Sunday, April 18

How all our friendships change over time . . .


Tun Abang Openg (fifth left), our first Governor of Sarawak, seen with the Ong family during an event in Kuching back in the 1960s.

Shookry and I, on board a ‘sampan’ plying along the Rejang River in 1971.

A FAMOUS songwriter once said – and I agree with her: “I count myself really fortunate that I have some lifelong friends. The best thing about a friend is when you are being your own worst enemy, a friend can help snap you out of it.”

Some friendships last a long time, even a lifetime; others are what I’d term as ‘flash-in-the-pans’ – hot and sizzling for a moment in time, and fizzling out after that moment has lapsed, or the purpose it had served has passed.

Then, there are the friendships that everyone make which are on and off – people whom you’ve met and known intensely for some time, then for one reason or another lost touch with, and connect again by some pure luck or sheer accident, and you continue just like it was only yesterday that you had seen each other.

I’d like to touch on some of these personal friendships.

Obviously, the earliest friends one would meet, especially if you were born into a big family like mine (still can’t remember off-hand how many first cousins I have, and uncles and aunties on both my parents’ sides), are your relatives.

Pope John XXII said: “The family is the first essential cell of human society.”

Desmond Tutu continued with: “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”

It is a blessing indeed to have siblings who become friends as well – cousins, aunties and uncles too. Yet quite often, we read in the news these days about squabbling family members, especially if they come from wealthy families whose patriarch or matriarch had made fortunes during their lifetimes.

We even read about petty quarrels under intoxication, resulting in injuries to limbs and body and even leading to deaths. Can I blame this on their upbringing, or on society’s ever insatiable quest for the good life, the indulgence in material wealth, and in some whose lack of a good and proper education or on an unstable family life when they were growing up?

No one knows the reason for every tragedy that has befallen upon these poor souls, except The Almighty.

The second tier of friendships is made during the school days. Many such relationships last a lifetime. I still hold dear many friends from primary school at St Thomas’ whom I still keep in constant touch with – some live in Kuching, many have migrated and are all over the world – in Shanghai, Taiwan, Los Angeles, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and many parts of Australia.

We try to meet up and see each other on our school anniversaries – we did in 2007 for our 40th, and in 2020 for our 51st; with many smaller ones in between.

We try and gather a smaller group whenever someone from overseas returns home to Kuching. We also arrange for special visits to our alma mater; it’s extremely humbling that today I sit as chairman of the school that we had all studied in for 13 years!

For those who have gone on to colleges, universities and institutions of higher learning, they make their friendships there too and many of which would endure through the ages.

After years spent in schools and universities, next would come our working lives and careers and what I’d term as ‘the years of wine and roses’ – usually from around the early and mid-20s, to retirement between ages of 50s and 60s.

At the peak of one’s life, the number of friends one makes can be rather overwhelming – this is the period that one has to be very discerning.

Many would want to be friends with benefits (not in that sort of way for those cheeky ones!); others would latch on to you to rub off your success especially if you’re seen as an up-and-coming bright spark.

A few, however, would really be friends who like you, enjoy your company and find you to be someone of like mind and have common goals and interests in life.

I have made many lifelong friends in my working life. I’ve also had a most colourful career, beginning in the field of marketing of fast-moving consumer goods, then to the motor trade, then into real-estate, and eventually, into the film industry and writing.

The two attached photos here tell their very different stories.

The first one shows my best friend Shookry Gani and myself in a ‘sampan’ (small boat) as we were about to come ashore at Dalat (or was it Song or Oya?) along the Rejang River in Sibu in 1971.

We were both rather junior marketing executives then having joined the Borneo Company together in March 1970. We were both transferred to Sibu and were neighbours in company housing – I was handling the Guinness agency, and Shookry, the Nestlé agency.

We used to travel to all these remote markets upriver and coastal together; and from there, a lasting friendship was founded.

The bond has lasted till now, even though Shookry has since migrated to Melbourne, and I am still in Kuching.

The other photo, taken sometime in the 1960s – most likely 1965 or 1966 – was at a ‘Ladies Night’ function held by the Freemasonic Lodge of Sarawak at the old Bukit Antu Building along Jalan Bukit Antu, Kuching.

The first Governor of Sarawak Tun Datuk Abang Haji Openg Abang Sapiee (he was installed in 1963) shown here with my parents, Ong Kee Bian and Tan Lee Kheng; and my uncles and aunties.

The Openg and the Ong families have been longstanding friends since the days of old – indeed, the present Chief Minister of Sarawak Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg, a son of Tun Openg, was my secondary classmate at St Thomas’ School for a period of five years (1963-1967).

Back to my personal story of friendships made during our working life.

Friends made by us throughout our lives, from childhood days to school to universities, then to the working periods of our lives – they are all very different because of our differing needs, desires and expectations.

For those of us who have since retired, we would have experienced a big drop in the number of friends surrounding us; those who still keep in touch or with whom we share an occasional phone call or morning breakfast, those who invite us for an important occasion – a son’s wedding, a birthday party; those we meet by sheer accident along the five-foot-way of the street; and sadly too, a few whom we would only read about on the obituary page of the local paper.

For us with some common interests, we would try our best to keep in constant touch, form an intimate WhatsApp chat-group, have a few drinks over ‘Happy Hours’; meet at a friend’s for Bible study or morning coffee; exchange plants, herbs and seedlings; plan occasional trips upcountry to scout for plants, durians or visit a farm; go walking at the park or line-dancing in a group — the list is endless.

Friendships make the world go round; yes I know it’s supposed to be ‘love’, but friendships are formed out of love – there’s so many different kinds and levels of love in this world, and believe you me, without love there can be no friendship.

‘Family and friends are hidden treasures – seek them and enjoy their riches’. Amen.