Chinese New Year is a time for reunion, not only for family members but old pals and schoolmates as well. This year’s reunion dinner for my school mates (especially for those who are based in the Klang Valley) happened on Friday, Feb 12, 2016. As I knew my guys would be consuming lots of alcoholic beverages for this function, and traffic in Bukit Bintang area (where our dinner would be held) would be a nightmare, I took the RapidKL 770 bus instead and planned to change at KL Sentral for the monorail.
Then the first “lightning” struck: one of the members of my Queen’s University Alumni Association Malaysia buddies, Andy Gan posted this on our Whatsapp group – “Our dear friend Michael Leong Hong Kah passed away this morning.” I spent the rest of the bus journey checking the various social media and chatting with Andy to verify this shocking news. Not wanting to accept this as Michael Leong just exchanged email with me in late November 2015 and he told me he was recovering well, I contacted our mutual friends, Dr. KK Wong and Seetho Tan who are based in Singapore (where Michael had been living since the early 1990s). I first heard of Michael’s fight with colon cancer when I read his blog in April 2015. In late November 2015, through an exchange of emails Michael told me, “I am still recovering from colon cancer. “ My worst fear was confirmed later that night when Dr. KK Wong called to confirm that Michael had left us. I have lost my best buddy of over 30 years. The second “lightning” struck!
Michael and I were real buddies. We helped each other with our respective weddings. I gave the “best man” speech in his wedding dinner and he was taking lots of photographs for mine…etc. and the list goes on.
Michael and I came from the same hometown, Ipoh, but despite our being of similar age, our path never crossed until we both were in the UK. Our first meeting was around Christmas 1979 in London. But we were just acquaintances back then. Michael’s elder brother, Dr. Tony Leong was studying medicine at Newcastle University, England and I along with my three other friends (all former SMJK Sam Tet Ipoh boys) were students at South Shields Marine and Technical College, 10 miles away. Tony was asked by one of our seniors at school who knows Tony well to keep an eye on us as we were just 17 years old and living on our own for the first time in our lives.
In 1982, armed with my GCE “A” levels result slips I went to Belfast after meeting a fellow Malaysian, Clarence Ko in Dublin where I was accepted to read agriculture at University College Dublin (UCD). Clarence persuaded me to give the Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB) a try as it would mean saving of one year compared to UCD. Apart from Clarence, I only had two acquaintances in Belfast, Michael Leong and Khoo Thiam Chye. October 1982 was the start of my 30 odd years friendship with Michael Leong.
Michael took me to QUB’s admission office and then to different faculties to help me finally get a seat to read general agriculture. As I had to “waste” one year studying in Remove Class on account of my having studied in a Chinese primary school, Michael who was 1 year older than me was in fact 2 years my senior at QUB. As both of us were busy with our studies I only bumped into Michael once or twice during 1982/83 academic year. In 1983 I defeated Michael when both of us stood for the presidency of the Malaysian Students’ Society of Northern Ireland (MSSNI). I think it was not that I was a stronger candidate, but the fact that the “medic gang” (the medical students formed the largest contingent of Malaysians at QUB in the 1980s) was competing with the non-medic gang (mainly engineering students) and I being the “neutral” person somehow was the compromised candidate. Michael did get himself elected as the Vice President of MSSNI. I appreciated the great contributions from Michael especially when our Treasurer, Cheong Kok Wai had to relinquish the position suddenly. We had lots of fun together including successfully smuggling a fellow Malaysian (a young lady) back to Stranmillis College late one night after curfew! As we both embarked on our respective final year of degree studies (Michael’s medical degree took 5 years and mine took 3 years), we seldom get together in 1984/85 academic year. However I recall helping Michael take out the engine of his old Peugeot 305, sent it for repair and put it back together and did the test run. We also helped a fellow student, Mr. Lai to change his car’s clutch. All was done in the garage pit of Belfast’s Malaysian Centre.
We also shared the joy of graduating with our bachelor degrees on the same day and at the same venue, the Whitla Hall of QUB in July 1985.
During my Master’s and PhD studies from 1985 to 1990, most of my peers had already graduated and left for home, save for the medical doctors working in Northern Ireland. Michael was always game to host a dinner once a month for our group of “oldies” and I was the only “non-medics” among them. In late 1988 Michael bought a house in Belfast and persuaded me to move from my digs (home for me for three years) to keep him company. Seeing that I was working well with my first “personal computer” , a now vintage Sinclair
Z88, to write my PhD thesis, Michael went on to buy a second hand Z88 and proceeded to play with it. After 2 weeks, ever the entrepreneur, Michael learned that the Z88 was too limited in its functions, he promptly sold off his Z88 and bought a second hand IBM clone PC. He knew that I was already very familiar with the PCs having used these in my research work and naturally asked me to train him on how to use his new toy. It did not take Michael long to learn enough to do work on his PC. Soon Michael got a job working in a dermatologist’s practice in London and he relocated there. By late 1990s Michael got a job with a US multinational hardware company and relocated again, this time to Singapore as its medical systems specialist.
When I received the offer of a postdoctoral research position at the National University of Singapore in January 1991, I contacted Michael to seek his advice on accommodation etc. Michael found me a room and went on lending me two thousands Singapore dollars for me to get settled in. It took me more than six months to repay Michael.
After my stint in Singapore in 1996, my wife and I moved back to Malaysia. We kept in good contact with Michael and Irene by phone. For a couple of years, my wife, May also served as
a director of Michael’s Malaysian company. The Leong and Chow families had our meetings occasionally when Michael brought his family to Kuala Lumpur for holidays. The last time our families met was in 2012. The social media era of the past 10 to 12 years meant that I got to chat with Michael occasionally, usually via Facebook and sometimes via Gmail. The last time I met Michael and family was on June 02, 2014. May and I needed to be in Singapore to sort out some financial matters. Michael drove his family all the way to Changi Airport just
to have dinner with us. It could be that Michael remembered me as the guy who was a student surviving on subsistence level stipend, he would always buy the meal. I now regret never to have the chance to repay the compliment.
Michael was a quiet person despite the infectious laughs and that gentle smile of his. Perhaps only Irene knows his inner self best. In April 2015, not knowing the full extent of Michael illness I tried to help QUB’s Head of Alumni Relations, Ian Moore to seek a short meeting with him but Michael politely declined, “My life is for my family and for close friends only. Thanks.” That was his answer. By retiring at the age of 48 as a financially independent person Michael put his family first spending the last 8 years fully and filled with quality time with his wife, daughter Annabelle and son Aaron. I think not many of us could have had this joy of Michael’s.
On the morning of Feb 12, 2016 I lost a great buddy. The readers of pertama.com lost the “oldman”, Michael’s moniker. The community of investors in Singapore have lost a great role model. Most of all, his family lost a caring father and a very devoted husband.
Michael, may you rest in peace.
Author’s note: I feel that telling the story of Michael and his interaction with me is the best way I can preserve the memory of my late buddy. Michael Leong was a serial entrepreneur who was trained as a medical doctor. He had not practiced medicine since living in Singapore in 1990. My life has been made much fuller by having been Michael’s buddy.