good bye, Sir!

lee-kuan-yew-cries

忧国忧民…Mr. Lee Kuan Yew breaking down in tears announcing Singapore being kicked out of Malaya (ca Aug 1965).

Often, when I think about the education I have received, and that of my siblings, my peers, and our ability to maintain a good standard of living in the global context, and my being bilingual — I am thankful for my parents, who have worked hard to provide and guide, and how that was facilitated and made possible due to the foundation and infrastructure of Singapore — built by our pioneer generation, led by this giant of a leader, an iron-fisted man way ahead of his time.

We won’t be where we are without Lee Kuan Yew. Forever thankful 饮水思源

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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.