Three of My Unforgettable Life Long Friends

In one’s old age, which I am now, what matters most to me, besides my own family, extended family, good health, are a small circle of life long friends whom I can still meet and share memories of our continuous friendships which have withstood the test of time. Sadly, some of them are no longer with me.

I would like to pay tribute to three of them among several others and they are the late David Tan Sing Hwa, Leo Tan Wee Hin and Agnes Ma. My wife and I look forward to many more years of friendships with David’s spouse Siok Eng, with Leo and wife Chor Chon and with Agnes and hubby Paul.

David Tan Sing Hwa

I first came to know David when I left Singapore’s Legal Service after eleven years to join the multinational oil conglomerate Shell Companies in Singapore in December 1971. He was already there a few years earlier. David was a brilliant Shell Scholar and graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Australia’s Sydney university. He struck me as a very friendly, sincere and unassuming person, despite already being groomed for high positions there in future.

At one of the in house seminars which I attended, it was his turn to sum up his impressions of the seminar and how it had impacted on him. Sitting next to me was a lady British manager, who was a public affairs expert and accomplished speech trainer, and she whispered to me that David had the intellectual attributes and demonstrable ability of a potential Chairman and Chief Executive (CEO) of the Shell Companies in Singapore.

David and I became close friends in the course of time and we visited and socialised with each other at regular intervals outside the work environment and our wives also became good friends too. Our close friendship ties continued until he passed away in 2012.

While David did not become the CEO of Shell Singapore eventually, not for his lack of intellectual and administrative abilities and sound knowledge of the oil industry, but, in my view, for other established attributes including a commanding personality, external relations skills, good at official and private entertainments and physical stature which were expected from an incumbent for this exalted office. I believe that even if this high office was thrust upon him nevertheless due to his so many other outstanding qualities, he might either have turned it down or perforce became an unhappy Shell CEO because it would not suit his personality, mental make up and other attributes.

Be that as it may, David did rise to the position of a senior Board Director of Shell Singapore due, inter alia, to his profound knowledge of the planning and supply side of the oil business which this position requires. After decades of service, he retired from Shell. Following his retirement, he became a keen collector of antique Chinese ceramics and modern paintings , which I share, and other interests.

This happened after I left Shell, having completed more than 16 years’ service, to become a partner of a law firm in the final phase of my career, having served 27 years in the public and private sectors.

I would like to share with you several anecdotes of David’s inherent abilities and unpublicised talents outside the confines of work which have always amazed me and which, I believe, would also impress my viewers too. Here they come.

  1. When he came to my house he could vividly recall that, on his previous visit many months ago, an antique Chinese vase at the corner of my display cabinet had been removed and replaced by a ceramic plate of a different colour decoration. He would then look around the paintings on my living and dinning rooms walls and pointed out that I had re-rotated some of them from their previous positions. I was truly astounded by his extraordinarily gifted memory power! Equally amazing, he could also remember the prices of many of the above items that I paid long ago and told me they would now cost significantly more.
  2. Having been brought up in an entirely English-speaking environment and being completely unfamiliar with the Chinese language, he took up weekly Chinese calligraphy and painting lessons with a small group of others well versed with this language under a well-known bilingual Chinese scholar and academic. The teacher and the rest of the class were absolutely astounded that a couple of years later, David had easily topped the class in both calligraphy and painting. The teacher told me in a social gathering that his best specimens came close as the works of the highly accomplished tutor himself!
  3. We went on many overseas trips together with other good friends. At every sightseeing destination, he would disappear from the group while the tour guide gave his commentary on the salient points about it. He would look for vantage points to snap his camera of the unusual scenery and rejoined us when his photography mission had been completed. His photographs are so good and they compare favourably with that of the pick of the professional photographers. On a suitable occasion, he would then regale some of us with them for us to recall more vividly our trips together.
  4. David never mentioned to me or others that he was a pianist of no mean ability. I found that out from a good mutual friend, Prof Bernard Tan, the former Dean of Science at Singapore’s National University of Singapore (NUS) and who himself is a competent pianist and music commentator, that he could have made a name for himself as a concert pianist had he made it his profession instead of becoming a top oil industry executive.

Sadly, David passed away at the age of 72 in 2012 after having been inflicted with cancer for several years. At his wake, Peter Chen, the former CEO of Shell Singapore and one of his closest friends too, delivered a heart warming and eloquent eulogy on David which touched the hearts of his many good friends, former colleagues and church members present. In the unanimous view of those at the wake, David was truly a gentleman, devout Christian and sincere friend who never spoke ill of others.

David left behind his spouse Siok Eng, son Lawrence and daughter Audrey, both of whom are senior medical consultants, and three adorable grandchildren, whom he always lovingly doted upon and took good care of them, to mourn his passing. He will always be dearly missed by his family members and friends.

