After heartbreak of son's suicide, parents find ways to help other youth

Growing up, Lawrence Chow was the son many parents would wish they had.

A little shy, he was an ace tennis player, tinkled the ivories, wielded a good pen, was great with children and kind to the homeless.

But after he turned 18, he started suffering from bouts of debilitating depression which reduced him to a weepy, morose wreck.

He struggled with a blue funk for eight years and on Oct 22, 2009, just a few months before he was to graduate with honours in psychology from Murdoch University in Australia, the 26-year-old took his own life.

His death threw his parents - Mr Chow Yen Lu and his wife Yee Ling - into a pit of grief.

"We wondered if inadvertently we had projected our own values and expectations, which turned into a life burden weighing heavily on his shoulders," recalls Mr Chow, a 56-year-old technopreneur.

"It's easy to blame yourself and each other and that came out from time to time. But almost right from the beginning, we decided it wasn't going to get us anywhere," he adds, explaining how he and his wife, a Chinese language teacher, coped with their distress.

"You cannot change what happened. You can question yourself - 'Why didn't you do this, why did you do that?' - but questioning won't get you anywhere."

Something their only child said when he was alive galvanised them to turn their grief into something beautiful.

Mr Chow recalls: "He once said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could make a difference in someone's life?'"

The couple decided to do just that by setting up a foundation, Over The Rainbow, a year after their son's death. Among other things, it sets out to promote youth mental wellness as well as raise awareness about depression and other mental illnesses.

Recently, Mr Chow became one of the founders of Singapore Creations ETC which seeks to help youth from different backgrounds find themselves through the performing arts.

"It's not a theatre school; it's a space where young people can dream, express themselves and voice their concerns and aspirations. And we hope to turn these into original productions," he says.

Gentle and unassuming, the Singapore permanent resident was born the eldest of three children in Taiwan.

His journalist father undertook a perilous journey, in a boat attacked by fighter planes, when he left Zhejiang in eastern China and followed the Kuomintang to Taipei in 1949.

His mother, originally from Fujian, also fled to the Philippines to escape the communists before ending up in Taiwan.

Both his parents spoke English.

"In Taipei, my father worked as a translator for the Voice of America and my mother worked for a non-profit agricultural organisation," says Mr Chow.

When he was 11, the family moved to Okinawa in Japan where his father worked as a translator at an American army base.

"It was the time of the Vietnam War and, as kids, we would see all these B52s with the big wing spans flying in and taking off," he recalls.

Life was otherwise idyllic, with lots of snorkelling and swimming. He did well in school, especially in maths and science.

"I was very curious about science and did a lot of my own reading and studies beyond what they taught in school," he says. "I remember getting books and reading up on particle physics by Richard Feynman. He was a Nobel Prize winner but he was such an interesting character. He played the drums and told very funny stories."

Although he laughs off suggestions that he was a brainy geek, the self-starter got into the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he studied electrical engineering.

"My parents could not afford it but I managed to get some student grants and took some student loans which I took years to pay off," he says with a laugh.

Life for the first couple of years was tough because MIT was a hotbed of competitiveness.

"The winters were very cold and I felt isolated and inadequate. It's not easy going from top of the class to being a nobody," he says, adding that he also suffered mild bouts of depression.

But his perfectionistic streak kept him going. "I just tried to stay focused on finishing school and getting a job," he says.

Upon graduating in 1981, he became a research assistant at BBN Technologies, well known for its acoustic design.

"I really enjoyed it. I was doing a lot of advanced research and development, looking into artificial intelligence and getting computers to understand human language. My first job was to research speech recognition," says Mr Chow, who stayed with the company for seven years.

A short stint at another company followed before he moved to Apple.

"I joined Apple, in between Jobs. Get it? Get it?" he jokes, referring to the period between 1985 and 1996 when Steve Jobs was fired from the company he co-founded and later rejoined.

Mr Chow's career soared at Apple. Conferred the title of distinguished technologist, he was the chief scientist of its speech programme and architect of its Asian Language Technology initiative. Apple brought him to Singapore in the early 1990s where he became the technology director for the Apple-ISS Centre, the computer giant's joint venture with the Institute of Systems Science. The centre was famous for its successful development of Asian language input solutions for computers, like the award-winning Apple Chinese dictation and handwriting kits.

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In 1996, he left Apple to start Asia Works, a technology start-up that continued his research into interactive language technologies.

In just 18 months, the company was acquired by Nasdaq-listed Lernout & Hauspie.

A defining moment occurred when he was tasked with turning around a start-up during the tumultuous days of the dot.com bubble crash in the early 2000s.

He took no pay for nearly a year, raised money and tried everything to keep the company afloat before finally throwing in the towel 18 months later.

"It was a hard decision but it had to be made. Some people may see that as a failure but I see it as a foundation which I've built on."

Indeed, since then, Mr Chow has carved out a very impressive resume as an angel investor in the IT industry, helping to build companies running the gamut from e-commerce to gaming to artificial intelligence.

"When I look at someone's resume, I find it questionable if they have only success. There's nothing wrong with success but I see it as a positive thing when people have failed because it means they have also learnt from the experience," says Mr Chow, who sits on several panels on entrepreneurship and innovation such as the National Research Foundation, Spring and A*Star.

Life, however, took a different turn when his only son - whom he was very close to - was diagnosed with manic depression when he was 18 and studying film at Fordham University in New York.

His voice grows soft and affectionate when he starts talking about Lawrence.

"He was just a shy but great kid, very sporty, loved music and quite a talented young fellow," he says.

But the illness changed him.

When a manic bout hit, Lawrence would become aggressive. He would yell at people, dress for parties which were non-existent, and even cut himself.

Things got so bad that Mr Chow and his wife decided to bring their son home to Singapore during his second year at university.

"We explored every option. We took him to a psychiatrist, tried traditional medicine, had him do yoga and even put him on a diet," he says.

Their efforts paid off, and their son calmed down so much that when he told them he wanted to go back to school, this time to study psychology in Perth, they agreed.

All was well for more than three years. In fact, Lawrence adapted so well that he became an inter-varsity tennis champ.

Unfortunately, the illness came back.

Mr Chow believes it was triggered by anti-depressants his son started taking to improve his mood.

Just a few months before graduating, Lawrence took his own life.

"When something like this happens to any parent, it's heartbreaking but it is also a wake-up call," he says. "We needed to do something because there are other people out there who are going through what Lawrence did."

He admits that he went through a very dark period before he realised that, ultimately, the best way to help himself was not to focus on himself but on others.

"Burying yourself in grief and feeling sorry for yourself is very easy to do," he says.

Instead, he and his wife decided to set up Over The Rainbow, a foundation to promote mental health and wellness.

"We want to help destigmatise the illness; we want to help young people achieve happiness and well-being to achieve their potential, we want to remind people how important detection and early intervention is. We just want to promote a lifestyle of wellness so that a young person will never have to reach the point of being clinically depressed."

Mr Chow now spends half his time running the foundation which organises activities varying from talks and meditation to yoga classes and relationship-healing sessions.

Last year, when a friend suggested setting up Singapore Creations ETC, he agreed without any hesitation.

Started about 35 years ago by a Canadian children's rights advocate, the group sets out to help youth find expression, as well as themselves, through the performing arts.

"It's free and anyone can join, as long as they're between 13 and 19," says Mr Chow of Singapore Creations ETC, whose board members include actor Adrian Pang and his director wife Tracie, and social entrepreneur Elim Chew.

The technopreneur says: "It's about helping young people achieve happiness and well-being to achieve their potential. Everything we do now revolves around that."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg