Life Lessons from Dad – The Nature of Disappointment

When my father passed away in July last year, he was in his late 70s. He lived his last few years almost a hermit, going out only when necessary with mum, not wanting to meet his old friends, sometimes talking about the good old days, sometimes trying to lecture my brother and I on the state of the world the way he saw it.

We saw him mostly as bitter, angry, defeated, yearning for better times. I personally was disappointed in him, in his life choices, his shutting down when he could have attempted to rectify his mistakes and his pride, which kept him unbending, even when people tried to help him before he got sick.

Before he passed, I spoke to someone I considered a mentor about my disappointment, my anger, my bitterness at how things turned out. Instead of sympathy, he told me this: “Life is about disappointment, especially if you want to choose to believe in people. People will disappoint you. It’s not about whether you are disappointed in them or not. It’s about you asking yourself – are they worth the disappointment?”

His words got me thinking. Hard.

I was disappointed in my father, yes. But he was my father. Do I hold on to the anger and disappointment, or do I let it go and remember the man he was, the man who when I was growing up, was strict yet would move heaven and earth to make sure that I got what I needed, no matter the cost. He was my father and, for a time, my hero. How could he not be worth it?

But it wasn’t just my father who made me angry and disappointed when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. It was also watching fellow schoolmates getting places in university, scholarships, those who had the means to go overseas to study, and then in the workplace seeing those who curried favour rise when I continued to work my ass off for recognition.

I got angrier inside, blamed everyone, the family I was born in, being the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong everything. Leaving was tempting. Then I had to support the family and I couldn’t leave. yet. So I saved to study. Then 1997 happened and my savings became nothing.

I was angry and disappointed. And I carried that anger and disappointment for a long time. It coloured my life. It made me ask – what about me?

My father was of the generation where apologies are Just. Not. Done.

But now, another old man of that generation has stood up and apologised for his mistakes. An old man who could have lived on his past glories, who steered that ship for two decades, who called for perfect Vision, and in many ways helped make us what we are today. An old man, who, if he had not done many things, could have helped all of us be better, stronger. Instead, we are now all angry and disappointed in everything. We got sold down the river. And for what? And whose fault is that?

Now, this old man tells us he wants to rectify his mistakes. He has even climbed into bed, so to speak, with old foes to do so.

Then he goes and starts a party that is STILL based on race, on religion. Exclusivity, still. Right. So, what’s changed?

And I look at the current captain. Yes, there have been disappointments and even betrayals. Yes, the situation looks bad. But there is promise of change, of another vision, for a national transformation.

So, who do we choose to be disappointed by? Who is worth the disappointment this round? Who do we choose to get fooled by, again?

Should we have Hope? Whose promises do we trust this time?

If only we can hold out for a hero…

“We do not work for men. We work for the land and the people. We do not even work for money.”
― Alan PatonCry, the Beloved Country



Life Lessons from Dad – Eulogy

I remember when I was I think maybe nine or 10, I was sitting flipping through an old edition of a National Geographic magazine in the parochial hall of the Holy Redeemer Church in Klang, waiting for my parents to finish up some meeting or other.

I didn’t know it then, but it was a St Vincent de Paul meeting. There were other people there too, waiting for the meeting to be over.

But unlike me, they were waiting for my parents and their friends for another reason – to get food. Bags of rice, salt, sugar, I think Milo, there were cans, I think of condensed milk.

There was an old Indian man sitting just outside the accordian grills, the sort that you can still see in old houses, of the hall, his thin body bent, I didn’t know the word then, but wizened is what comes to mind now. I kept stealing looks at him, wondering why he was there.

When the meeting was over, someone opened those grills, and the old man stood up slowly and, together with a bunch of other people, stood in line to take his portion of food. It was a big bag of rice, and the items were heavy, but he took the items from my father, put them on the ground and then shook my father’s hand before slowly walking away with the food.

I remember wondering why he was being given the food. I asked my father the question much later, as we were returning home, in the car.

He didn’t answer for a while, then he said, “We’re blessed, we have food. We have family. Some people don’t. So we help them.”

For some reason, that stayed with me for a very long time. I eventually forgot it, but now, that scene, and my question, keeps playing in my head. And I realise, that few his words may be but that was the man he was.

Two weeks ago, at his funeral mass, the funeral director asked if I would give the eulogy. I didn’t. Not because I didn’t know what to say but because I was filled with anger.

Anger at the injustice in his life. Anger at the disappointment he faced. Not hot anger but cold anger at his family, his siblings, the people he used to call his friends, how he had managed his life, his decisions and how that had affected his life and ours, that of my brother’s and my mother’s.

I have never heard my father say “I love you” to me. But that was not his way. I don’t think he ever said “I love you” to anyone out loud. But he showed it. He was generous to a fault, helping out friends who needed a hand, giving money to his sister who was then in a bad place, making sure the rest of his siblings were taken care of, being there for them. I remember Christmas parties where everyone received gifts, fellowships at home where food and drink flowed and laughter and singing was loud and enthusiastic.

Then he lost his job. Money was tight. Friends became less. His siblings? The less said the better. The sister he loved, who used to come to the house at night to borrow money, not to be seen at all.

