A Dad’s Journey: From Rags To Moderation
One of the earliest memories I have of my dad is me holding his hands as our family went to church every Sunday morning via 3 busses, 3 hours journey one way, 30 miles away. I was 5 years old. My dad only had a motorbike hence family travels were by busses. It took me a long time to realise why he insisted upon this lengthy and weekly travel.
We grew up in the suburbs of Malaysia, Klang, at a time where land surrounding us were palm oil estates in conversion to household developments which caused an influx of rural communities learning to live in a suburban lifestyle. This resulted in an increase in criminal activities due to the society lacking in assimilation. Klang remained one the major industrial hub in the country during that period, with a large influx of migrants (and illegal migrants) residing there as well.
As with all troubled socio-economy community, you will find a lot of crimes and numerous peer influences that leaves the community in a continuous cycle of poverty and social-driven challenges such as teen pregnancy, alcoholism, violence, theft and drugs. The secondary school (high school) I went to, while it resulted in a few cherished friendships, did not prevent me from encountering machete fights, arson crimes, bullies, and gangsterism activities that made it to the mainstream papers on several occasions.
My dad did not escape poverty. He had to work right after high school to support his family, and then we came along, my brother, sister and I. He worked as a forklift driver, 12–15 hours shift work per day at an international port nearby, called Port Klang. Despite not having higher education, my dad was a brilliant mathematician and taught all of us maths growing up.
Going back to him dragging us across the city every Sunday morning, to him it was the only exposure we had to a different community from where we were, an English-speaking community that was highly educated with an elevated lifestyle who welcomed us with open arms. I remember winning every memory verse competition (I was born a hopeless geek) while my brother and sister did the cooler things like picking up musical instruments and made lifelong friends.
Some of the other key differentiators he did in giving us that exposure was bringing home a 2nd hand Apple computer (with that dot matrix printer) which spurred my brother’s passion for computers (I still have no idea what my brother does, it’s similar to Chandler in Friends ). He was selective on where we lived despite not having the finances to be picky and declined free stay in the quarters provided by his company to prevent us from succumbing to a rural socio-economic lifestyle. Another thing he did was to buy us Encyclopedia Britannica. His pay was $85 monthly in 1982. The set cost $435. He paid $12 a month for years and it was his proudest purchase (My brother started reading them at the age of 5, completed the children’s version by 7 and adult’s version by 12, which probably explains why he is the genius of the house).
Growing up, it almost felt like a paradigm shift when it came to comparing the environment at home and every Sunday, vs comparing it to everything else around us.
Malaysia practices a divide and conquers approach among races and hence in school, a lot of race-based communities tend to stick together. I remember vividly my dad having a chat with me that he wanted me to never be identified by my skin colour but by who I am, and told me to have friends of all backgrounds. Ever since then, every time someone asked me to join a race-based anything, I declined. (Boy was I in for a shock when I realised later on that everything from higher education to the economy provision in Malaysia would identify me primarily by sectarianism instead of merits).
As we got a bit older, my dad knew the finances he earned could not sustain us any longer. He was so far-sighted despite his shortcomings that he decided to pursue his education and graduated with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 40. My mom took up several ad-hoc jobs to support his progression. Upon graduation, he went back to where he worked as a forklift driver and applied for a clerical position but was declined because he was overqualified. He laminated that letter and while it was melancholy, he was rather proud of it, and we of him.
He took up corporate jobs as a trainer and in the human resource line. Throughout it, he pursued his passion for teaching and continued his studies.
Over the years my dad got very involved with church activities and spent all his time helping people in the community overcome their socio-economic challenges and encouraged education. I saw reformed drunkard men who took on steady jobs and their kids went to universities. I saw young women, single mothers who were encouraged to play a stronger role in family provisions where communities were more gender bias.
Uprooting from extreme poverty has been a core challenge in a lot of developing countries and among several communities in developed countries. The socio-economic conditions that eclipse the community can prolong for generations. Plato, in The Republic, talks about how society in a chained environment presumes superficial reality and breaking away from that oppression starts with education and awareness.
When my dad was 60, he had 2 doctorates and set up a Bible college where a lot of uneducated poor Christians can have a different exposure from their existing community and helped uplift society from the ground up.
On September 6, 2012, my dad passed away.
I lost my hero that day. It was too soon and too unexpected. 9 years later and I’ve not gotten over it and probably never will. But I remembered how so many people who came forward, people we knew and people we didn’t know, who shared with us stories of how he touched their lives all those years. Even back when he did not have any money, despite his struggles, he would help anyone in need.
I remember my dad used to save up coins, his pocket full of coins every Sunday and he would buy me chocolate milk on our bus trips to church. He only had money to buy one and I was the baby of the house. Looking back at life, it could have swung in any direction given the environment we grew up in, but I was fortunate to have a father who saw ahead even when he had nothing and took us across that chasm.