One of the pleasures that comes with writing this column is the interaction I have with readers who are kind enough to share their thoughts and stories.
Recently, I’ve had the honour of corresponding with Major K.F. Teh (Rtd), who served for 32 years in the British Army and the Malaysian Armed Forces.
Upon asking if he would share some more of his stories with me, he generously offered several, which was like receiving priceless lessons in history and Malaysian culture.
As I’ve mentioned before, I count it a privilege to learn from the older generations; not only do they have so many experiences to share, there’s also a trove of wisdom from which the younger generations profit.
Major Teh sent me several messages, which I’ll be sure to re-read time and again. My favourite life lesson from his stories is also the simplest, yet deeply profound. In one story, “I Am A Kampung Boy”, the major talked about growing up in Kati, located about 20km from Kuala Kangsar, Perak.
His father owned a grocery shop, and he described how people would buy things on credit when times were hard; his father wasn’t worried about people paying him back because they would always do so whenever they were able.
During Hari Raya, the store would be opened during the public holidays for those not able to make it back home earlier. As a token of appreciation, the kampung folks would send Raya food and cookies to the shop. Reading the major’s story, there was a real spirit of solidarity within his community, where people seemed to look out for one another.
Reminiscing about his younger days, Major Teh makes an excellent point: These days, we tend to forget the simple truth that we’re all connected within our communities – and yet, how many of us truly know our neighbours?
Psychological research points to numerous benefits of giving to others, spending more time communicating face-to-face, and contributing time and skills to people, charities and causes close to our hearts.
In Major Teh’s stories, I feel the care and warmth that comes from being part of a community where people support each other. It reminded me of my grandfather’s stories about the 1930s, when he said that even during the years of the Great Depression then, people were happy because they all banded together.
Nowadays, I wonder whether we’ve lost that ability to make genuine connections, the kinds that don’t rely on WiFi or 4G. I also wonder whether this decline in connecting with others is partly what has led to a rise in conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness. We have all kinds of virtual connections at our fingertips … but what does that do to us, offline?
Of course, technology provides us with enormous advantages – it’d be foolish to suggest otherwise. As each new technology comes along, it’s always accompanied by fear and distrust – even the advent of the first printed books wasn’t immune to detractors who were sure that books would ruin our memories and blunt our intelligence.
Major Teh – like all wise heads – isn’t one to throw the baby out with the bathwater, recognising that times change, and that change is positive more often than not. But he does offer a word of caution when it comes to how we use new technologies and treat each other.
He writes: “I’m in my mid-60s now and retired. I understand that, along the way, there will be changes. Those days, the mode of keeping in touch was letters and, of course, now we can talk and see each other even if we are thousands of miles apart.
“I sincerely wish for the good old days when life was simpler and hassle-free. People were more down to earth, humble and friendly then. Now, I think why it can’t be the same. Of course, we can improve if we all give it serious thought and make some effort to play our part in building a harmonious and happy society.
“It’s not too difficult, actually. How hard it is to say ‘terima kasih’ and have a smile on hand? As the saying goes, ‘Sedikit sedikit jadi bukit’ (little by little, a mountain is built).
“We owe it to ourselves, to our fellow men and future generations. Let’s make it happen.”
As younger generations are the pioneers of what’s to come, our elders are surely the bastions of wisdom who remind us of what’s been and gone, and the many life lessons that can be learned. I am grateful to Major Teh for taking the time to share his thoughts with me, and I count myself blessed to be able to engage with such inspiring people.
Of all the virtues and qualities that many of us strive towards, perhaps the development of our character does begin with a kind word and a smile for others.
We all strive and struggle in our own ways. Maybe the world might feel a little less fractured and disconnected if we all took the time to look up once in a while and connect with those around us, with whom we share more than we realise.