Malayalee father tells what Chinese gangster taught him

A journalist once asked me what my proudest moment was. Without hesitation, I said: "When my daughter, Maya, was born."

I remember her in my arms, looking at me with glazed determination to live a life where dreams come true.

As her father, it would be my privilege to have her dream big and grow with her. She would embody my gratitude for a past that "with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams" gave me a blessed life in a beautiful world. Maya is my future; a future where dreams must continue to come true.

Seventeen years on, she continues to delight me. The highlight of the day is our animated conversation in the car as I drive her to school - a daily celebration of the oral tradition. Life, in vignettes, finds added strength when it is allowed to reflect everyday moments of the past that, without pretence, have lifted the human spirit.

Here is a conversation with Maya that is etched in my heart. It is about the gangster who became my accidental teacher.

MAYA: Acha (which means "dad" in my native language, Malayalam), you keep talking about "regardless of race, language or religion". Why?

ME: Because I grew up with friends who belonged to different races and religions. We knew we were different. Yet we were the same, at the core. After some time, the differences didn't matter. I believe it was the same with amma ("mum"), darling.

MAYA: You mean the fact that you looked different and ate different foods and prayed to different Gods didn't matter at all?

ME: Of course, we were aware of the differences and there were stereotypes. For example, as Indians, we were called "smelly" because quite a few Indians used coconut oil to groom their hair and it did have a smell.

MAYA: That's terrible.

ME: You mean the smell?

MAYA: No, that they would be so racist.

ME: Yes, it may sound racist, but I do believe it wasn't intended to offend.

MAYA: How can you say that?

ME: You see, we all used to call each other names that, today, would be termed racist. The Chinese would call us "Mama" or "kilenkiah", or shake their heads and imitate our language by saying "annonae". Hey, we were no angels - we would call the Chinese "chinks". But you know what, we really didn't take offence - at least then - because we were close as friends. In fact, these became terms of endearment.

MAYA: Today, if we say such things, we will really get whacked.

ME: Yes, I find that sad, Maya. It's because we don't spend enough time with each other to truly get to know each other. You see, those days, even though there were racial or even racist labels, the effect was neutralised simply because of the amount of time we spent with each other. As kids, we used to play outdoors with each other every single day and fight and make up, and this got us even closer together.

MAYA: Acha, was there a particular incident or event that had a big impact on you?

ME: Yes. I was in Primary 6. Every day, on my way home, I would be waylaid by an Indian youth gang called the Mutalib gang. They would try and extort money from me. The funny thing is that because I was poor, I had no money. And because I had no money, Mutalib - the gang leader - would slap me. It was terrible, and it happened every single day.

MAYA: Aiyoh! But how did it end?

ME: That's the best part, Maya. I shared my problem with my best friend, Pulendran.

MAYA: Was he a gangster also?

ME: No, but he knew serious gangsters! So, one day, as I was about to be slapped by Mutalib - he suddenly stopped and had this look of absolute fear on his face. I turned around to see what Mutalib was looking at. There was this gang of about seven or eight Chinese gangsters. Each one of them was holding a cleaver in his hand. Right in the middle was the gangster chief, Ho Toon Hai - a repeat student in my school!

MAYA: Wow!

ME: The funny thing was that right next to Toon Hai was my friend Pulendran. Anyway, I was ordered by Toon Hai to slap Mutalib to humiliate him.

MAYA: Did you?

ME: Of course! Sweet revenge. I loved it! I was never hassled again. What happened the next day is what is important, Maya. Toon Hai summoned me. I was terrified, of course. You won't believe why he summoned me.

MAYA: Why?

ME: To give me a pencil case with fresh pencils inside. He told me that I should study hard and not become like him. He said: "You must go to RI (Raffles Institution - which was widely accepted to be the top secondary school)." He said if I didn't, he would "chop" me with his cleaver.

MAYA: Then?

  • The essays here are from The Birthday Book 2017: What Should We Never Forget?, published by The Birthday Collective. It retails for $25 (with GST) and is available at Kinokuniya, major bookshops and

ME: I obeyed. The PSLE results were out. My principal, Mr Moey, announced that I got into RI. When school ended, Toon Hai walked up to me and gave me a gift. It was a Hero brand fountain pen, which he gift-wrapped with newspaper. He then walked away.

MAYA: That's amazing, acha - a gangster.

ME: Yes, Maya, this small gangster taught me a lesson about life, for life - that human relationships are truly regardless of race, language, or religion, and regardless of social class or education.

MAYA: Never judge a book by its cover. What an amazing story, acha. Where is Toon Hai now?

ME: His body was found in a pool of blood in a monsoon drain a few months after.

MAYA: OMG, acha!

ME: Maya, Toon Hai had little education, and was a gangster - but he taught me one of the most important lessons in life. Don't judge a book by its cover, and resist the temptation to stereotype… to see the good that resides in each one of us.

"To generalise is to be an idiot" - William Blake

•The author is chief executive of Strategic Moves, a corporate strategy and crisis communication consulting practice with a keen interest in policy issues. He has more than 30 years of media experience, both as practitioner and policymaker and as a former Nominated Member of Parliament.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 24, 2017, with the headline Malayalee father tells what Chinese gangster taught him . Subscribe