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A man of Stature

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.

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KUCHING IN & OUT magazine has been birthed out of the desire of Kuching residents to explore and discover more about all the unique places, activities and resources in this region that make Kuching such a special place to live.

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