Monday, 26 November 2007

After my dad died...

Those of you who read TODAY, might have noticed that Weekend TODAY has been trying to do things a little differently in the past few months, with stories that are not on the usual news radar. P.N. Balji has been running that operation, and he had asked that I contribute a piece, something that I normally wouldn't write on.

So I wrote this one. It's very personal to me. This is a piece that I've wanted to write for quite a while now, and the timing made sense.

After my dad died...

Weekend • November 24, 2007

Siew Kum Hong

I WAS five minutes away in a taxi when my father died.

I still remember that Friday night in November 2003. It was about 7pm when I got the call. It was short and stark.

"Come home quickly, your father fell and he can't make it," my mum sobbed. She hung up without waiting for my response.

I hopped into a cab immediately.

When I was five minutes away, my mum called again. "He's dead, he's dead." The line died.

I told the cabbie my dad had died. He was stunned and didn't say a word more. I felt a little apologetic, hoping that he wasn't superstitious.

When I got home, my mum was wailing beside my dad's lifeless body. He had fallen while walking up the steps to the house. The medics and policemen stood around uncomfortably. I broke down, inconsolable.

My dad was a traditional Chinese father — stern, unaffectionate and always working. I was angry at him over some things, which I never really forgave him for. But I learnt to put that aside and to love him despite that.

That moment came during my final examinations in year three of law school. He was hospitalised for treatment, but fell and was admitted to the ICU. I did not visit him then, but went after my penultimate paper.

When I finally stepped into the ward and saw him, I sobbed. It was just such a tremendous relief to see him.

In retrospect, I'm glad it happened. It was probably the first time he, and my mum, saw how much he meant to me. I also realised that at such times, what he had done before was irrelevant.

Perhaps my greatest regret in life to date was that I could not fulfil his last wish. One morning, as he drove me to the MRT station, he told me that his only unfulfilled wish in life was to see me get married.

He had seen everything else: his children graduating from university and getting good jobs, my brother and sister getting married, my brother giving him grandchildren.

I didn't know what to say. At the time, marriage looked improbable. So, I gave the only response that an uncomfortable child could — a non-committal grunt.

I'm still unmarried. But maybe if he had lived just a few more years, he would have been proud of me. I think he would have been immensely pleased by my appointment as a NMP.

Another major regret was not spending more time with him. In a way, that continues today, because I still don't spend enough time with my mum.

But I know I could certainly be a better son to her and from time to time I resolve to do better.

Some of that is attributable to the demands of today's working world. I was in private practice back then and I frequently treated home like a hotel, leaving for work in the morning and returning late at night. I could go days without seeing another family member.

I don't think that's uncommon for young people. But I wonder about my peers, who are getting to the age when parents are beginning to fall sick and die.

Are they aware that they have only so much time with their parents? Do they understand the compromises represented by long hours in the office?

And do they understand that by the time they do, it might be too late — as it was with me?

Too often, people are so caught up with their careers that they miss out on other things in life, such as family.

Many complain about long working hours — especially in recent times with the booming economy — but they seem to forget that they have a choice.

They should take a step back and take stock of where they are, what they are doing and if they want to continue down that path. If they do, then more power to them. But at least make it an informed choice.

I made that choice. I gave up a successful practice to become a corporate counsel. I make much less now, but I would never give up my time with loved ones, or my activities outside of work, to go back to that never-ending treadmill.

As the years passed, I've come to terms with my dad's death.

Yes, I do have regrets. Still, his children are his legacy and I am comforted by the belief that he would be proud of us if he were alive today.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel, writing in his personal capacity. His father passed away in November 2003.


nofearSingapore said...

Hi Siew Hong,
I appreciate your sharing with us about your dad.
It must have difficult as it is very personal and poignant.
Thank you,
Best wishes.


nofearSingapore said...

Hi ,
Typo - should read Kum Hong.


Lina said...

Right - like we should stop competing with colleagues in order to spend time with loved ones. Honey, the government doesn't help the middle class if we get fired - there are no safety nets and welfare systems in place. Therefore, we have no choice but to compete ever so hard in this dog eat dog world. Not everyone can afford to take a pay cut and step down in order to have more personal time. Such is the price to pay to live in an expensive country.

Siew Kum Hong said...

To Dr Huang: Thank you.

To lina: Well, personal circumstances do differ, and I am sorry to hear that you are not in a position to slow down. But it is really a very personal piece, and my message was fundamentally about the importance of family.

