12 April 1939 – 1 Dec 2021
In the past few years, during my father’s illness our family have been incredibly blessed by kind and wonderful people who have helped us. The staff of my father’s law firm, old friends and family. I want to thank you all for your love and care.
My mother, Hannah, my brother and sister in law Gabriel and Yenlin have been there where I haven’t been. I am very grateful for their dedication and love and I am sorry I am not there more often. Even now I wish I am there with you.
Every person’s life can be told like a film with a character arc that is usually only evident when a person passes.
I’m the story teller today, the eldest child of this man, Dato Ng Kong Yeam.
Dato Ng Kong Yeam was born privileged. Son of a goldsmith who migrated from China. Unfortunately, my grandfather developed an opium addiction and lost his goldsmith shop when my father was 7. Here I’d like to pause so we can try to imagine what it’s like. Very few people understand how it feels to have so much and then have it all taken away from you. My father knew this at age 7. Everything he had, everything he enjoyed, all gone when my grandfather became a bankrupt. That is the life defining moment that played a key role in everything my father became, both good and flawed. He could have turned to crime, but thankfully, he turned to rebelling against the British in 1957, got himself expelled from Chung Ling in Penang and went to Penang Free School. The draconian will of my grandmother who insisted her son will get an education is to be admired.
My father has always been grateful to his Chung Ling and Penang Free schoolmates for their influence. Thank you to those who have come today.
With that history, you now have a clue of the tenaciousness of the man. He had the gift of language and because he spoke 7 dialects/Languages, he became a court interpreter. While he held that job in Johor Baru (JB), he became good friends with the judge who allowed him to go for afternoon lectures across the causeway in Singapore to pursue a law degree. Both my parents earned very little then and half the earnings had to be sent back to their parents. Only after his law degree did our lives improve. By the time he was 40, he was comfortably upper middle class. At his prime, he became a titled gentleman, a Dato, was well connected and influential. A lawyer, a corporate player, I remember him campaigning for my mum in every Chinese dialect when she was running for political office. That 7 year old boy has gone on and done good.
While we celebrate my father’s life, we must also acknowledge his flaws and mistakes. But even with his flaws and mistakes, he created good in this world. He was a deal maker. Operations and the running of a business was not his strong suit. But that meant everyone around him had to step up and do their part. When he left my mum and took off to live his life his way, he gave the world my mum, the member of parliament turned missionary who built a church in China, who transformed lives of the poor in her village in China and the children in Sabah and by inspiration transformed us all. His loss, the world’s gain.
Let me tell you a little bit about my father.
He loved beautiful things. He would buy art and be conned half the time because he was also stingy and loved a deal. He would scold me if I didn’t dress well and looked better. He appreciated all the efforts to make something aesthetically pleasing, even though we all think he has terrible taste. He built a house in 1985 and furnished it with pieces of art that he loved and he thought he will live there till he died. He did die there, but sadly, until his illness brought him home, he didn’t live there as long as he had hoped.
He wanted to be loved. And to be the centre of attention. He was absolutely charming and I was told, very handsome. Sorry, a child can never find a parent handsome. He would charm everyone he meets, young or old. It was almost a challenge for him. He would even try to charm my daughters classmates in primary school. And he seized opportunities to have people work for him, beholden to him, love him.
Finally, he loved us. For all his flaws, his terrible taste is clothing, he loved his children. But his was a love that can be tough and constantly fluctuating between being overly generous and meanly tight-fisted. Later in life, I learnt how to con him back. He never gave me any spending money in university so I told him my university tuition fees was paid 4 terms a year when it actually was for 2 semesters, so that I had double the money. I knew he gave my brother a credit card so I would use my brother’s credit card for drinks at the bar. I suspect he always knew what I did, but somehow he let me get away with it.
In my work, I have seen the poor stay poor. Where children of a family on benefits for 4 generations have never seen their parents work and had a culture of work. Social mobility cannot be taken for granted. That 7 year old kid who had so little in 1946, decided to make something of himself and in doing so, made this family who we are today. We owe him everything. I owe him everything. A debt I can never ever hope to repay.
Pa, I love you. I’ve missed you for awhile now and I still wish to hear your voice. Your death is a kindness of God. You will now go on to a better place.
For years, I lived under the yoke of winning your approval and when I finally thought I’ve achieved something that would make you proud, you were struck with dementia. I was angry that dementia cheated me of that satisfaction. But with dementia came your last lesson to me – that what mattered was not you – but what you leave behind. All of us.
And I think you would be proud of what you are leaving behind – all of us as your legacy. Your children in 3 countries – your grandchildren living good purposeful, meaningful lives – not hungry, not wanting, not deprived. Thank you Pa, for so much. And to that 7 year kid in Penang in 1946. What an incredible life. Well done. Time to rest.