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It’s so hard to say goodbye to a dear friend

Bidding farewell to Gan Kong Hwee

Gan Kong Hwee collecting donations at an Aliran event

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Gan Kong Hwee passed away on Malaysia Day, Thursday, 16 September 2021.

On being informed of his demise, I texted Gan’s daughter:

My dear Lena, my dear friend Gan passed away at 3.20 pm. I’m just shattered.

Gan died of a heart attack shortly upon arrival at the Penang General Hospital.

Later, Lena wrote to inform me about Gan’s cremation:

Thank you Uncle Rama again for your kindness and kinship. You are family to us, always have been and always will be. My dad is getting cremated this weekend.

On that Saturday morning, 18 September 2021, I was early at the crematorium for Gan’s funeral at 11am. Soon after, Francis Loh, past president of Aliran, joined me. I was very glad to see Francis. There were two staunch stalwarts of Aliran to bid farewell to Gan, who had served Aliran so well for so many years. That gladdened my heart.

Gan’s casket arrived just before 11am, followed by Gan’s cousin Eric, his wife Phaik Hoon, and Joy, the domestic helper who had faithfully looked after Gan all these many years.

Francis and I paid our last respects by standing silently, sadly, on either side of the casket. Francis said a prayer for Gan. That was touching.

Finally, when Gan’s casket was wheeled into the cremation chamber, he did not go alone. There were five of us to bid our last farewell.

Gan did not go alone: Francis Loh and Rama were there to bid him farewell

This was captured online with Gan’s children, who are overseas, witnessing the whole ceremony. The undertaker who was filming this asked if anyone wanted to say something.

Francis prompted me.

In my eulogy, choking with emotion, I struggled to say, “It is so hard to say goodbye to a dear friend.” I choked…

Francis placed his hand gently on my shoulder… it was comforting … it was reassuring. God, I was so glad that Francis was there with me, beside me, providing support.

I continued, pausing after each sentence: “I have known Gan for more than half a century… Our families were close knit and we met often… Deep inside me, the pain and sorrow is unbearable. It is overwhelming… When a dear friend dies, it’s like losing a member of your family…”

After that, I couldn’t continue any more. I was too grief-stricken… I could not find the words to express my sorrow. I was too emotional and could not speak.

Later, Gan’s daughter, Lena, wrote:

My dad is super lucky to have friends like you and Uncle Francis in his lifetime. Thank you so much. I really didn’t want you to go but rather attend online because of the inherent risks so I truly, truly am grateful for your kindness.

Yes, there was this inherent risk all the time, but I – and Francis – did not give a second thought. Gan was our friend and we had to be there. It was as simple as that!

My wife has always been very protective of me. Whenever I wanted to go out, she would try her level best to dissuade me from going or caution me of the dangers involved. But on the day of Gan’s funeral, when I told her, “I’m going to Gan’s funeral,” she did not say anything about the dangers of the pandemic. She did not caution me. She knew I had to go. I had to be there.

The next day, when I told her I was going to the crematorium to collect Gan’s ashes, again, she did not say anything. She understood it had to be done. I had to do that.

In another email, soon after the funeral, Lena wrote – she was very prompt in expressing her gratitude – she has always been:

Uncle Rama, I cannot begin to express my eternal gratitude to you. Your commitment to my dad and to us is beyond what this world offers. Thank you for being there in the good and bad times, the memories we shared from our childhood with Ramesh, Shanti and Shantini with you and Aunty Poh Yuk will always be etched in my heart. Thank you so much from the bottom of our hearts.

Gan and I had a lot of things in common. And strangely, even both our mothers died similarly – both were hit by a speeding car while crossing the road; my mother in Kepala Batas and Gan’s mother in Kuala Lumpur.

After Gan’s casket had rolled into the cremation chamber, the undertaker asked the four of us (Gan’s cousin and wife, and Francis and me) whether anyone would be coming to collect Gan’s ashes the next day.

Unfortunately, none of us could. So, the undertaker said, “In that case, I will collect the ashes and send to Gan’s house.”

When I left the crematorium, I truly felt unhappy because of this – that no member of the family would be present to collect his ashes. I shared my feelings with Lena:

My dear Lena

My dear Lena, After Gan’s remains had gone into the cremation chamber, the Undertaker told us that the ashes will be ready tomorrow at 12 noon for collection. She asked whether there will be anyone present. Unfortunately all of us replied that we won’t be present. In that case, the Undertaker said that she will send the urn to Gan’s house.

Don’t let that worry you unnecessarily, my dear Lena.

