17/2017 – Humility and integrity start from the top
by Tan Thiam Hock
Saturday, 30 Sep 2017
EVER since my parents passed away some 25 years ago, mum in 1991 and dad in 1993, my one and only older brother, Thiam Ser will call me towards the end of March every year and ask me when I will be able to go back to Klang for Qingming (Ching Ming in Hokkien).
For the benefit of the younger generation, Qingming festival normally held in April 4/5 is also known as Ancestors Memorial Day or Tomb Sweeping Day.
In China it is a declared one-week holiday to enable the people to travel back to their hometowns to celebrate the Qingming festival. Traditional Chinese families will organise or the whole family to visit the columbarium, graves or burial grounds to remember and honour their ancestors.
Young and old pray before their ancestors, sweep the tombs, offer food and burn joss papers. Since I am always travelling and busy with my business life, my brother will ask me to fix a date as long as it is 10 days before or after April 4/5. I would normally pick a Sunday morning, reach his house by 8am or so (to avoid the searing hot sun) and my sister-in-law would have prepared some food offerings, incensed joss stocks and joss papers and a disposable lighter in two plastic bags.
The two of us would then visit our parents’ grave site which is just a 10 minutes’ drive from my brother’s house. As the elder son, my brother assumed the responsibility and the obligation to perform this annual ritual, leading always to clean the grave site, display the food offerings, burn the joss papers and I would silently help him with the chores.
He would then light the joss sticks and we would kneel side by side to pray to our parents. In our early years of parenthood, he would ask for guidance and pray for the successes of our children’s education. The last few years, he prayed for my good health and I for his as we were both facing health problems. At the end of our prayers, he would take out two coins and ask my parents if they are happy with their offerings before throwing the coins and letting it drop to the ground.
If it is head and tails, yes they are happy and we can then collect and repack our food offerings and with a last look depart from the grave site. Another year of obligation fulfilled. For me, this ritual is like an annual renewal of bonding with my brother. We have never missed a year since 1992.
Unfortunately for me, my brother passed away last Sunday and I will for once in my life miss his phone call come next March reminding me of my obligations to attend Ching Ming. Thiam Ser has led a simple and humble life.
After attending Chinese primary school, he was enrolled in Remove class in Catholic High School and being a poor student struggling with English language, he failed his Form Three LCE exam then known as Lower Certificate of Examination. As a school dropout at 16 years old, he had to work as a helper in a noodle stall to supplement our family income. He eventually got a machinist job at Furukawa Electric Cable in Shah Alam with the help of a recommendation from my seventh Uncle.
With a steady job and living frugally, he managed to buy himself a second-hand motorcycle to get to work, saving hours of waiting and travelling on Tong Fong buses which dominated the PJ to Klang route at the time. With constant overtime work, he managed to save enough money to buy a brand new Honda C70 motorbike.
I remembered I had just passed my Form 5 at that time and was going to continue my Form 6 in La Salle PJ while my family was in Klang.
As I had to stay out on my own, I had requested for a second hand bike from my mother. My brother let me have his new bike and without any hesitation and bought himself a second-hand bike.
After he got married, Thiam Ser decided to learn a new trade driving back hoe tractors as the construction boom in the late 1980s offered new opportunities.
Within a few years, he decided to venture out on his own by buying a second-hand back hoe tractor and offering his services to construction companies and plantations. To earn more money, he took on dangerous jobs that paid very well like being hoisted into the cargo hold full of bulk fertilisers and working 24 to 48 hours non-stop clearing the fertilisers while the ship was docked in Port Kelang.
There were no protective respirators in those days despite the dangerous fumes in the cargo hold. The long and irregular hours and lack of workplace health care took a toll on his health and he was struck with severe diabetes and he eventually lost one eye.
He had to sell his tractor and look for another occupation to look after his family of three growing kids. With a smattering of English, he sat for his insurance test and eventually became an insurance agent selling both life and general insurance. He was already into his late forties but being a responsible husband and father, it was his obligation to provide for his family and he has never shirked from his duties. Despite his irregular income, Thiam Ser seldom asked me for money.
He lived frugally with his family, always spending within his means. Only when his eldest son got a place in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and having exhausted his EPF monies, did he call me for financial assistance.
Subsequently the other two children also graduated from local private universities and I still remember the relief on his face and his pride of having fulfilled his obligation as a father.
Thiam Ser’s story is nothing extraordinary. In fact, his story is the story of millions of wage earners and small entrepreneurs struggling to provide for their families.
Like every immigrant kid, as long as he has a healthy body with two hands and two legs and a willingness for hard work, he will always survive and hopefully build a better life for his next generation through education.
Entrepreneurs who have not forgotten their humble backgrounds tend to be kinder and more considerate bosses. Being humble and staying humble is a strength and not to be seen as a weakness. You will gain respect and loyalty from your staff and suppliers.
Building a culture of humility and integrity in your organisation starts from the top and the entrepreneur must assume this obligation and responsibility.
Just before my mother passed away, she had asked me to look after my brother who is eight years older than me. Worried for my brother’s well-being, my wise mother asked me to keep him out of harm’s way and to look after him.
Come next April, I will have to humbly ask my mother for forgiveness for failing in my duties. Without my brother at my side, I will be at a loss for words, feeling lonely and heart broken.