Our President’s Precedents

The character in The Water Margin that most resembles the next hero in my story has to be Chao Gai, the chief of Dongxi Village who became the leader of the marsh brotherhood. Chao Gai’s inspirational leadership of great heroes and unrivalled kindness that instilled many to follow his saintly crusade made me put down the book and contemplate on where I have gone awry in my own life. We all fondly refer to the President of our class reunion committee as Prez. That Prez also exhibits such heroic qualities and magnanimous heart forced me to stop and consider why I have been a lesser man with a smaller heart and a narrower mind. He has a heart that clearly does not discriminate or incriminate but is well balanced, hospitable, virtuous, kind, and above all, caring and generous. Why, why, why then, have I remained in the shadow of moral mediocrity and continue to occupy myself with the self-imposed staleness of increasingly meaningless goals of the financial and material kind? What causes a person to choose the path of selflessness? To own an instinctive inclination to reach out and help those less able or less fortunate? It seems counterintuitive to common sense; surely the Theory of Evolution requires us to look after ourselves first and foremost? I felt a deep sense of shame as I read about Chao Gai’s kind deeds and related them to Prez’s ever-present big-hearted compassion that puts his benevolence and courage often in the limelight. These heroes share a common thread – they are brave, selfless, kind and often reach out to help the needy or less fortunate. I can’t tick any of those boxes with real conviction for myself, and this has been as annoying as a blowfly to my conscience. I should not mislead the reader – I do of course, also contribute to society, with the efforts from work and small donations to charities and medical research. But, they are not really worth mentioning and pale in comparison to the innumerable fundraising campaigns, charity work and support for orphans, the needy and the elderly that Prez has led.

Prez’s paternal grandparents travelled from Fujian in Tong’an via Singapore and settled down in a rented room in Kimberley Street, Penang. They had two sons and two daughters. Prez’s father was the youngest of the four. Prez never met his maternal grandfather – apparently, he converted to Christianity but attended only one service before he succumbed to an illness. His entitlement from that single gesture was a right to be buried in the Western Road cemetery. Prez’s maternal grandmother was a kind and generous woman. She outlived her husband by many years but she was buried in Batu Gantung, far away from his final resting place on account that she did not convert.

Prez’s dad was known as Ah Tong. Educated in a Chinese-medium school, his lack of English language skills was of no consequence during pre-colonial rule. As a young man, he worked as a lorry driver distributing ice blocks, and later transported pigs for Khow Lee, the famous Kuala Kangsar Road pork shop. In 1956, he and his wife Hong Choo had enough saved to start their hobby farm – rearing pigs and poultry in Air Itam. It was his mother who imparted the first rule for Prez to abide by throughout his life. Prez’s benevolence and compassion directly stem from her instruction – the emphasis to give rather than take. He has a collection of rules which he steadfastly lives by, a set of precedents if you like, that are established by long practice.


Give before you take.

Hong Choo
Hong Choo and Ah Tong at a tea ceremony.


A fond memory for Prez was the motorcycle rides with his parents from their home in Beach Street in town to their farm, although he was scarred by one trip when he dropped one of his slippers whilst sitting sandwiched between both parents. His mum who was a pillion rider behind him saw that he had lost a slipper, but she too made not a single sound and thus saved the four-year-old boy from his father’s rotan (Malay for rattan cane). He had a tough childhood but that did not deprive him from having some happy memories too – shooting birds with catapults, catching and nurturing fighting spiders and staging fights, swimming in the river with the neighbourhood kids, and avoiding police raids during Chinese New Year gambling sessions were especially exciting moments. His favourite prank was “pounding itchy berries upstream, downstream kids ‘kena’ (suffered) itchiness”. Prez was still only a kid, but he was not spared the daily chores that a farm demanded even from a boy – collecting dried wood for the furnace, chopping banana tree trunks, collecting weeds and food scraps for the pigs, bathing the pigs and clearing the pigsties of their wastes, collecting eggs and cleaning chook poo from the nests. They kept some goats too, but those proved to be a handful, as they were prone to damaging neighbouring crops and fences.

