my dad. Do not let me meet these scoundrels ever again. I know your faces!). But out of all these business partners, there was one good soul, who still fondly remembers dad, recalling how dad nurtured and guided him and helped him when he was starting out. He is a very successful businessman now in Penang/Malaysia. He still visits my mom and keeps in touch with her and gives her a big ang pow every year. In gratitude and remembrance of my dad.

Dad appreciated good cuisine, but never quite complained about bad food (often prepared by our domestic helps and by my mom sometimes– it wasn’t the best – that could have explained a little, apart from genetics, why the three out of four of us were skinny – my youngest brother was a little more chubby!); or how me and my sis will each take ONE hour to finish a meal, to the great angst and dismay of my domestic helps. For him, eating was just a means to sustain himself and move on to more work. When he became affluent, one of his favourite pastimes was to bring the whole family to famous eateries and restaurants, or seek out good food, and it was a fun family outing every weekend. I also remember the FIRST day MacDonalds opened in Singapore. Dad was excited about something, I never quite caught what he said but he went and bought each of us one burger to be brought to school. We were the first few in Singapore to have tasted MacDonalds (my fillet o’fish was so good, my first ever MacDonald meal). MacDonalds was very good then (in early 80s), unlike the quality we have now. There was a stretch of weekends that we spent our time going through the MacDonald’s menu ( in Shenton Way).

Even now, there were some restaurants we still visit frequently, 30 years on! How lucky we were, as kids, to have savoured some of the most exquisite cuisines in Singapore, and how that fine-tuned our culinary discernment. We now KNOW what is gourmet cuisine, or good wholesome food! But how whiney I was then when I thought if the food were not ‘up to standards’. I will appraise and criticise the dish (if not audibly, within myself). That was something I recall with shame, the little insults and tantrums I threw at the restaurants. I was ever so fussy (even now!)

We were told by our aunts when dad was young, how he was obligated, as the oldest son, to take the punishment for his younger siblings’ misdeeds and get caned and punished by his grandpa – who was a traditional, no-nonsense, what sounded like a tyrannical person. I know Dad was accused of a crime (murder?) in the 1960s, he was a scapegoat, and was held in jail for 1-2 year. It was thought that he acquired TB in prison (subsequently had a lung lobectomy to remove his diseased lung lobe). He was ultimately and surely, acquitted, with the help of the lawyer, the legendary David Marshall. But he wasted 2 years, lost his job (he was a teacher then at a renowned Secondary School in Singapore). All these dribs and drabs I heard from third persons, while trying to picture the whole story, but I have never verified that with any of my relatives or himself. But it didn’t matter. He gathered all that up and went on to own that factory.

He was also a very animal-oriented person – much like his own father, my grandpa. When he was young, he bred pigeons to sell to earn some pocket money. He had great horsemanship, was able to ride some of the most difficult horses, and he had quite a few German Shepherd Dogs. I probably inherited the affinity with animals from him. He bought all those books and encyclopedias on nature and animals — I was about the only one out of my siblings to have read them all as a kid.

From some of the photos, it seemed he was very involved as an actor in stage plays during his undergraduate days, and he was a very good swimmer. He graduated with honours from the prestigious Taiwan University with a degree in pharmacy. And he, and my mom, were movie fans… from stars of Hong Kong, China, to those of Hollywood, they seemed to know a lot and discussed a lot about them. This could explain my awareness and appreciation in cinema, movies and the performing arts (and I believe my sister was likewise influenced).

I also recalled an incident when he brought home some 200 peacock feathers — how beautiful they were!! — much to be my mom’s dismay. Why did he bring home that bunch of dusty feathers, each about a metre long? That was a lot of feathers! My mom’s not quite a fan of dusts and feathers. But for me, that was a great gift, as these were one of my toys, which I often arranged in different manner, compared them one by one, checking their lengths, ranking them by their completeness and ‘beauty’, comparing the ‘eyes’ of each of the tail feathers, and wondered how on earth did they end up on a bird’s tail and how they were collected ( did they kill the birds?). So splendid and so gory. It turned out that he chanced upon this old Indian lady by the street selling these peacock feathers… these feathers were to be used in Hindu ceremonies. He felt pity for her and bought them all!

