Thank you for the music, dad

My dad's love for music rubbed off on me in a big way and I grew up playing his records, from ABBA to Boney M

As Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew lay critically ill in the intensive care unit of the Singapore General Hospital last week, I couldn't help but think of my own father.

Maybe it was the old pictures of Mr Lee that his son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, posted about two weeks ago on Facebook. Or it could be just that Mr Lee, like my dad, is both Hakka and Peranakan.

Maybe it's because the 91-year-old is the man who built this great nation, so he's a little bit of a father figure to us all.

But when I heard news of his children and grandchildren going to visit him in hospital, one thought went through my mind - that whatever speeches they may have made, policies they may have implemented, legacies they may be leaving behind, the greatest statesmen were also often fathers.

And should we have to say goodbye to them, there will be those for whom the loss will be more than the rest of us will ever know.

My dad was born in late 1943, during the dark days of the Japanese Occupation.

He originally had five other siblings but two of them did not live to see the Japanese surrender. I never really found out what happened to them because my grandparents and older aunties never particularly liked talking about those terror-filled days and nights.

What I do know was that the family was poor. So roughly around the time Mr Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore's first Prime Minister, my dad quit school after completing Year 10 (the equivalent of Secondary Four today) in order to start work and help support the family.

His command of English was quite good so he found a job as a clerical assistant in a solicitor's office, something he would continue doing for more than 40 years.

By the time he retired, he had switched firms a couple of times and worked his way up to be a senior paralegal. His dream was to go to night school or do a correspondence course and eventually become a lawyer, but family commitments prevented him from realising it.

Indeed, my dad worked two jobs for many years. He specialised in conveyancing and the rapid economic development engineered by Mr Lee ensured that there was much legal work to be done in a booming property market.

In 1990, Mr Lee stepped down as Prime Minister. It was also the year we moved into a landed terrace house in Lorong How Sun.

It was a proud moment for my dad and the house was the physical embodiment of all that he had worked so hard to achieve for his family. He still lives there today with my mum.

My dad will be 72 this year. He is now semi-retired and helps his younger brother - my uncle - run his motor car workshop business. His CV may be short but I would say he has led a successful life.

That's because a person's achievements are far more than what can be listed in a LinkedIn profile or a list of properties and possessions he owns.

Having worked in a legal environment all his adult life, my dad was always a stickler about setting and following rules, whether they be rules of law, the church or English grammar. He was also a worrier and would get up in the middle of the night to check the locks on the door.

But there was a cooler side to him that my sister and I only got glimpses of, from the odd story my mum would tell us or an old photo that we sometimes saw.

One of these photos was of my dad in skimpy trunks, vying to be Mr Geylang in a bodybuilding competition. He was also apparently the drummer in a band.

I rebelled strongly against my dad's love for the law, but his love for music rubbed off on me in a big way.

One of the earliest things he taught me was how to work his complicated hi-fi system, how to cue records on the Lenco turntable and set the levels on the Marantz equaliser for the best sound.

I grew up playing all his records, from ABBA to Donny and Marie, Anne Murray to Skeeter Davis. I became addicted to Boney M and Stars On 45.

When I was older, he gave me money to buy pirated $2 cassettes and eventually my first vinyl records. Though we never talked about it, he instinctively knew who my favourite bands were.

He never stopped me from using my recess money to buy expensive music magazines and would even specially drive me to the music store Valentine just to catch the new Depeche Mode or Pet Shop Boys single as it was unloaded off the delivery vans.

But the best memories of my dad are not framed in terms of the things money bought or the luxuries in life that he provided.

It's all the times I sat with him on the cold hard terazzo floor in the hall of our tiny three-room Holland Drive flat with music scores and lyric sheets, just belting out songs that he played on his guitar. Every time we sang Blowin' In The Wind, I wondered, in my child's mind, about the lyrics of this strange tune.

It's sitting with him at night in the front seat of the car, parked in the back driveway of the CK Tang building in Orchard Road, waiting for my mum to finish her shift at the store's batik department. We would sit there in the semi-darkness, blasting the eight-track with Glen Campbell, Freddy Fender and the Grease soundtrack.

It's walking with him endlessly through malls in Beauty World and People's Park while waiting for my mum to finish her dress-making classes, comparing prices and memorising which store sold what. I used to think I became somewhat of a shopaholic because my mum worked in a department store, but I now know better.

I'm not a father and will probably never be. But if I was, I would remind myself about what sort of legacy a father should leave behind.

To be sure, there were plenty of times when I hated my dad and his stubborn inflexibility. But after the years have all melted away, what has remained are these seemingly insignificant moments.

How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind, the answer is blowin' in the wind.

ignatius@sph.com.sg