Literature abounds with great odysseys – voyages of discovery that tell of Kings and heroes such as Odysseus himself who, through their bravery, strength and power, shone their light on the world. But how does one describe a life that has existed entirely for the altruistic reason of service
To his fellow man – the life of a man who chose not so much to shine his own light, but to help others to shine their own?
On his Remington typewriter, John wrote and had 3 books published. The Nyonya (award winning), The Santubong Affair and Sarawak Chinese.
So if i were to be the biographer of the indefatigable John Michael chin at the twilight of his life, telling the tale of his own odyssey it brings to mind the latin phrase: ‘if anyone were to tell my tale, let him attest that i had seen further by standing on the shoulders of giants (nanos gigantum humeris insidentes)’, expressing the meaning of discovering truth by building upon previous discoveries. This is because i see it fit for Kuching’s grand old man, whose name may not be known far and wide, to be compared in fact, not to the dwarf lifted up and borne aloft by those who walked before him, but rather to the giants that laid their shoulders bare for the journey. indeed, a man of stature.
The opening lines of the illustrious tale of John Michael chin were heralded on May the 20th, 1920. Born of immigrant parents from Kwangtung, china with a subsequent sojourn to singapore, the confucian adage that journeys matter more than destinations proved true when the family settled in exotic sarawak. Faith was a central part of that journey, as John’s father had converted to christianity and discovered his life partner in the early 20th century.
The journey then took John’s father further to Bau, working the gold mines with the Borneo company. Yet all that glitters is not gold in the hearts of the faithful and so, the head of the chin household gradually embraced the duties of cathechist and teacher with the Roman catholic institution. John Michael’s life of service began from the tender age of five, remaining faithful to the institution right up to his completion of the then highest education level in sarawak.
Born of immigrant parents from Kwangtung, China, John Michael (above, far-right) stands with arm akimbo at the age of seven and with the same position at the age of 90 (right) at the Courthouse, Kuching where he once worked as a court interpreter.
As war clouds descended on the pacific, John discovered his “fire in the belly”; the passion to make the world a better place. Working as a clerk in charge of equitable food rationing, he discovered it required an affinity to care for entire populations. another stint in the civil Defence Unit further reinforced his sense of empathy towards human suffering, which later would prove most suited to a calling in the civil service.
A love for the law and keen desire to assist people in need of legal assistance propelled John to pursue a career as court interpreter, serving under Kuching’s then legal giants, tun abang haji Openg and former mayor Datuk abang haji Mustapha.
It was his tenure as court interpreter that birthed in him a strong motivation to dedicate the rest of his life to social welfare. his first stint was to form advisory committees on welfare to address malnutrition and juvenile delinquency after the war years. The formation of our fledgling nation saw the Welfare council’s formal upgrade to a separate state-run entity, with John returning from his studies in singapore, Wales and australia as one of the first recipients of a colombo plan fellowship, to develop sarawak’s entire welfare service network, covering a land area over a hundred fifty thousand square kilometres. he remained principal Welfare Office right up to his formal retirement in 1975.
But giants never retire; no matter how many are perched on their shoulders. and so, John Michael just had to continue. That passion foresaw the formation of many other welfare- based civil and volunteer bodies wherever he was stationed, the most notable of which was the cheshire home in Kuching. after his retirement, John continued with his visits to the various homes for the aged until eventually he found himself even older than the residents themselves! even in recent years, John has continued to strive to grant meaning to the lives of those needing a helping hand, a listening ear in any of the multiple local dialects he mastered (or even French, spanish or German!) and an empathetic heart.
It is quite a daunting task to list the long litany of beneficiaries that range from church-based groups to neighbourhood goodwill fraternities. even as his own mortal frame grapples with frailty, John Michael is able to recognise the distinct and unique needs of an elderly person, quite unlike those still somewhat blessed with some degree of youth. i myself don’t need to grapple with a constellation of painful symptoms; i don’t have questions appertaining to my mental faculties or need to worry about the debilitating effects of cognitive impairment, and yet the needs of others are still less clear to me somehow than to him.perhaps this is why empathy is sometimes said to be the mother of all human virtues. Being able to identify with another human stricken with the same requires more than just sympathy, more than pity. it needs a gradual surrendering of the self towards the acknowledgment that others are more important, if not more.
The beauty of men like John Michael is not merely contained in a life dedicated to service but rather, the manner in which continued learning is sought even in that service. people of such stature even commit themselves to improve their own altruistic pursuits according to the modicum of wisdom granted to them. They never look back at their lives in retrospect and dare to claim: “My wisdom has served me well.” Whether coaxing out fruit or flowers from the garden, co-editing the sarawak Gazette or sharing his knowledge through his own three books (The Nyonya, The santubong affair and sarawak chinese), John Michael always sought to improve the world around him, even by improving himself.
Perhaps this is the sole distinction between exemplary individuals like John and many of us. The absence of accolades even at the twilight of their lives seems unjustified, save for the individuals who see no need for it but revel in the simple legacy of their own service. These are men who don’t need the benefit of hindsight. They live by a simple creed of the eternal traveller who said: “i pass this way but once. and while i pass this way, may i do as much good as possible to my fellow man. For i shall not pass this way again.”
And this is why the service of John Michael chin shing shang will linger for an age.
Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.