Four Generations

Wedding photo of the author’s grandfather and grandmother in Kuantan

Picture this: “You go back to Singapore for Chinese New Year? Is that where you’re from?” No, I explain patiently, as I have for the last 20-odd years. My folks used to be Malaysian but they aren’t anymore, so Singapore is where everyone gathers nowadays. 

Homecoming. I wonder about it as I’m awash in food and drink at the reunion dinner table, not to mention the usual half-pitying looks and hesitant questions. After all, there’s a darker undercurrent, a delicate dance around the Malaysian elephant in the room. 

How’s the situation these days? You’re still working with the opposition? How much do they pay you? I thought you were supposed to do your masters or PhD overseas this year? Your uncle retired with the Singaporean civil service, you know. Maybe you should ask him how to find a job here. 

In those moments, who knows what they really think of me: the prodigal daughter, the left behind who didn’t make it out of the old country, out of fighting spirit or foolish sentiment — who really knows? 

I shrug. My aunts and uncles exchange worried glances. 

I think of my Hainanese great-grandfather who fled to old Malaya at the age of 13 in 1891 to escape poverty, persecution and civil war in China. He died as the grand old man of Kuantan, which he helped pioneer and prosper with his own wealth and hands. A rags-to-riches story, a then-Malayan dream. As patriarch and progenitor, surely he must have wished on his deathbed for “four generations under one roof”, as the Chinese saying goes. For peace and harmony, for his clan to endure no matter what.

It took only two generations for his scions to scatter, haunted by the ghosts of 13 May 1969 and more. 

A Harvard-educated health economist who first languished for months without work upon his return, who now teaches public policy to bright-eyed Singaporean civil servants. A biologist who bombed his A levels in Malaya but retired as National Parks deputy director in Singapore, overseeing its greening over the steady decades. Cousins who were born and raised to believe that in that new nation you can be the best of the best and will be rewarded for it. Many others who made their way to Australia, Canada, Britain, the United States: destinations of choice for aspiring middle-class minorities, venturing out to fit in. 

That Chinese New Year of February 2018, the worried looks and whispers were stronger than ever. We are always your family, our home is your home too, just let us know when you want to come. Will the opposition even win the elections? What are the chances of martial law or a military coup? Why don’t you sell what you have and transfer your money here, so that if anything happens you’ll be safe? 

Post-election I sometimes wonder. Was I lucky to avoid answering those terrible questions, in the end? To not have history repeat itself? To not make the exodus that my people felt forced into years ago? To incredulously breathe in the winds of change, of possibilities anew? To see the hands of time ticking on towards a tentative future, rather than staying in the dreaded past? And yet in some sense it feels too late to turn back the clock. Can there be a homecoming if there’s nothing left to come home to? 

In my mind’s eye, nothing remains in Kuantan except for the crumbling clan house on a deserted street that my great-grandfather built once upon a time, the seascape buffeted with radioactive dust clouds rather than the idyllic monsoon winds of old childhood tales. My aunts and uncles will eventually be dead and buried in the land of their exile, not of their birth. My young nieces and nephews will never know the meaning of Malaysia, apart from a wild untamed land somewhere over the Causeway. 

Governments rise and fall, hopes wax and wane, people let go and move on. But in this Malaysia Baru, sometimes I dare myself to dream. Dream of a home where family reunions no longer have to be held on faraway shores. Dream of a home where we can all feel safe from harm, and that we do belong. Where the shadows of the past can be lain to rest, and where we can rebuild our gutted foundations. Once upon a time, do I stay or do I go was the ultimate Malaysian dilemma — for those who could pack up their hearts and bags, and flee for their lives — and hopefully never again to be. 

Four generations under one roof, as the Chinese saying goes, rather than one or none. These days, I dream of a day where home is truly both place and people — together for far longer than a fleeting national holiday weekend, and where we all never want to leave.


Sharon W.H. Ling is a parliamentary researcher and a reluctant, confused nationalist