Quirkz said...

Hi Kum Hong,

Thank you for writing this excellent piece. Indeed, there is always a choice, as you mentioned. You can choose to make less and have more time with loved ones.

True, the pace of life and cost of living in Sgp makes this a difficult decision to make, but at the end of the day, it's how we choose to live our lives. And time spent with loved ones is never time wasted, for we all have limited time on earth. And money is just money, it cannot buy us the experience and memories of being with our loved ones.

Thanks once again for sharing this much needed perspective.

Precious said...

Thank you for writing this, letting go of an elderly parent is a bitter experience many of us can relate to.

Take care, I know you must miss your father.

Waverley said...

Hi Kum Hong, thanks for the wonderful piece.

At my grandma's wake, I kept hearing this from her children: if only I had spent more time with her, if only I had been more filial, if only ...

From that point on, I knew I had to cherish my parents. I don't want to repeat the same words at their wake.

And I agree with you there's always a choice.

Eirin AI said...

hi kum hong
thanks for writing such a touching article. there are times when i will not be appreciative of my parents, always lamenting that they control me, do not let me come home late. but i will reflect and realise how much they love me. i guess, we must constantly remind ourselves of the love parents give to us and that we must always remind ourselves to be grateful.
my parents are old too and when i look at them i feel a tinge of sadness that one day they will leave me. that's life. so i must really spend more time with them and understand them.

Zheng said...

Thanks for your post... It is a timely reminder that we only that that much time with our parents... I don't know. I am now overseas pursuing a post-graduate degree- which means I am forgoing time with my mother... She is getting on in age and I am very afraid that I will regret that I made this choice... I mean to me this postgraduate degree is just icing on the cake ( Although I enjoy what I am doing), which I chose to have rather than just eating the plain cake... I may be criticised as " xiong wu da zhi" but if I were to do it all over again, I "might" choose the plain cake. I just don't know.

Felix Zheng

project sid said...

we make the choice about the materialism present. standards of living should include measures on quality of relationships one has with others.

Justin Sng said...

Thanks for your sharing.

I believe that most traditional asian fathers have difficulty showing affections to their children, probably due to our cultures.

However, if children is able to see through this wall of coldness, the love of the father neverthless do flows as well, but in a subtle way where only the obvervant can see.

A while ago, I wrote an entry for my dad regarding this issue as well, depicting the love of an Asian father.

piper said...

Hi Mr Siew,

It's nice of you to share your personal story. Sometimes, I am wondering why work so hard and Pay-And-Pap for our expensive housing which was meant to be affordable in the first place. Why the inflated price which many young adults can't afford, thus working double hard like dogs and not really enjoying the quality of life here in Singapore when everything is getting expensive but our pay doesn't seems to increase more than we expected!

Seaporter :)

Lim Soon Chung said...


rest easy. You're doing right by your Dad and I'm sure your family is superduperimmensely proud of you, and so are your peers and old friends from school. Now, tell your mum how much you appreciate her before it's too late all over again.

By all accounts you're doing damn well as an NMP. You have fans even here in NYC where the lousy meesiamlaksacrap has no hum even if you wanted some. You'd be drowning in beer if all who are grateful for your courage were to buy you one. Hmm, I'm sure you'd like that. How bout a trip to the B place in Feb?

Siew Kum Hong said...

To quirkz, precious, waverley, eirin ai/lester, zheng/Felix, justin and piper: Thank you for your kind words. These are not easy choices to make.

To projectsid: I didn't know you read this blog :)

To SC: B place, sure thing. Send around an email. And if Mr Goh is also back, I'd love to meet up with him as well.

sippy said...

Hello Mr Siew,
I am touched by your article, it has touched my inner emotions.
I have been working/living away from home ( 16000 KM away) for the last 10 years, I have recently found that my 80ish Dad is very ill and he doesn’t have much time left to live. Even if I want to go home to spend time with him (and my 80ish mun) more than anything in the world, I can not at the moment, because of my faniancial situation/mess due to a struggling business. Going home to spend time with my parents has been on my mind for a long time ……only now I am under pressure with time because I don’t how long they will live. You see, I want to make my traditional Chinses parents proud by being sucessful before going home to them, but it has not been working for the last years.
Thank you for sharing your life expeirence, it has help me to wake up and realise that sometimes - pride and traditional thinking is nothing compare to lost time with love ones.
MGHM and I hope it will not be too late.