Benjamin SYAWE (aka SIEW) Ah Khoon (c1886-1966) was my grandfather, ‘Kong Kong’. He was more than a survivor in tough times. He was a person who beat the odds. He then gave it back to society. He was creative. He was an inspiration. That is why I want to pay tribute to him in this my inaugural blog post today — 1 January 2010 — the first day of a new year and a new decade.
Syawe Ah Khoon was an orphan raised by Anglican missionaries in Kuching, the capital of the then British Crown Colony of Sarawak (which became one of the 14 States, including Singapore, that formed Malaysia in 1963). Because he was taught to read and write immaculate English by the missionaries, he immediately differentiated himself from the other immigrants. He was the natural choice when the British needed english-educated administrators. Syawe Ah Khoon rose through the ranks of government to become “Resident” of the district of Sarikei in the 3rd Division of Sarawak. There he performed a crucial role in receiving and regulating the immigrants that poured in from China to work the economy. In addition to many chinese dialects, he was also fluent in Iban, and was able to negotiate delicate settlements with the native Dayaks, who were not called “head hunters” for nothing! Syawe Ah Khoon was also active in the local school board, and even gave private english tuition to kids in the community — sharing the thing that enabled him to beat the odds in the first place. A road in Sarikei was named after him as a token of appreciation: Jalan Siew Ah Khoon.
Syawe Ah Khoon was also a farmer, a family man and a fine christian. From the success of a pepper farm, he built himself a large multi-family home in Kuching (opposite the Carmalite monastery) which included the grounds of Borneo Sawmill, the timber business ran by his son-in-law. The house was home to all the families of three of his four children, their spouses and up to 9 of us grandchildren at one point. He also gave a sizable sum of money in 1956 to the anglican church — the people to raised him up — to build the bell tower of the St Thomas’s Cathedral, overlooking the Central Padang (city square now called Padang Merdeka) in Kuching. A plaque “To the Glory of God” can be found at the base of this tower.
One day around 1992 a shy Dayak family unknown to us turned up in my mother’s home in Kuching. They graciously introduced themselves and explained — with some emotion — that Syawe Ah Khoon had quietly sponsored their education and that they were here to express their gratitude. Grandfather had given them a way to beat the odds, change the game, just like the way the missionaries did for him as an orphan with practically nothing to go on. Was that creative or what?
See also Sarikei Time Capsule