He did well, and I know he helped his siblings financially too. And my mom wasn’t that pleased. But you know, blood is thicker than water, and no matter how my uncle messed up, no matter how he didn’t ever deserve the extent of assistance my dad would give him, my dad was always there for him.

Dad was smart, good in his studies, had a sharp mind; my sister and brothers were blessed with that. I inherited his quick temper, not so much his quick mind or brilliance. Even though he was bad-tempered, I know he made great efforts to rein that in. Especially with my mom. I rarely saw that side of him.

The last of which I remember most poignantly of was that he wanted his haagen daaz, bedridden in the hospital, just a few days before he would pass away….. and he didn’t even get to have his haagen daaz (we got him Wall’s)… he struggled to get the chocolate ice-cream down his throat, but because no food was able to pass from his stomach to his intestines as it was blocked.. all the Wall’s ice-cream just went straight back out through the tube that was placed in there to reduce stomach filling and discomfort. I was so sad. No, he didn’t complain. I hope he got the satisfaction of at least tasting the ice-cream.

As children, we should repay our parents, some way somehow, though, I know whatever we do might never be quite enough. Not that they always demand that from us. Not our parents. I think that should inspire us to be better parents ourselves, to be better bosses, spouses and partners, employees, better human beings, someone who cares for others, and who knows right from wrong and who will stand up in the face of unfairness. This is to do justice to our upbringing. How we behave would bring shame or glory to our parents. I am traditional in that sense.

How I wished all of us could have understood the stress and difficulties in his life, in his work, in his relationship, may be share or acknowledge a little of that burden he shouldered. He never said a thing about those. May be one of my brothers was aware even when he was little, but I sure wasn’t. Dad kept it from us so that we grew up in that ignorant bliss. I am sorry, deeply, to this day, and probably for as long as I live, to have missed his funeral.

I hope he was somehow content and happy and proud of us. He had taught us, in his own ways, about being honorable, decent, generous people. Thank you.


Tiger tiger , tiger shark!

Tiger tiger , tiger shark!

I swirled around just in time to see a Tiger shark circling behind me. A fellow diver took this photo and sent it to me. I remember there was much frantic banging on the tanks…clanging,, noise. I think the divemasters weren’t so happy, because I wasn’t supposed to be in mid-water, I was supposed to ascend while following the contour of the reef slope. Oh well!!!!

It was a young tiger shark, may be 3.5 metres long; the stripes on its torso revealed that it was a sub-adult!

That was in 2011, Fiji, Beqa Lagoon.

I made four dives with a dive operation in Beqa Lagoon and it totally opened my mind to the idea of shark chumming.

I didn’t think it was right to chum sharks to attract them for the sake of tourists/divers, but I was curious; and now, I have to say if it is done in a regulated, planned and controlled way, it can be safe and rewarding. However, if done in a haphazard way ( such as in Florida or Hawaii — it is banned in Hawaii three-four years ago), it can spell disaster.

The ‘shark dive’ wasn’t just about the tiger shark; there are six-seven species of sharks you might be able to see on one of these dives, but the tiger shark was something everybody wanted to see. It wasn’t just a ‘shark porn” dive; it was also about marine protected area, no-take zones and the local community.

The bull sharks ‘behaved” themselves and always come from one side and if they misbehave” and come from another side, no food will be given. You will be amazed how orderly they were when they “queued” and waited their turn for tuna heads to be handed out by the feeders. Much more orderly than most human crowds are anyway.

By saying ‘planned, controlled and regulated”, I am referring to a strict protocol for conducting the shark dives that has been rehashed/rehearsed for months and years by the dive operators. It was very well run. Divemasters to diver ratio was high, there were set depths where you must go to ( which will feature different species of sharks and feeding methods) and you better follow and obey the briefings and instructions. ( The divemasters conducting the dives carry BIG iron staff/rods — so if you misbehave……… nah . those were for any bull sharks or nurse sharks or Tiger sharks which might venture a little to near for comfort!).

I discovered the bull sharks were not the frenzied eaters they were supposed to be– basically, if the feeder were new, the sharks would not take food from that feeder. The new feeder had to be habituated for three-four weeks , situated alongside the regular feeder during the feeding sessions, before the sharks will take food from him ( it is usually a ‘he’ divemaster). The bull sharks were, you know, a little shy, despite their immense bulk!!

