It Changed My Life

He lost his wife and found Comfort Keepers

After his wife’s death, Mr Cheong stopped working to devote time to more meaningful pursuits. He took up theological studies, went into counselling and started Comfort Keepers, which offers caregiving services to the elderly.
After his wife’s death, Mr Cheong stopped working to devote time to more meaningful pursuits. He took up theological studies, went into counselling and started Comfort Keepers, which offers caregiving services to the elderly. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Mr Cheong with his wife Doreen and sons Caleb (left) and Joshua in a photo taken before the 2003 accident in Colorado. Mrs Cheong died in the car crash while Caleb was in a coma for three weeks.
Mr Cheong with his wife Doreen and sons Caleb (left) and Joshua in a photo taken before the 2003 accident in Colorado. Mrs Cheong died in the car crash while Caleb was in a coma for three weeks. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CHEONG FAMILY

Grief-stricken after his wife died in a car accident, former polytechnic director finds new purpose in life by helping the sick and the elderly

In 2002, Mr Cheong Mun Sang took his wife and the younger of his two boys on a cruise through the Panama Canal.

They were supposed to start in San Diego but a 12-hour flight delay messed up that plan so they had to fly to the next port of call, Mexico, to board the ship.

For causing that problem, United Airlines compensated them with flight coupons which had to be used within a year.

The following year, they used the coupons to visit a few friends and a couple of Christian organisations in Colorado Springs.

 

"If not for the flight coupons, we might not have gone," says Mr Cheong, who was then 58 years old and working as director with Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

And life would have turned out very differently.

Tragedy struck when the trio went on a driving holiday in an SUV loaned by a friend. They had just visited the Great Sand Dunes National Park when their car - with Mr Cheong behind the wheel - collided with another vehicle.

Mrs Doreen Cheong, who was in the back seat and did not have her seat belt on, was killed on the spot.

Their son Caleb suffered serious injuries and was in a coma for about three weeks but has since recovered. The American couple in the other vehicle were also killed.

Mr Cheong's faith helped pull him through the tragedy although he was dogged by grief for a long time.

Now 70, he stopped working after the accident to devote his time to pursuits he found meaningful.

He took up theological studies, went into counselling and, a few years ago, started Comfort Keepers which offers caregiving services to the elderly. "I believe all this has been planned," says the youthful septuagenarian.

Chatty and upbeat, he seems to have put the sad episode firmly behind him as he sips tea in the coffee lounge of a hotel along Scotts Road.

He is the eighth of 10 children of a businessman and a housewife.

"My father was an orphan who came from Guangdong to Singapore when he was 10 years old.

"He never went to school but had three businesses when he died: a bus service in Naval Base, two petrol stations and a sauce factory. He started the sauce factory to give jobs to those who helped him when he first arrived in Singapore," says Mr Cheong.

In fact, the late Mr Cheong Ah Kee - a diabetic who suffered several strokes and died in 1965, aged 57 - was so affluent that he was kidnapped by Oh Kim Kee.

Oh - one of Singapore's most notorious criminals who was killed in a shoot-out with the police in 1960 - pulled off 12 kidnappings over 10 months in 1959.

"My father was kidnapped in Sembawang, near the hot spring," Mr Cheong says, referring to Gambas Avenue. "He was gone for a few days. I remember everyone in the house jumping each time the phone rang. The ransom was paid," adds Mr Cheong, who was about 15 years old at the time.

The former student of Geylang English Primary and Beatty Secondary gave his parents no grief when it came to his studies, topping his class every year.

He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 1969.

Upon graduation, he landed a job in quality control with Chartered Industries of Singapore. After three years, he joined Philips which was starting its operations in Singapore.

"I was the quality manager for domestic appliances for about 15 years. My job entailed a lot of travel to countries like Holland, Japan and Australia," he says.

There was also a stint with ST Aerospace before he joined Ngee Ann Polytechnic in the late 1980s as a senior lecturer. He later became director of the quality management and engineering division.

He met his wife at UM, and married her when he was 24.

Their elder son Joshua, 42, is a technical manager with a software giant while Caleb, 40, works as a hotel executive.

Devout Christians, the Cheongs led a settled and comfortable life before the accident.

"My wife was from Ipoh, very dynamic and a real chilli padi," he says, adding proudly that she had a master's in education from Harvard and a PhD in chemistry from the then University of Singapore.

"She could cook, sew and do business plans, that was why she was such a high-flier in Singapore Polytechnic," he says.

Mrs Cheong was the director of educational staff development at Singapore Polytechnic. She also founded the Woodlands Social Centre, a voluntary organisation operating a kindergarten and offering, among other things, a before-and-after-school care service as well as tuition classes.

