A look at our changing values towards our elders


EVERYONE celebrates Mother’s Day throughout the world – it is traditionally celebrated on the second Sunday in May every year and has become a day (usually an entire weekend) devoted to lovingly treat our mothers, grandmothers, and even some great-grandmothers to a special outing, be it a meal, a holiday, or just something special. Eateries and florists have a boom time matched only by Valentine’s Day and Christmas.

Father’s Day, which this year falls on June 16 (tomorrow), being the usual nominated day on the third Sunday in June, pales in comparison; indeed, many places today have renamed it as Parents’ Day so as to include all the living elders in the family – father, mother, grandparents!

There are many of us who belong to families with four generations still around – great-grandparent, grandparents, parents, and ourselves. My five-year-old grandson is one of them. When I was born, my great grandfather was also still living then.

I remember growing up in the family homestead where my grandfather Ong Kwan Hin was the patriarch of the family. There were six families living under one roof – my grandparents; my dad, who was the sixth son with his five children; my ninth uncle with wife and three children; my 10th uncle with wife and four children; and two spinster aunties. A number of cousins were sent over from their parents for ‘discipline and tutoring’ from time to time as well. It was amazing how we all managed to survive living together in peace, harmony, and some modicum of privacy!

Grandpa, whom we called Ah Kong, held sway over all matters – from how we behaved to what we were supposed to do – probably the only things we could decide for ourselves was what we could cook and eat, and what we could do during our leisure time. Everything else had to be referred to him, or needed his approval. He was the be all and end all. Of course we had a few recalcitrant cousins during my time there. My family left the homestead in 1958 when I was eight years old – but only 100 metres further up the main road as my dad had built his own house by then. In turn, I left my dad’s home when I was 29, having built my own house just another 100 metres further west of my dad’s.

Family values have changed much since the 1950s. During the 60s and 70s, the changes were not that drastic. In general people were still living together with parents and even grandparents; mobility was moderate as the prevalence of newly-built homes with easy bank loans were still rare. Motorcars were still limited to a few makes and motorbikes were costly. Bicycles were still the trend till the late 1970s. Education was basically still a choice between English mission schools, local Malay madrasahs, the Chung Hua Chinese, and a handful of private schools.

Radio, cinemas, and public libraries were the only forms of entertainment then; there was no television till 1969. There was only a sprinkling of coffee shops and other eateries, and no amusement parks or other public facilities to speak of. If one wanted to communicate, there were only the handheld landline telephones or the letterbox to mail your letters and postcards. Pen-pal columns in the local newspapers and record request programmes ruled the airwaves.

A few public dances for teens featuring local pop bands were held a few times in a year, usually during school holidays or festive occasions. Playing badminton or picnics and cycling to upcountry destinations were the favourite pastimes during weekends.

Traditional family units were still intact; parents either worked for the government in the civil service, had their own private commercial businesses or were professionals in their various fields. Kids were driven to school or had their own bicycles; some went by public transport or contracted buses; those living nearer the towns walked.

However, the winds of change started blowing around the 1980s and haven’t stopped since.

What brought about these changes?

Colour television had arrived; shortly thereafter came the age of the VCR (videocassette recorder), the DVD, and so forth, and with that cinemas slowly lost their former appeal. Then came the proliferation of karaoke bars, coffeehouses, and more and more lively and modern concept eateries and bistros.

The easy access to bank loans for cars and for private residences meant that many entry level workers both blue- and white-collared could now afford their own transport and homes, especially when for some in later years when a second income came about.

Living outside the traditional family homestead, where the male father figure had always played the role of the patriarch meant that a newly-found independence had emboldened both the child and his in-law. It was no longer a matter of “can I have a quick word with you son?”, if something was amiss or a grandson had misbehaved. Immersive communication has been lost – never to be regained at a level of the past.

There is this often told story which is true – a mother can look after her 10 children but they cannot look after her and most often she’ll be left to fend for herself in her twilight years or conveniently pushed away to a home, if the children can afford it.

As a kid growing up, I was often told these stories. It is good to see that in recent years, CSR has made it possible for big companies like Petronas and others who have produced short commercial video-clips to remind us of the importance of filial piety during Hari Raya, CNY, Gawai, or Deepavali. But surely we need these reminders more than just during such festive times – indeed, we should be reminded of how important our elders are on every single day of the year.

I was most touched by a letter written to a newspaper by Tan Hock Lim from Penang, which ended with, “Having knowledge of what old age brings I would advocate wishing for a life free of major ailments and to be able to live independently. Hopefully to finish life’s journey at a canter; not too old or be confined to a wheelchair or abandoned in a nursing home with the bedpan to drag to the finishing post.”

I say Amen to that.