So there were bull sharks – the well behaved ones, the grey reefs, tawny nurse sharks ( they were messy gobblers) and then the black and white tips reef sharks. The white tip reef sharks were the more hazardous ones as they will crowd all over the feeder, sometimes grabbing the hands and legs of the feeder too! The feeder who was doing the white tip reef shark feeding had to wear chain mails.

But the one fish that the dive operators warned us were the Giant Trevallies — they will snatch your camera and sometimes brush up very close to you. They were described as ‘rude and stupid’, unlike our well behaved gentlemanly/lady-like bull sharks! Well, these Giant trevallies can get to two metres long, and they go head to head with the bull sharks for their chums!

Of course, there were also hundreds of red snappers, big surgeons, fusiliers, and many many swirling schools of fish adding to the spectacle of sharks right before your nose. The sheer abundance of fish was just… staggering! Marvelling at the thick thick immense schools of fish probably caused a bit of vertigo to some divers!

The shark dive operators work with the community and it goes like this. A certain percentage of the profits earned from the dives goes to the community. And the community supports the operators — many of the divemasters and instructors used to fish for a living. Beqa Lagoon is protected so no fishing is allowed in it, but the spill over from the protected areas is so huge fishing is good around the periphery of Beqa Lagoon. It seems everyone benefits.

But what about the environment? Beqa Lagooon is a no-take zone. As such, the reef ecosystem is healthy due to the abundance of fish life. Though some will say — we are changing nature, habituating the sharks to people, upsetting the food chain/ food web by feeding them. But honestly, by our mere existence on this earth, or if there were any evidence of coastline human activities, nature is already altered. I would say with compromise, there might be more good than bad in the Beqa shark dives— what with fisherman getting their catch, communities getting some money for schools and such, and the reefs staying healthy.

A ground-breaking research by Dr Enric Sala ( my hero), a marine ecologist, showed that any human existence will basically alter the whole reef ecosystem. He compared reefs with no human presence (Kingman Reef) against those with some human presence (eg reefs in Kiribati, Christmas island) and he found that the higher the human population was at that particular reef, the more severe the alteration was from its pristine stage. Adverse alteration, that is.

So, lets tread lightly on our planet.

Forms of fishing……

Forms of fishing......

I drew this while I was working as a dive manager and scuba instructor for an NGO for ocean conservation in Fiji 2 years ago.

This was for the kids, in Motoriki, Uluibau Primary School. It was situated about 40 minutes boat ride from the island where we were based. I loved the kids, and at one time, I remembered the names of all the students in that class we were working with. 9-11 boys and 8-10 girls, I think? Aged between 11-14.

I was trying to tell them about fishing methods. Trawling is bad, bad, bad for the ocean. The volunteers with the NGO will go there once a week. We blokes have to wear the sulus ( its like a skirt, like the kilt Scottish men wear) and flowery shirts ( Fijian style!) and the ladies, traditional Fijian dresses. No bare shoulders! All skirts below knees! I still have my sulu with me. Miss them kids. Miss their eagerness and friendliness.

What was bad was Chinese businessmen were paying the locals to dive to great depths to collect sea cucumbers. And these local scuba divers weren’t even properly trained. It is illegal to harvest sea cucumbers ( which fetch good prices! 80-150 USD per kilo I think for the fishers) in this manner.

And the sea cucumbers have pretty fancy layman names — pink lady, lollyfish, white teat fish. black teat fish, Doom ( also called Spiny pineapple). In our project, we have to learn to identify them and gather data on them to check on their abundance or lack of.

What was also wrong was I wasn’t allowed to say a proper goodbye to the kids as our project folded and we had to leave….. and I was told to keep quiet about it to the kids ( not because, we were afraid it will upset them, but because NO ONE, including the paying volunteers, were supposed to know the project wasn’t continuing due to lack of new volunteers, for the sake of our ‘morale’, and probably, reputation and face. What borsch!) Of course, I disobeyed my director and project manager.

While the project manager and other volunteers were making their way back to the boat at the end of our last session with them, I lingered behind, ran to their houses,,,,,,,gathered the kids and said goodbye…. I didn’t say we were not coming back. I just said goodbye and take good care… but they know we were not coming back. Weren’t they smart? They just all came around and gave me a big hug. Damn, I was heartbroken.

Never betray children, especially those who trust you. It left such a bad taste with me with my NGO/employer, and I would not forgive myself for leaving without bidding farewell ! I still have the photos of the kids. And those were happy times.