Several strange things took place before her death, says Mr Cheong.

"The day before we left for our trip in the US, she was in the church kitchen and she told some of the women there, 'Let me show you how to cook rice for 100-over people in case I don't come back.'"

He remembers the events of Sept 20, 2003, well.

It was a Saturday morning and Mrs Cheong had wanted to see the Great Sand Dunes.

Her husband reminded her that they were supposed to have dinner with friends later that night in Colorado Springs, some 270km away.

"I was worried that we might not make it back in time but my wife calculated the distance and time and said it would be okay," he recalls.

After the visit, Mr Cheong was driving the Ford Expedition through mountainous terrain when Caleb told him that he was too close to the edge.

"I quickly corrected the vehicle and that's when it happened. I saw a car trying to avoid me, I might have hit a corner and my wife was thrown out the door of the car boot," he says, adding that he blacked out.

"When I woke up, the engine was almost to my knee. The other car had turned turtle."

Four ambulances arrived, and he and his son were taken to a hospital in Walsenburg.

An X-ray revealed there was nothing wrong with Mr Cheong although he was in great pain.

Caleb, however, had to be airlifted to another hospital in Colorado Springs because his injuries were a lot more severe.

Doctors had to perform an operation to remove blood clots in his brain; he was unconscious in the intensive care unit and did not wake up until three weeks later.

After being interrogated by the police, Mr Cheong spent a night in the county jail before a couple of American friends bailed him out the next day.

One of the hardest things to do was to break the news to Caleb.

He did it with the help of a hospital psychologist.

"Initially, Caleb evaded the issue. I brought it up when he was ready for it. He said he knew that his mother had died from his dreams during his coma; he said his mother was taking a plane to go somewhere else," he says.

Mr Cheong says he survived the aftermath by drawing comfort from his faith.

"I told myself, 'God doesn't owe you a thing. Whatever God owes you, he will pay you back double'," he says.

And this, he says, was borne out by the outpouring of support from friends and church members, some of whom flew from Singapore to see him in the US.

He was also well taken care of by his friends in Colorado. They recommended him a lawyer who advised him to submit a plea bargain.

He pleaded guilty to a charge of careless driving and was ordered to pay only US$78.40 in court fees, as the judge said he had suffered enough from the deaths.

The Colorado Springs hospital also absorbed the extra costs of Caleb's stay - which ran into hundreds of thousands - after insurance claims had been made.

Mr Cheong is relieved that his son has fully recovered.

For several months after his return to Singapore in December that year, he was overwhelmed by grief.

"At home, I'd think of her closing the door. Sitting on a bus, I would start weeping," says Mr Cheong, who sought help through counselling.

A website, griefshare.com, that he chanced upon helped a lot.

"Griefshare tells you the stages of grief, when it will end. It actually does not end, a familiar smell will trigger feelings. But it got better when I started doing my own thing," he says.

He decided to quit working, something he was able to do because he had made some shrewd property investments over the years.

Over six years, he studied theology, got his master's in divinity and also took a course in counselling.

The late Anthony Yeo - hailed as the father of counselling in Singapore - used him as a case study. "God has a plan for my wife's death. And I have to use it for a purpose, to help people," says Mr Cheong.

One year as a volunteer in a programme organised by St Andrew's Community Hospital and Trinity Theological College exposed him to issues faced by the sick and elderly.

So when he came across an article about Comfort Keepers - which provides homecare to the elderly - he decided to swing into action.

He approached the local agent and started a franchised operation five years ago.

"There are (many) elderly in Singapore who are left alone because their children do not have time for them," he says.

He has a pool of nearly 50 caregivers - all Singaporeans, aged between 40 and 70 - offering different types of services.

"People hire us to help the sick with medication, cook meals for or feed elderly patients, or play games with those suffering from dementia, or chat with those who are lonely," he says.

Comfort Keepers charges by the hour and its rates range from $18 to $20 an hour. The business, he claims, does not bring in a lot of revenue. "But it's okay because I see this more as a ministry to help people in their hour of need," says Mr Cheong, adding that the clients come from diverse backgrounds.

When he is not working, he plays doting grandfather to his two grandchildren, aged six and eight.

When his wife was alive, he says, she once asked him if he would remarry if she should die.

"It has never crossed my mind. And I don't want to start all over again," he says with a laugh.

VIDEO: Cheong Mun Sang recounts the tragic accident http://str.sg/Z9GJ

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'ItChangedMyLife He lost his wife and found Comfort Keepers'. Print Edition | Subscribe