Leo Tan Wee Hin

Professor Leo Tan is an academic and scientist of multifaceted accomplishments. His career began as a marine biologist in the Science Faculty of the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was later personally selected in 1982 by the founder of Singapore Science Centre (SSC), who was then Health Minister and Vice-Chancellor of this University, to be the Director of SSC. During his 9 years there, he succeeded in building it up to be among the top 10 science centres worldwide.

In 1992, Leo was again hand-picked by Dr Seet Ai Mee, the Acting Minister for Community Development, to be the Dean of Science of the newly established National Institute of Education (NIE), a part of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Two years later, he succeeded its founding director when she retired. Prof Tan retired from NIE in 2006. Under his stewardship, the NIE expanded and grew into one of the world’s best university teachers’ training  institutions. He was immediately appointed Director (Special Projects) in the Science Faculty of his Alma Mater NUS with professorial status.

Leo’s crowning glory back at NUS was the pivotal role that he played in the setting up of the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum of Biodiversity. What was so remarkable was that he raised most of the the sum of $60 million needed to build this Museum within a very tight deadline of 6 months! The bulk of the funding came from the Lee Foundation and the Tote Board. In recognition of this, NUS decided to name this museum after the founder of this charitable foundation. Even more amazing, due to this museum’s very rich and some very rare and unique collections which were sourced from many parts of the world with Leo’s help, it has been placed it in the front ranks of such museums internationally from its early inception. A well-deserved accolade for Leo indeed. He became the active advisor of this Museum.

He was a recipient of Singapore’s Public Administration Medal (Gold) (Bar), Public Service Star, National Science and Technology Medal, President’s Award for the Environment, Distinguished Science Alumnus NUS, Justice of the Peace and was conferred an Honorary Doctorate by a British University and Order of Merit (Officer) of France.

In addition to the above, He chaired the internationally famed Singapore National Parks Board. He was also Chairman of Singapore’s Youth Achievements Council Award, Temasek Singapore Technologies Endowment Programme, Science Sub-Commission for UNESCO, Singapore Governor of the Asia-Europe Foundation and a member of Singapore Government Parliamentary Resource Panel for national Development, Environment and Water Resources.

Another feather in the cap for Leo was his being conferred a NUS Professorship for Science Conservation bearing his name in 2013. It was initiated by none other than Singapore’s late President SR Nathan, who was also the Chancellor of NUS. This came as a great surprise to Leo as the Head of State did not disclose this to him in advance. The President practically raised the full amount from the affluent benefactors required for this Chair with a matching contribution from the Singapore Government. This professorship was implemented in 2018 when an outstanding NUS professor in the Science Faulty became its first incumbent.

Leo is always friendly, pleasant, approachable and unassuming and get on well with people that he comes to meet in the course of his work. He is very popular and well liked by the press and was regularly interviewed by journalists and also by the other mass media. In addition, he was often invited to be guest speakers on his favourite subjects of marine biology and biodiversity. He also made periodic field trips both within and outside Singapore related to them until recent years.

My wife and I have been close friends with Leo and his charming and loving wife, Chor Chon, a specialist eye doctor, for forty years now. Our friendship has withstood the test of time and we have shared many happy memories of our times together. Their friendship has certainly enriched our lives. We wish them good health and happiness in the years to come.

Leo was planning to retire from NUS two years ago to spend more time with his family, especially with his 5 grandchildren, but was persuaded to stay on as a part time professor in his present capacity until the end of this year. He has already reduced his  participation on public boards and other public offices to the present three, after decades of active and outstanding service on them. He has rightly been credited as the true founder of the Lee Kong Chian Museum of Biodiversity, in the words of its founding Director Prof Peter Ng. Leo has continued to serve as its advisor to this day.

Agnes Ma

I have known Agnes for more than three decades now. She joined Citibank after graduating from NUS and is now a retired banker. In the course of time, our friendship developed and we became close friends. I later came to know her husband Paul too. Paul is a retired senior partner of an international accounting conglomerate in Singapore. After retirement, he has continued to serve as an independent director on a number of public listed and non-listed company boards He is also on the advisory board of Asian Civilisations Museum of Singapore.

I first met her casually at some Singapore Ceramics Society lectures and later at Forum of Fine Arts (FOFA) where we began to know each other better. After sometime she left FOFA possibly because she found the bi-monthly talks by the invited speakers or fellow members mainly on Chinese paintings and calligraphy too restricted to suit her taste in art.

Some years later, our paths crossed again in a shopping mall and we had a good chat during which I persuaded her to rejoin FOFA as its repertoire of lectures had expanded to include more varied art topics like ceramics, Chinese jades and other popular collectible art forms. She showed renewed interest in rejoining FOFA and I undertook to send her a membership application form for her positive response. She did so promptly and renewed her lapsed membership accordingly.

