This is a story about my mother, a daughter of Malaysia, who became an agent of change. She transcended boundaries of prejudice, age, gender, and race in an era where women were busy in the bedroom rather than the boardroom.
My mother was a divorcee and single parent in the mid forties. In those days it was indeed taboo, not to mention the stigma attached to it. However, she was bold enough to accept that her marriage was over and changed her life for the better as a career woman.
I was born at our home in Singapore, surrounded by family who were like friends and friends who were like family. Everyone was wondering where in the world was the estranged husband?
Her marriage was clearly on the rocks. Her mental strength, however, was like the Rock of Gibraltar. One could only imagine her heartbreak as she went through the labor pains of childbirth and a few months later – a divorce.
Three months after I was born, my mother got a job as a broadcaster with the advent of radio in 1946. At the time Radio Malaya was transmitting from our homeland, Singapore. All hell broke loose when she proclaimed to her family that she would be one of three women broadcasters.
Civil war almost broke out, so the story went. Being a divorcee raised thousands of eyebrows and now a job with Radio Malaya? The entire neighborhood rolled their eyes heavenwards. No decent woman, let alone a Muslim woman, worth her salt would go out and work! How could the family survive this? God forbid!
Well, my mother held her ground. Against all odds she became a broadcaster to bring up her newborn baby. Her guts, vision and perseverance made her special. Her family relented and gave their blessings.
At her workplace she met a dashing man who was bowled over by her persona. Visualize an attractive 26-year-old divorcee who was mentally stimulating. Get the picture? Well, my mother married the love of her life in 1948 when I was barely two years old.
He loved me dearly and even when my sister was born in 1949, I never felt any difference! Sadly they went separate ways when I was nine. Hearts were broken into smithereens on the day we bade farewell to him. Barely nine but I had already cried an ocean.
Once again, she picked up the pieces and immediately volunteered for a transfer. It was 1955 and Radio Malaya had its new studios in Young Road, Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. She convinced my grandmother to support her idea to start afresh. So my mother, grandmother, sister and I left Singapore for a brand new life in Kuala Lumpur.
Indeed, she was ahead of her time! She swam like a mermaid in a swimsuit, and loved to dance and water-ski. Our childhood was unusual as she prepared us for life in the 21st Century as a borderless world.
Our home was the headquarters of a United Nations of sorts. Friends of all colors, shapes and sizes dropped by for tea at weekends. Those friends of hers were our new family. They did not alienate us because she was a divorcee. We were always busy during festivals, be it the muslim new year, Happy Eid, Chinese New Year, Vasaki, Deepavali or Christmas.
As children, we thought, “Wow! We love Kuala Lumpur. Life is one big celebration!” Mr and Mrs Plumbe from England were our godparents, if you will. Uncle Plumbe was a big shot in University Malaya, if I remember correctly.
We were slowly picking up the pieces and then suddenly, my mother dropped a bombshell! I was twelve then and we were at the National Registration Department for my ID card. Out of the blue, she awkwardly told me that my surname on the ID card would be something else. She proceeded to fill out the forms with my new surname.
Who? What? Why? Lo and behold, the man that I thought was my father was actually my stepfather. Oh God ? No wonder I never set eyes on my birth certificate! What was going on? Where was my father all this while? Oh, she mumbled something like, “He is somewhere in Indonesia!” I was confused and in my mind I screamed “No, no, no – that is not true, this is a nightmare!”
I became hysterical and hated my mother, my stepfather, my father and just about anyone around me then. Perhaps, she had her reasons for keeping it a secret but we never discussed it, ever. It disturbed me for years on end. More often than not, I felt alienated whenever classmates talked about their fathers.
I could not deal with “My father bought me this” or “My Dad bought a new car” or “Where’s your Dad?”
My ever-ready response: “He’s dead!”
Silently in my heart, “Both of them are dead.” Yes, the trauma of divorce lingered on. I carried on the hurt, pain, anger and insecurity into my adult life.
Almost 40 years later, thankfully, one day in 1994, I had a rude awakening whilst on a holiday cruise to Phuket, Thailand. It enlightened me in a most profound way …
“Welcome aboard!” said one of the crew as I stepped on board. As the ship moved away from mainland towards the unknown at sea, I thought to myself: “Hey, I can leave my imperfect yesterday behind and look forward to the wonderment of tomorrow.”
After a while on the calm seas, my mind sailed far, far away into the blue yonder with the cruise ship. In the coziness of the cabin, I scanned the hazy horizon and one haunting yesterday came flooding back – a memory from the past in which I had finally met my biological father…..
I was feeling nervous and unsettled for many days. The thought that I would finally meet him was frightening, exciting and confusing. Finally his eyes met mine and a myriad of carefully concealed emotions suddenly went berserk. I wanted to hug him, kiss him and yet felt compelled to scream and shout too. Oh God, help me! I wanted to punch and kick him real hard. Beast!
Somehow, I managed to put on the cloak of pretence and hid behind a veil of civility. Clearly, both of us were uncomfortable in each other’s presence and, the room temperature dropped rapidly.
We couldn’t bond, we couldn’t touch and we couldn’t cry. Horror of horrors, I couldn’t verbalize the words Papa, Dad or Father. Both of us kept everything we wanted to say inside our hearts.
After a few days of stiff protocol, he returned to Indonesia – his homeland and never saw me again. At the time, I was a young mother of 22. But in my mind, I was the newborn baby that he abandoned in Singapore. Yes, that was the first and last time I met my biological father.
He wrote many letters after he left. But I was too hurt and angry to re-establish contact. “Well, too little, too late” I reminded myself.
To this day, I remembered a line from his last letter, “No answer is an answer.”
Great, wonderful, fantastic – finally, he got the message and that was that. No news was good news until I received a call on March 15, 1982, informing me that my dad met with a tragic automobile accident.
Oh no! Almost immediately, my loss was filled with acute remorse. God, forgive me, please! What have I done? Had I been more understanding and forgiving when we met, we could have had a meaningful father-daughter relationship, perhaps?
Unknown to loved ones, I went on living as a guilty daughter for many years thereafter.
As the ship approached international waters, I dashed off to the top deck to close the “Guilty Daughter” case and passed a new verdict … “Not guilty anymore.”
I threw away the handcuffs of guilt into the deep, deep ocean and the heavy shackles of remorse followed suit.
The cool breeze immediately kissed my flushed cheeks. Oh yes, the night was indeed beguiling and in a moment of elation, I danced privately for the moon and stars.
Today, I am 62 years old. Like my mother, I am a woman of today constantly in touch with tomorrow. With love I carry on her favorite saying :
The serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
The audacity to change what cannot be accepted.
The insight to know the difference.
I feel free now and have visited my father’s cemetery in Indonesia. My name, along with my half-siblings, was engraved on his tombstone. We are putting everything behind us and slowly, bonding through tender loving care. May God bless my parents’ soul.