He got another job far away, and commuted, coming home only on weekends. Life became harder. Then one day, he came home and never went back to work. He started a business with his brother. He got cheated.

I grew up watching my parents struggle with money, to put food on the table for us. Money meant for my brother’s and my education overseas was used for business that went bust.

I saw him getting more disappointed, more bitter, more defeated. I saw him growing old before his time, becoming more hermit-like, eventually refusing to leave the house unless he was forced to.

And I distanced myself, because I was angry. Angry that at age 19, 20, 21, I was working to pay my brother’s college fees, that I had help support the household, to man up, so to speak.

And for what? Because he was too generous, that he seemed to put everyone ahead of us, his family. Because when he fell, nobody was there. Not his precious church community leaders, not most of his siblings, not his so-called friends.

And when he fell sick, especially these last few years, precious few of them visited him. And my brother and I turned our backs on his side of the family, and on those condescending, judgemental church leaders whom he had been friends with and carried on with our lives.

As he declined, my brother and I spoke about what we would do, and during one of those times, my brother told me, “He is still our father. He did the best he could when he could, for us. And if nothing else, if anything happens to him, I don’t want to have any regrets.”

That stayed in my head too. And somehow or other, that reached my heart. These last few months have been hard. Not having a regular income, working seven days a week, seeing my brother finally become the man I knew he could be, watching my father decline.

Then, more than two weeks ago, a scheduled appointment to the cardiology unit of University Hospital became a visit and then a vigil at Emergency and then he was warded.

I went to see him on the afternoon of Saturday, July 15. He had refused to eat hospital food, complaining that the porridge was bland and wanted homecooked food. I promised that I would bring him porridge and Nyonya mee siam, which I would cook. And then a call came in just after midnight, in the early hours of July 16, from the ward.

My father was cremated on Monday July 17, on my brother’s 41st birthday, after a funeral mass in the morning. I did not give the eulogy.

So I’m giving him one now. My father never told us he loved us. But he showed it in his actions. My father would do anything for his family, even to his own cost. My father loved his church and his God, despite everything.

My father was no titled rich man. He was just an ordinary man, trying to do the best he could in this life, and he lost everything except his pride.

Thank you dad, for showing me that family is important. Just not your family, please.

Thank you dad, for showing me that building a strong community is important. Not one where people jostle for position but where everyone supports each other for mutual good.

Thank you dad, for teaching me patience and humility, which I had precious little of when I was younger.

I choose to remember my father not as he was these last few years, but as the man who told me, “We are blessed. So we help.”

And I know this comes a little late, but I love you.


I might only have one match…

Have you ever had to think about what to do with the last RM5 in your wallet? Do you eat? Or do you put petrol in the tank so you can get to work? Which do you choose?

I chose to get myself to work. It was quite a while ago, but I remember the feeling. The anger, the bitterness that I am unable to take care of my family as I feel they should be taken care of and the hopelessness that sets in when I decide to put petrol because if I don’t get to work, I don’t earn money.

That feeling that I hugged close to me, that bitterness I felt when I looked around at my former schoolmates, my extended relatives, my colleagues, that feeling of being hard done by, that anger at the injustice of it all, drove me to succeed in my chosen fields. That anger, it took me a long time to get over it. Or so I thought.

Did anyone know how I really felt? I doubt it. I had pride. There was no way in hell that I was going to let anyone know my real situation.

I used to make jokes about being part of the urban poor. Nobody knew I was telling the truth. Nobody knew how much pride and anger drove me then.

I have not blogged, or written up a recipe in months. Friends thought I had been distracted by my “new” causes – kickstarting the Guerrilla Gardeners of KL (GGKL), joining Feeding the Needy (FTN), starting up #projecttikar… so distracted that I had lost focus on my little enterprise, the Straits Heritage Foods company.

The truth was, I had – and I hadn’t. I realised that the setting up of the company was a cumulation of everything that I had experienced over the last few decades. That what I wanted to do was not just take care of my family, but to give a chance to everyone I came across who felt the way I had, that that innate sense of justice I had somehow developed (I find it amazing that I have not become some sort of psychopath), would not let me rest.

Starting up GGKL, joining FTN, starting #projecttikar, all that, I realised, dovetailed into what I wanted for SHF, to take care of the disadvantaged, the poor, the hungry and the lonely.

There is something about being driven by anger and pride, you never let your guard down, you never let anyone close enough to you to drop those masks, you never let anyone in. One becomes very lonely that way. I remember not so very long ago, when I felt like I could no longer feel (that’s an oxymoron if ever there was one). That I was numb. I began to put my affairs in order – EPF beneficiaries, check, house mortgages, to be covered by insurance, check, life insurance, check – and ensured that my parents and my brother would be financially taken care of. I had done my duty by them. The plan was to make it look like an accident. That’s the thing about the successful suicides – nobody ever guesses. Nobody will know until it’s too late.

Then an old friend showed up in my life. Perceptive person that he was, I tried to avoid meeting him but couldn’t dodge him. He sat across from me in the conference room and asked me one question: So how are you planning to do it? I denied it, of course I did, but he had seen to the heart of the matter. The result of that meeting caused me to reexamine myself and my life. But that’s another story.