The other thing that was wrong was I didn’t keep in touch with any of them. No emails ( they do not have those there). I wrote a letter to be passed to them with my email…. but may be I didn’t try hard enough. You know, it will so make my day if I could just receive something from them one day. Some day. Never mind, I know they will be well.

Bula! Take care you kids. Be good, love the ocean, and don’t live your lives struggling to be impoverished consumers of goods of the developed world which are not going to do you any good.




The tobacco paradox in scuba diving
By Tatanka Katsuo

Smoking and scuba diving is a contentious topic and I believe my mentioning it would risk alienating fellow diving professionals (who smoke). Many of my dear friends and mentors are smokers. I adore them. But I must heed what Martin Luther King said about ‘our lives beginning to end if we keep silent about the things that matter.”

So does it matter? Is it not a lifestyle choice (or health choice)? Thousands of people smoke and dive and many of them are scuba instructors.

Dive Accident Network, the non-profit organization which manages dive accidents in particularly decompression illnesses (DCI) for the public, reported that those who smoke develop more severe symptoms of decompression illness (DCI) if they should develop DCI. DAN didn’t quite say that smoking predisposes you to DCI, but that if you were to develop DCI, you will suffer more severe forms of DCI if you are a smoker.

There are many other adverse effects of smoking especially pertaining to scuba activities. Just google ‘smoking and scuba diving’, and you have all the explanations of why you shouldn’t smoke and dive! I won’t scare you with the details here……

SCUBA stands for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. That is the wonder of the invention of SCUBA – to be able to breathe in the aquatic realm. I always think that the essence of SCUBA is —air, breathe, lungs. You want clean, dry filtered air in your tank going to your regulator into your lungs. It makes sense you want to have glistening, pink, clean, moist and delicate alveoli — the thin air sacs in your lungs where gaseous exchange occurs in optimal condition with clean, dry filtered compressed air. You want optimal equipment and then, you want optimal lung function. Sounds profound?Smoking damages the surfactant-lined alveoli with soot and hundreds of other bad stuff from the cigarettes. So why bother with all the equipment, the costs, and the precautions with clean, filtered air in your tank if you were to smoke before you dive?

The paradox is that many of the recreational dive professionals (especially in South East Asia) are pretty heavy smokers, and yet they are really good divers with good air consumption (they really are!). So what do we make of it?

Probably, then, would you not say they might be even better with their air-consumption if they did not smoke? I think so. At least I think they might perform even better in one of those rare instances of inclement diving conditions such as unexpected down currents and rip tides when their students or their guests need their help to bail them out.

Many might then say life is short, enjoy it, as smoking is a personal life choice. I live by that adage too. Yet I also want to live happily while being healthy, and to be able to dive and do all the activities for as long as my body could maintain and I would hazard a guess smoking might adversely affect my ability to achieve that. (Why is it that the most pleasurable pursuits and habits are bad for us? That is another philosophical question!!!!)

Well, now the other thing I was told as a dive professional is to be a good role model for your students. It was drummed into us by our certifying body (mine is PADI ). I don’t know if smoking would label you as a bad role model. May be not. I know that smoking ban or restriction is happening in so many countries, and there is a huge drive to fight the tobacco lobby, it is irrefutable that smoking is just … bad for you…… It is also deemed not cool anymore to smoke, not to mention it also affects the health of those (non-smokers) who are around you. Do we also go with the times or do we fall behind?

I always often see it as a double-standard too. Many instructors, who hail from developed countries, would probably not have the liberties to light up so freely and easily while in their own countries. But then, when we come and work in the developing countries (in the countries within the wonderful coral triangle, where a lot of the people here smokes as it is encouraged so as to drive a large industry – tobacco – going and since cigarettes sales are dropping in America and Europe now we need other markets to sustain the industry…..), we light up as easily and as freely as we drink water (or beer). Do you see my point and dismay?

I hope my fellow smoking dive instructors would take my personal view in good spirit, and would agree to disagree, or see it as something to think about. My final thoughts – to smoke just right before you take your students for their first open water dives, after all that theory and the spew about healthy lifestyle in those chapters in our open water and divemaster manuals, and after passing the Instructor Exams – where there are questions about smoking being bad for scuba diving— would be at worst, outright hazardous, and if not, hypocritical.