Agnes and Paul moved to our residential estate of Clementi Park with their family in 1979 and became our neighbours living one street away from us. They rebuilt and enlarged their property substantially in 2000 in order to accommodate their entire family more comfortably and also to house their large collection of Ming and Qing classical antique furniture and other quality collectibles accumulated over the past years and since then. Their above rare classical furniture collection is one of the best in Singapore.

FOFA’s Honorary Secretary position became vacant in 2006 and there were no new suitable candidates willing to fill it. After personal persuasion from me and others, Agnes finally agreed to undertake this onerous and multitasking office and has served continually since with unfailing efficiency, devotion and distinction. This position is both a tedious and most thankless one in any board or committee. Agnes did from time to time express a desire to make way for others but was strongly and unanimously persuaded by the FOFA board and me to soldier on to this day. I finally decided to step down from its board having been a continuous member in excess of two decades. I continue to participate in its bi-monthly events regularly.

When I came to know Agnes better for more than 20 years now, I have been struck by her humanity and kindness which she has continually extended not only to her friends but also to other residents in our Clementi Park estate as well as to her own domestic helpers and even to local and foreign workers whenever she needed their services for her house repairs or renovations works.

A few examples below will bring out her exceptional kindness and hospitality extended to many people referred to above.

Whenever she came to know I was ill, she would not only pay me visits but would also bring along her personally cooked health nourishing food which would help speed up my recovery. In addition to this, she would also bring along traditional Chinese medicines, which she firmly believes would benefit my recovery too.

When I was recovering from a fall which required surgery, she not only visited me but also bought me a costly legal publication by a renowned academic whom I know so as to  help me pass my time as I would be house bound for some time. On her subsequent visits she would again bring along her delicious home cooked food to whip up my appetite and to brighten my day.

Whenever I subsequently attended FOFA functions or having lunches with her following my above surgery, she would unfailingly insist on fetching my wife and I from our home and brought us back in her spacious and comfortable Mercedes car. This gesture has continued to this day now that I no longer drive and had sold my car in my old age of past four scores plus three.

Apart from her unfailing kindness to me, she would also extend her kindness to fellow residents in our estate whom she hardly knows when she found out from their neighbours that they were unwell and house bound with a foreign domestic helper who could not cook local food.

Her exceptional kindness would also be hospitably extended to workers, local and foreign, whenever their services were needed for her house repairs or renovations which would be quite prolonged. She would daily provide them with her home cooked lunch throughout that period.

I firmly believe that Agnes’ above humane gestures are acts of exemplary human kindness in its purest form, and I am sure all those who happen to read this post would fully endorse my admiration for such rare kindness extended to others, some of whom she does not even know.

I hope that Dr William Wan, General Secretary of Singapore’s Kindness Movement, would come to read this post and would spontaneously invite Agnes to join his much needed project, which has now gained a bigger following in the Republic.

My wife joins me in wishing Agnes and Paul many more years of good health and happiness ahead of them. Their decades of friendship has truly enriched our lives and has inspired us to extend human kindness to others as a way of life too.

Lam Pin Foo

9 thoughts on “Three of My Unforgettable Life Long Friends

  1. Pin Foo , typical of his magnanimous self. once again heaps compliments on his close friends and I am privileged to be counted among them even though I am undeserving of his generous outpourings. Thanks Pin Foo for your personal thoughts. and kind words. From the time you were my Board Director and Chair of the Establishment Committee at Science Centre, through the four decades we have known each other, you have been a stalwart friend and supporter in what ever I did at the Centre, NIE and the Natural History Museum. I have been blessed and honoured to be included in your latest blog along with community and corporate leaders, Agnes Ma and the late David Tan.
    Grateful thanks Pin Foo. God bless you and family


  2. Dear Pin Foo, thanks for your sharing…and for including me in your distribution list.
    I didn’t know that you are already 4 scores + 3. May you be blessed with many more healthy and good years.

  3. Dear Dr Wan,
    Pin Foo has been very kind and generous with his comments about me. I am not exceptional like David and Leo. I am a very ordinary person and my acts of kindness are only to be expected of any decent human being. I appreciate your interest in the article. I can be contacted on my mobile, 96377596.
    With best regards, Agnes

  4. Thanks, Mr Lam for your blog about lifelong friends. Indeed, friendship is a precious gift and should be treasured and celebrated.
    I know Prof Leo personally and write about him in My Best with Honour, a book about scouting.
    Thank you too for mentioning me and I am pleased to be introduced to Mrs Agnes Ma. If you can let me have her contact, I will be glad to get in touch with her.
    I have written 10 books and the latest is Through the Valley. Here is one of the reviews.
    If you would like a copy please let me have your address and I will be pleased to send you a copy with my compliments. It is also available at Amazon. I will look for your book.
    God bless.

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