And my father said, ‘Son, don’t come home’

And my father said, ‘Son, don’t come home’

Sometime in 1980, when I was a final year student in London, I had a very short tele-conversation with my father. In those days, there were no call cards, Skype or the like and calls were expensive. He had a very simple message – ‘Son, don’t come home’.

Now almost 30 years on, I see where he was coming from.

He advised me to stay on in the UK or if I found the weather not to my liking, told me to go to Australia – even if it meant that I may eventually marry a ‘white girl’ as he put it. I was 23 and marriage was certainly not on my mind.

He was a pendatang. A pendatang, however, who secured a scholarship to study in Raffles College (the precursor to the University of Malaya) and served some 30-odd years in various senior teaching positions culminating with the last few years in the Malay College Kuala Kangsar.

Amongst his students were past and present ministers and opposition figures. I didn’t heed his advice till last year and spent the last 28 years in Malaysia. However, it became increasingly untenable to work here without compromising my values, integrity and conscience.

Why did he advise me such? With hindsight, I saw his foresight. As an educationist, he saw we were heading to be another Ceylon (from where he was sent here when orphaned), Burma, Philippines and in today’s scenario, Zimbabwe.

He saw what the outcome would be when we mix education with politics. He saw that religion would be a divisive factor in years to come (he even encouraged me to learn Jawi as a nine-year-old).

He believed that in a country like this, mixed marriages would help cement society. He saw in some of our leaders of yesterday that even in their youth, they had unbridled cunning and only needed an opening to exploit that trait.

He saw in some of his students a potential to be PM but said that would never be because they were ‘too smart for Umno’s liking’. He saw that given our racial demographics, religion would be used as a means to ensure the survival of a particular group.

He believed that eventually, the Malays would have a class war amongst themselves. He said that even amongst the Malays, many of the English-educated would opt to live away from Malaysia.

He told me promotions won’t necessarily be given for competence. These are usually won in the ‘clubs’ (read: the political parties today) and over a few drinks. Being a bit of an introvert myself, he encouraged me to join clubs, associations and play sports and travel.

He said honesty doesn’t necessarily pay in this world but it is still better to be honest and live with dignity.

Our home was (at different times) home to three delinquent Chinese boys – sent by the juvenile court. He volunteered to take them in. Add to that, a few other Indian boys as well.

Though not my mother tongue, I spoke to my parents in Malay till I was about 10. We took in a Chinese lady injured during the war and she lived with us for about 40 years till she died. My father referred to her as his mother-in-law. I thought she was my grandmother even though my mother was not Chinese!

By the late 70s and early 80s, he saw that this scenario would not likely repeat in the years to come. When he died in 1982, we were pleasantly surprised to see some of his students (by then in their 50s) came from the different states for his funeral.

One told me that it was my father that made sure he spoke flawless English and another told me how my father would bring the Sixth Formers home from the hostel and used our home for dinner to teach them social graces – including dancing (taught by my mother). Partners were arranged from the Convent school with the blessings of the headmistress!

Twenty-nine years on, I view his foresight through the same prism and now agonise as to whether I should tell my children the same. For now, I am allowing my eldest to pursue his tertiary education overseas.

Maybe when he finishes, he may not be as shortsighted as I was. I pray to God to grant him the wisdom and vision.

Last year, I resigned from my job, returned the company car and driver, said goodbye to my executive package and moved to Australia where I now live with no maid, no driver, no Audi 2.8, no golf, no teh tarik sessions, no bonus, etc.

But I am rediscovering humanity running a humble ice-cream shop. Sometimes we learn very late.

Letter by Ice Cream Seller in Malaysiakini

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