A 1937 painting of Ah Tong‘s clan professing their love for their motherland during a wedding celebration.


In 1963, his family moved to Air Itam to live, thus avoided the unproductive daily commuting time. His parents retired in 1969. Air Itam lies on the foothills of Penang Hill, a verdant valley with a few pristine streams. The cool clear water and clean fresh air from the hills they enjoyed was a well-kept secret. The family house still stands, now over a hundred years old. Prez is the sixth child in his family, the third son.
He attended La Salle School in Air Itam before joining my school, St Xavier’s Institution for Fourth and Fifth Form. “You were in our school’s Army Cadets, right?” I asked. “Yes, the cadet uniforms were the cheapest,” Prez said, indicating that monetary concerns outweighed passions and interests. In the first few weeks in his new school, the teacher pestered Prez incessantly to buy the compulsory accessories – a school tie, a cap and a coloured tee shirt for the Sports ‘House’ he was selected to. His dad finally agreed after muttering to himself for weeks whenever asked for the money. Prez described how bad their living conditions were. I was reminded of the Chinese word for poor, qiong 窮. It is formed from three words. The first word at the top is a small cave. The second word below it on the left is body, and the last word on the right is an archer’s bow, bent and stretched. So, 窮 describes how a person is hunched over, cramped and stretched to the limits in a tiny harsh dwelling. A picture of abject poverty.

Prez had to attend Upper Form Five, after which he accepted tertiary education was beyond his family’s budget. He contributed to the family’s coffers during those High School days but the amounts earned from an uncle’s car-wash operation and tuition fees as a part-time teacher were not enough. Two older sisters fared worse, sacrificing their education, and did not complete high school. All the children had to work from an early age; his two brothers ran a stall selling their family farm’s chook eggs at the Chowrasta market for many years.

From 1977 to 1979, Prez worked as a construction labourer in Kuala Lumpur after abandoning his ambition to further his education at a tertiary level. His big break came when he joined Jabatan Telekom in March 1979. There he stayed and built his career in warehousing and logistics and later branched to technical and service restoration until his retirement in 2018. Today, Prez is still blissfully married to his wife of 39 years. She was the irresistible girl from three doors away and together, they produced two daughters and a son. They enjoyed their childhood together, “swimming in the river, playing ‘tar li tui’ (chasey), and spent a lot of time together in their teens – hiking, picnicking, camping, etc, etc, etc”. Prez refused to elaborate what ‘etc, etc, etc’ was or where they were enjoyed. Instead, he offered this additional detail, “She had lots of admirers but I beat them all because of my honesty and good reputation in the neighbourhood”.


“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” 己所不欲,勿施於人。

Confucius

The above saying takes different forms throughout history. The Bible’s version is well-known by all, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. This is a favourite rule that Prez keeps in his heart – one could say this is another unshakeable precedent he adheres to. “No one wishes ill-will on themselves, similarly, we ought not wish ill on others”.

“If we were all to practise this, then the world will be rid of evil a long time ago. There would be no urghhlings for me to write about,” I said.

Prez sighed and observed this fact,”Time and time again, humans are less loyal and trustworthy than dogs”.

A friend, John Scalzi, taught me this prayer recently, ‘Dear God, please help me be the person my dog thinks I am’.

Education is the only fortune.

Lim Theng Lye

Prez was the kampong (Malay for village) tuition teacher when he was still in High School. His passion for education was infectious and for that, he would have unknowingly helped many children to a more promising future. The universal convention about the value of education adopted by the kampong kids would have stemmed from this precedent that Prez holds dear. He did not forget the importance of physical education either. Prez built a concrete badminton court on land adjacent to their house, and espoused the discipline that regular exercise from their twice weekly badminton sessions was good for health and happiness. His appreciative daughter told me they didn’t have money worries in school. “As much as honesty is the bedrock of our loving family, papa is our drumbeat of learning”.

