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LETTER | It’s so hard to say goodbye to a dear friend

LETTER | Gan Kong Hwee passed away on Malaysia day, Thursday, September 16, 2021. On being informed of his demise, I texted Gan’s daughter: “My dear Lena, my dear friend Gan passed away at 3.20 pm. I’m just shattered.”

Gan died of a heart attack very shortly upon arrival at the Penang General Hospital.

Later, Lena wrote to inform me about Gan’s cremation: “Thank you Uncle Rama again for your kindness and kinship. You are family to us, always have been, and always will be. My dad is getting cremated this weekend.”

On that Saturday morning, Sept 18, I was early at the crematorium for Gan’s funeral at 11.00am.

Soon after, Francis Loh, past president of Aliran, joined me. I was very glad to see Francis. There were two staunch stalwarts of Aliran to bid farewell to Gan who served Aliran so well for so many years. That gladdened my heart.

Gan’s casket arrived just before 11.00am, followed by Gan’s cousin Eric, his wife, Phaik Hoon, and Joy the maid who faithfully looked after Gan all these many years.

Francis and I paid our last respects by standing silently, sadly, on either side of the casket. Francis said a prayer for Gan. That was touching.

Finally, when Gan’s casket was wheeled into the cremation chamber, he did not go alone. There were five of us to bid our last farewell.

This was captured online with Gan’s children who are overseas witnessing the whole ceremony. The undertaker who was videoing this asked if anyone wanted to say something. Francis prompted me.

In my eulogy, choking with emotion, I struggled to say, “It is so hard to say goodbye to a dear friend.”

I choked, Francis placed his hand gently on my shoulder. It was comforting, it was reassuring. God, I was so glad that Francis was there with me, beside me providing support.

Gan with Aliran volunteers working on Aliran Monthly magazines

I continued, pausing after each sentence. “I have known Gan for more than half a century. Our families were close-knit and we met often.

“Deep inside me, the pain and sorrow are unbearable. It is overwhelming.

“When a dear friend dies, it’s like losing a member of your family”

After that, I couldn’t continue anymore. I was too grief-stricken. I could not find the words to express my sorrow. I was too emotional and could not speak.

Later, Gan’s daughter, Lena, wrote, “My dad is super lucky to have friends like you and Uncle Francis in his lifetime. Thank you so much.

“I really didn’t want you to go but rather attend online because of the inherent risks so I truly, truly am grateful for your kindness.”

Yes, there was this inherent risk all the time but I – and Francis – did not give a second thought. Gan was our friend and we had to be there. It was as simple as that!

My wife has always been very protective of me. Whenever I wanted to go out she would try her level best to dissuade me from going or caution me of the dangers involved.

Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman with Aliran executive committee members: Front row (L-R): Hamima Dona Mustafa, Tunku, Chandra Muzaffar. Standing (L-R): the writer P Ramakrishnan, Kong Hwee, Abdul Kadir, Ariffin Omar, Wong Soak Koon, Ismail Hashim, Gan Teik Chee, V Muniandy.

But on the day of Gan’s funeral, when I told her, “I’m going to Gan’s funeral,” she did not say anything about the dangers of the pandemic. She did not caution me. She knew I had to go. I had to be there.

The next day, when I told her that I was going to the crematorium to collect Gan’s ashes, again she did not say anything. She understood that it had to be done. I had to do that.

In another email, soon after the funeral, Lena wrote – she is very prompt in expressing her gratitude – she has always been.

Soon after the funeral, Lena wrote: “Uncle Rama, I cannot begin to express my eternal gratitude to you. Your commitment to my dad and to us is beyond what this world offers.

“Thank you for being there in the good and bad times, the memories we shared from our childhood with Ramesh, Shanti, and Shantini with you and Aunty Poh Yuk will always be etched in my heart. Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts.”

We had a lot of things in common. And strangely, even both our mothers died similarly - both were hit by a speeding car while crossing the road; my mother in Kepala Batas, Penang and Gan’s mother in Kuala Lumpur.

Gan collecting donations at an Aliran event

After Gan’s casket had rolled into the cremation chamber, the undertaker asked the four of us (Gan’s cousin and wife, Francis and me) whether anyone would be coming to collect Gan’s ashes the next day.

Unfortunately, none of us could. So the undertaker said, “In that case, I will collect the ashes and send them to Gan’s house.”

When I left the crematorium, I truly felt unhappy because of this – that no member of the family would be present to collect his ashes. I shared my feelings with Lena.

“My dear Lena, after Gan’s remains had gone into the cremation chamber, the undertaker told us that the ashes will be ready tomorrow at noon for collection. She asked whether there will be anyone present.

“Unfortunately all of us replied that we won’t be present. In that case, the undertaker said she will send the urn to Gan’s house. Don’t let that worry you unnecessarily, my dear Lena.

“Later after returning home and on reflection, I felt it would be wrong if no member of the family was present at the crematorium tomorrow. That troubled me. I felt that as long as I was around, there will be a member of the family to receive the ashes and the urn. That much I owe to my dear friend, Gan.”

Gan with friends at an Aliran event

The next morning, on Sunday, I was at the crematorium waiting for the undertaker. When she arrived, together we went to Room C where the bones and ashes were kept in a big aluminum basin. It was heart-wrenching to see flesh and blood reduced to this state.

I was told to pick the first bone and put it into the urn. The instant that I picked up his first bone, I became part of Gan’s family. The instant that I put that first bone into the urn, Lena became my daughter.

(This fulfills Lena’s desire as well. After the funeral, Lena had written stating, “Hope you don’t mind but now that I’m without a dad, you just got yourself another daughter.”

Of course, it is an honour and a privilege to have Lena as my daughter. Now, I have three lovely, beautiful daughters in my life. You lose one and gain another – that is somewhat comforting!)

After that, I was asked to add talcum powder into the urn. Following this brief ritual, the rest of the bones and ashes were added to the urn.

More talcum powder was sprinkled into the urn, the lid was put on top to cover and the urn was secured tightly with a red ribbon. Then it was handed to me.

I received the urn, held it tightly, close to my heart. Then this thought flashed across my mind: “In life we were together and in death, we were never apart.”

Gan with Mustafa K Anuar, the writer P Ramakrishnan, Francis, and Khoo Boo Teik

At Gan’s house, the undertaker, once again passed the urn to me to be taken into the house. Three days ago, on Sept 16, he left the house as a person in a private ambulance at 2.42pm and today he returned home as ashes and bones in an urn at 1.23pm. That was heartbreaking for me.

Photos were taken at the ash collecting ceremony, of the urn being given to me, of myself entering Gan’s house with the urn which was placed on top of a cabinet next to where his wife Betsy’s photo was kept. I forwarded all these photos to Lena.

Lena, on seeing these photos, responded warmly and gratefully:

“Uncle Rama, I pray that you are comforted today and more in days to come. Thank you for your unconditional love and support towards dad throughout the years.

“He’s so lucky to have had you in his life. Many people may say they have many friends but they really don’t. A true friend is a rare find. Thank you for your priceless friendship with my dad.”

So came to an end, the life of a dear friend who was sincere, loyal, and faithful.

Goodbye, my dear friend.


The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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