The not-so-end result caused me to decide to leave the PR industry and eventually set up SHF, but I was not done. Setting up a small artisanal business was hard work. Banging on bank doors, asking for loans to grow a fledgling company (half a dozen banks at last count, almost all of which was met by “we need a track record of 18 months to two years before we can lend you money and my increasingly angry response of “If I HAD the money to survive and grow my business for two years, I wouldn’t be coming to see you, would I?”), was nothing if not disheartening.

Juggling freelance consulting work while trying to grow the business was draining. Insomnia, which I already had, became worse. I had started volunteering with FTN while running GGKL. But the solitary nocturnal wanderings in the city started again. I became increasingly aware of the “invisibles” of this city of Kuala Lumpur, the people I now call the citizens of Kolumpo Below. And that led me to start up #projecttikar.

And now… now, I have begun another chapter. A chapter where all my projects come together, where if this succeeds, I have an answer and a solution to the problems I have seen and identified. A scary new chapter, filled with even more uncertainties, even more pit falls, even more challenges. But it is something that I am willing to risk everything for, which is why I have even put up my apartment, my home, for sale, because it needs seed money, because no bloodsucking banker would back me, because it has never been done before.

A friend asked me recently: ” You’re having problems even taking care of yourself and you’re struggling to pay your own bills. Why aren’t you taking care of yourself first instead of distracting yourself by doing all this homeless, urban poor stuff. Where are you going to live if you do this?”

My answer to that now is clear. It’s not where I will live, it’s HOW I will live. And that’s how I am taking care of myself. If it means taking care of other people – if it means giving them a fighting chance to earn a living, to succeed, to achieve something – it will do.

And how will I do it? By doing what I do best – feeding people, something I find joy in doing. It’s not just about filling a person’s stomach. It’s also about feeding their souls. And sometimes, all it takes to feed the soul is a little care and consideration – eye contact and an acknowledgement that they exist, that they’re still a part of humanity.

Because I am once again on a budget, I have begun developing recipes that can feed many yet is relatively inexpensive. The following is a recipe that can feed six to nine people cheaply.

The ingredients for my version of Mee Siam 

  • One packet of mee hoon or vermicelli (RM2.50 – RM4.50, depending on brand)
  • Three to four cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Three to four shallots, chopped
  • A couple pieces of asam keping
  • Cooking oil, about half a cup
  • Two to three eggs (budget one egg for two people, for an entire pack of vermicelli that can feed up to nine people, four eggs will do, cost RM2)
  • Two pieces of white tofu (the hard type, not the soft type, cost RM0,50 apiece)
  • A stick of fish cake, or two (Optional, depending on budget – anywhere from RM1 to RM3.50 for a pack of three fish cakes)
  • Shrimp (optional)
  • Half a bottle of Straits Heritage Foods Sambal Belacan (RM11 a bottle)
  • Two to three stalks of spring onion
  • One or two tomatoes, quartered and cut into eighths (this is optional, depending on whether you have it in your fridge)
  • Salt and pepper to season
Soak vermicelli in cold water with a little salt and a couple pieces of asam keping (tamarind slices)

Step One (prep – about 15-20 minutes): 

  • Soak vermicelli in cold water with a little salt and a couple pieces of asam keping for about 20 minutes
  • Finely chop garlic and shallot
  • Slice tofu into cubes
  • Slice fish cakes
  • Cut the tomatoes
  • Cut the spring onion into about 2cm lengths
  • Crack and beat the eggs
Brown tofu cubes

Step Two (Cooking – about 15-30 minutes, depending on how good you are at multitasking) 

  • Make sure you have a big enough wok or divide up the cooking into two rounds
  • Heat oil in pan, toss in tofu cubes to brown
  • In another pan, start making thin egg crepes. Slice the omelettes thinly into strips after they have cooled down
  • After the tofu cubes are browned, toss in chopped garlic and shallots and saute until translucent
  • Toss in half bottle of SHF sambal belacan
  • Saute until fragrant (it should be about five to eight minutes)
  • Toss in browned tofu cubes
  • Toss in shrimp
  • Toss in tomatoes
  • Saute for about two minutes
  • Toss in the vermicelli
  • Add about half a cup of water
  • Start stirring and tossing, from the bottom of the pan up, to make sure as little as possible of the vermicelli sticks to the pan
  • It will seem a little wet at first but as the vermicelli soaks up the sauteed sambal mix, it will start to turn a light salmon colour.
  • Stir and toss until it is almost dry
  • Add the sliced spring onion
  • Add the egg strips
  • Saute until dry (it should be for another 10 minutes or less)
A simple and easy to prepare meal for six to nine people

It might sound time consuming and there might seem to be a lot of ingredients but most of the ingredients are optional, depending on budget. With the basic ingredients (not including shrimp, one portion should cost anywhere from RM1.50 to RM2.50. Garnish with a sprinkling of SHF’s sambal udang kering.

Just because I’m on a budget doesn’t mean I can’t feed my friends. Besides, it makes me happy to see them enjoying my food. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?