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How $20 changed my life

A friend's gesture set off a chain of events that made a difference

If not for something that my friend Ho Kian Leong did 34 years ago, you would not be reading this column.

I doubt if I would be working for this newspaper too and probably would not even have been a journalist.

Heck, I very likely would not be living in Singapore, but in Kuala Lumpur where I was born and bred. And if that had been the case, my circle of friends and acquaintances would be radically different.

I would not have met, among many other people, film-maker Eric Khoo and helped to write the scripts for four of his films including Be With Me and My Magic.

Khoo's oeuvre and Singapore's cinematic history would be different; ditto the history of The Sunday Times.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I know what I am saying sounds terribly melodramatic and self-important, but I am just trying to show how beguiling and fascinating the Butterfly Theory is.

The term became well-known in 1972 when the late American mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz presented an academic paper titled: Predictability: Does The Flap Of A Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off A Tornado In Texas?

It expounded the chaos theory he first came up with about a decade earlier, about how small differences in a dynamic and complex system such as the atmosphere could trigger big, powerful and unexpected results.

Technically, the butterfly does cause the tornado. But what it does when it flaps its wings is to move molecules of air, which in turn triggers a chain of micro changes in weather conditions ultimately determining when or where the tornado strikes.

The relationship between two things, in other words, is seldom linear and any reaction is often the result of a heap of other causes big and small, by chance or design.

Applied to humankind, the Butterfly Effect demonstrates just how simple choices or actions by any one individual can set off a chain of events which will significantly shape futures and affect lives besides his own.

So what did Kian Leong do to change my life and in doing so, also alter those of people he does not even know?

He just lent me $20.

We were hanging out in Ampang Park Shopping Centre in Kuala Lumpur one day in 1981, not long after we received the results of the STP, the Malaysian equivalent of the A levels.

On a whim, he suggested dropping into the nearby Singapore High Commission to get application forms for the National University of Singapore.

I needed some persuading.

The thought of studying in Singapore had not crossed my mind: I did not think my results were good enough and I knew it would be financially tough on my folks. More importantly, I did not have the $20 to pay for the forms.

But Kian Leong said: "Aiyah, try lah. I'll lend you the money."

And that was how I ended up at the National University of Singapore, majoring in English Literature and English Language, and eventually becoming a journalist.

More than a thousand years before Lorenz, ancient Chinese poet and philosopher Lao Tzu had already decreed that "everything is connected and everything relates to each other".

I have always been intrigued by the tapestry of lives, how different destinies are so inextricably linked.

It is what prompted me to start my weekly series It Changed My Life in The Sunday Times, interviewing people whose lives have been irrevocably shaped by people, events or circumstances.

My subjects have run the gamut from hawkers to tycoons, former criminals to do-gooders, go-getting activists to passionate artisans.

Their narratives are equally diverse: a moment's folly leading to decades of ruin, a brave decision reversing a life spent mostly in the doldrums, a chance encounter sparking a metamorphosis.

Doing the series has made me realise a few things.

American historian Henry Adams was right when he said that chaos was the law of nature, order was the dream of man.

It is human nature to crave control over our lives. But no matter how we plot and plan, our future will always be an unfinished canvas.

One of my interviewees reinforced this when we went out for lunch the other week.

Harold is the towkay of a thriving courier firm with an annual turnover of more than $4 million.

He lives in a swish condo on Sentosa and is chauffeured around town in a white BMW by a young man who used to be with the special forces in China.

Life, however, was not always so rosy. Harold's late father was a pimp and big-time gangster, his mother a nightclub singer.

His childhood and teenage years were troubled and he was fired from his first job as a policeman when he roughed up a drug addict. He hit upon the idea of starting a delivery service while helping out at a florist.

The business did not take off immediately. In fact, Harold was mired in debts of more than half a million dollars at one stage before he drastically restructured his business and built it into what it is today.

Over an omakase meal at a Japanese restaurant, he told me: "Let me tell you something. Having something today does not mean you will have it tomorrow. Having nothing today too does not mean you will not have anything tomorrow."

The reality is there is no escaping the Butterfly Effect. You cannot, for instance, hope that nothing will happen if you do nothing. The very act of doing nothing will trigger off something, which eventually will affect you and others.

What we can and should do is to be mindful about the possible consequences which could arise as a result of our actions. Hopefully, that will lead us to make better decisions.

I do not know what prompted Kian Leong to do so, but I will always be grateful for the $20 he lent me.

It played a key role in steering me to where I now am, at a job I enjoy not least because what I do sometimes impacts people in a good way.

Just take Barry whom I was surprised to see in the audience at a talk I recently gave at The Arts House. Now an artist, the 48-year-old was a hell-raising former drug addict who spent more than 20 years behind bars.

We caught up over coffee after the talk. At one point, he gripped my hand tightly and said to me: "Kim Hoh, you have no idea what you have done for me."

I said: "What have I done?"

Apparently on the morning my interview with him was published, his mother - whose heart he had broken many times and whom he had not visited for many years - called him up and told him: "Don't forget you still have a mother who is waiting."

His siblings, too, have welcomed him back into their fold, and Barry's Facebook account is now regularly updated with photos of meals cooked by his mother and outings with loved ones.

There is more, he said with a grin.

"I will be going to the ROM soon," he says, referring to the Registry of Marriages.

"Wow," I said, "with whom?"

"My ex-wife," he replied.

That really made my day.

It does not matter that these developments would probably have taken place, even without my interview.

But I would like to think the Butterfly Effect is why our paths crossed and because of that, I have helped to expedite the reconciliation with the people he loves.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 20, 2015, with the headline 'Life-changing Butterfly Effect'. Print Edition | Subscribe