Later, after returning home and on reflection, I felt it would be wrong if no member of the family was present at the crematorium tomorrow. That troubled me. I felt that as long as I was around, there will be a member of the family to receive the ashes and the urn. That much I owed it to my dear friend, Gan.

The next morning, on Sunday, I was at the crematorium waiting for the undertaker. When she arrived, together we went to Room C where the bones and ashes were kept in a big aluminium basin. It was heart-wrenching to see flesh and blood reduced to this state.

I was told to pick the first bone and put it into the urn. The instant I picked up his first bone, I became part of Gan’s family. The instant that I put that first bone into the urn, Lena became my daughter. (This fulfils Lena’s desire as well. After the funeral, Lena had written stating, “Hope you don’t mind but now that I’m without dad, you just got yourself another daughter.”)

Of course, it is an honour and a privilege to have Lena as my daughter. Now, I have three lovely, beautiful daughters in my life. You lose one and gain another – that is somewhat comforting!

My three daughters:

Shantini (left) and Shanti
Lena Gan

After that, I was asked to add talcum powder into the urn. Following this brief ritual, the rest of the bones and ashes were added to the urn. More talcum powder was sprinkled into the urn, the lid was put on top to cover and the urn was secured tightly with a red ribbon.

Then it was handed to me. I received the urn, held it tightly, close to my heart. A thought flashed across my mind: In life we were together and in death we were never apart.

Photos taken at the ash-collecting ceremony:

The undertaker handing over the urn to Rama
Rama holding Gan’s urn at the crematorium

At Gan’s house, the undertaker, once again passed the urn to me to be taken into the house. Three days ago, on 16 September 2021, he left the house as a person in a private ambulance at 2.42pm and now he returned home as ashes and bones in an urn at 1.23pm. That was heart-breaking for me.

Rama entering Gan’s house with the urn
Inside Gan’s house: The urn was placed next to a photo of Gan’s late wife, Betsy

I forwarded all these photos to Lena.

Lena, on seeing these photos, responded warmly and gratefully:

Uncle Rama, I pray that you are comforted today and more in days to come. Thank you for your unconditional love and support towards dad throughout the years. He’s so lucky to have had you in his life. Many people may say they have many friends but they really don’t. A true friend is a rare find. Thank you for your priceless friendship with my dad.

So came to an end the life of a dear friend who was sincere, loyal and faithful.

Goodbye, my dear friend.

(See the song clip below)

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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P Ramakrishnan has been an Aliran member since its inception in 1977, serving on our executive committee for 36 years, half of that period as Aliran's president (1994-2011). He continues to serve as an Aliran member, highlighting issues of public interest to a larger audience
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10 Oct 2021 5.12pm

It is truly strange that, though my association with Gan was not as extended as that of yours, Rama, I can close my eyes and visualize/recollect Gan as I knew him then; his looks, mannerism, smile, stance, walk, talk and voice are so clear in my mind. There must have been some kind of attachment between us then. May his soul be blessed.

Benedict Lopez
8 Oct 2021 5.36pm

I may not have met Gan, but from what I read about him he was truly an Aliran stalwart. Rest well, Gan

Anil Netto
8 Oct 2021 4.39pm

Thank you Gan for the years of quiet, steadfast service to Aliran. You worked unassumingly in the background, keeping Aliran’s ‘engine room’ humming, not interested in the limelight.

I recall your meticulous records, the way you kept track of Aliran Monthly stocks, distributions, returns, debtors – never complaining. You saw it as your service to society, and for that we will always be grateful to you.

Have a well-deserved rest, dear Gan.

Dr. Suranthiran Naidu M. N.Naidu.
Dr. Suranthiran Naidu M. N.Naidu.
8 Oct 2021 1.59am

God bless. Our humble and kind prayers and condolences to Gan’s family. May he and others who have passed on, have peace with God always. Rama’s account above with Francis’and Lena’s comments are most touching.Our humble words to you are that life goes on. Gan’s spirit, like that of our other loved ones, surely continue to live on in our memories and in the kind works and services given to us and others with love.Rest well in joy brother, in God always.

7 Oct 2021 6.57am

Thank you Mr Rama for sharing your beautiful friendships. God bless your kind hearts and family.

Subramaniam Pillay
Subramaniam Pillay
5 Oct 2021 5.47pm

Kong Hwee maybe gone but never forgotten. I have known Kong Hwee from 1977 when Aliran was formed. We lived very near him and Betsy. He was unassuming and always willing to help. It’s sad that Vijaya and I were unable to come to Penang for the funeral. RIP my dear friend.

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