SINGAPORE – Four hours – that was the time it took for businessman Ong Tiong Yeow to write his father’s obituary, a frank, heartfelt poem that has since gone viral on social media.
Four hours was also how long he took to pack his things and leave his family home as a 23-year-old, after his father Ong Peck Lye threw him out for standing up to him.
The elder Mr Ong, a wealthy rubber tyre businessman, died of pneumonia last Wednesday aged 82 and was cremated on Sunday (June 12).
He is survived by his wife Han Boon Keng, 82, a housewife, and three sons aged 46 to 54.
Mr Ong, 52, his second son, penned the tribute as a poem in first person, based on conversations he had with his father in his last days.
The verses depicted the complex humanity of his father, describing not just his charitable nature and flamboyance, but also his ego and conflicts with his family.
“I dared to live, and now I dared to die,” concludes the poem. “I am Ong Peck Lye.”
The obituary, which was in The Straits Times on Friday, was shared on Facebook by user Robin Rheaume and had garnered over 4,300 likes and 1,200 shares as of 8pm on Sunday.
Many were moved by the honesty of the poem, which admits that “My last days were dreary and weary” and that “I never got to see my father be/ A husband to my mother so/I made mistakes being both, trying to be as human as I know.”
The late Mr Ong was born in 1935 into poverty, fatherless from a young age. He worked his way from a slum along the Kallang River into prosperity after he co-founded the Stamford Tyres business empire.
He showered his children with privilege, but their relationships were complicated – at some point, he evicted each of them from their bungalow in Upper Serangoon.
Mr Ong said his older brother was thrown out after he converted to Christianity and married into a Eurasian family. His younger brother followed suit after coming out as gay. Both left Singapore, the oldest moving to Australia and the youngest to the United States.
Said Mr Ong: “My father died before he had the chance to ask my brothers to forgive him.”
He himself was ordered to leave when he fought with his father about the treatment of his mother.
He said: “The poem is also a tribute to my mum. My father bullied her, scolded her, kept mistresses – but she tahan (Malay for endure) until the end.”
Madam Han said in Mandarin: “We had good times and bad times. He was a generous man. I loved him and he loved me.”
Together, she and Mr Ong nursed her late husband through seven years of dementia.
Mr Ong said his father had asked him to move back home after a few years. “He got lonely,” he said.
He recalled returning laden with artwork from the beauty pageant franchising company he had set up, determined to show his father how successful he had been. “My father looked at me and said: ‘I don’t care about all this. I missed you.’
“After that, I did not leave his side again for 25 years.”
In the obituary, Mr Ong dubbed himself the “samseng” son, which is Malay for gangster. He said this was because in his youth, he was rebellious and did poorly in school. He was a prolific poet in his youth, having written more than 500 poems, though none were published.
When he was 16, his father bought him a pick-up truck and had him deliver goods after school from the godown to the docks. He would often have to go out to the ships and climb a few storeys up their sides to get the captain to sign the papers.
“He wanted to toughen me up, to show me the same hard life he had led,” said Mr Ong.
Mr Ong, who has a nine-year-old daughter, said he wrote the poem to share the lessons from his father’s life. “We have only one chance in life to be a husband and a father. We learn what we can from our parents, but we only have one chance to get it right ourselves.”
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