Fortunes are dictated by fate, life and death are prescribed by heaven.

Unknown

Prez is an ardent follower of this precedent. “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude,” he said. “We may not be born equal, but with the right attitude, nothing is beyond any of us,” he instills in his children. I see him as a straight arrow, outright without artifice and wears no mask of pretence.

Man may calculate, but it is heaven that ordains. 人算不如天算

Old Chinese saying

“God’s plans supersede our own. Man proposes but it is God who disposes,” Prez said this is also one of his favourite precedents. In other words, let us put our best foot forward, and give it our best shot in any endeavour. We commit to any undertaking with as much effort and determination as possible, but let us not be disappointed with our ‘personal best’. We cannot grumble if we have tried our hardest.

A droplet of grace will be repaid with a fountain of gratitude. 滴水之恩,当涌泉相报

Han Xin, a military general to Liu Bang, eventual founder of the Han dynasty. 

Prez’s loyalty and benevolence can shame people. There is never any favour that is too inconvenient or any kind deed that can be ignored by him. But, it is also his immense sense of gratitude that can overwhelm even a man with a heart of stone. Prez teaches his children they must follow this precedent and be as indebted to kindness and patronage, and never to abandon anyone who has put their trust in them.

Like his dad, Prez had great intentions for lasting friendship. So one day in 1980, he pulled out from storage an old list of names and addresses of his classmates from his last year of school, and started an annual reunion. After a request from Jason Lee in 1982, Prez organised the first reunion of all Lasallians from the same year. In 2009 following a suggestion from Joe Tan, he formed our brotherhood and named it LaSaints58 – Brothers Forever. This group comprises schoolmates born in 1958 from the three schools, La Salle, St Xavier’s Branch and St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). There have been recent murmurings from some quarters that we should be politically correct and call ours a fellowship instead, to be all-encompassing since some girls did join SXI in Form Six. The founding committee members were: Stephen Loo Vitong, Michael Ang, Lawrence Cardosa, Steven Tan Jit Huat, Gilbert Chin, Roy Liu and Patrick Leong. Sub-committee members were: Wilson Gan, Mak Kem Seng, Tan Chueen Seng, Oh Teik Soon, David Sivampatham, Admiral Ch’ng, Lye Tuck Lum, and Loh Thiam Fook.

Loyalty, Courage and Discipline are my only three conditions.

Guan Yu, courtesy name Yunchang

Guan Yu, the God of War, a military general who served Liu Bei during the late Eastern Han Dynasty in the Three Kingdoms, adopted a son by the name of Guan Ping. He had only three conditions for the young man before he accepted him. Loyalty. Courage. Discipline. Prez considers these three attributes as important as honour, compassion and righteousness. These are the six pillars of a great precedent for his children and those who follow him. “We will remember these precedents until our teeth fall out,” his daughter promised.

Prez and I never attended the same class in school. He still has that demeanour of a young larrikin whose infectious laughter can make an elegy sound happy. It would be fair to say we never met in school, although I did recognise him from some school photos he shared. Angelina Jolie may have her amorous hot lips and Brigitte Bardot her famous pouting lips, but Prez’s trademark thick lips complement his flashy white teeth also. Meeting him two years ago was like ‘seeing sweet rain in a time of drought’. The respect he commands is unrivalled and his popularity is universal. I still hold dear in my heart his wonderful kindness when during the first wave of the pandemic in March last year, he attended my aunt’s wake despite a lockdown order in place. After observing the Buddhist obsequies, he paid his respects and handed a ‘white handkerchief’ to my cousins, as a condolence gift from our brotherhood. When we were feeling devastated and emotionally vulnerable, he was there to support us in our grief. I have no hesitation in including Prez, a most worthy man, to the brotherhood alongside Blue Eyes, Wu Yong, Four Eyes, The Cook, Lord Guan Typhoon and Blue Chip.

Prez, our President.