Survival Tips From My Mother

by Patrick Liew on December 28, 2014

On Sunday, 21 December 2014, after a nice lunch with Ma, we had a good long chat. She was in a chatty mood and it was quite a normal state (for those who know me, now you know I am truly bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh).

She regaled me with some interesting stories from the past. Stories that gave me many “aha” moments and taught me about having a survival spirit.

Our family was poor and we had to literally live from hand to mouth. Ma had to work, and work hard to supplement the family income and in one of the worst jobs you can ever imagine.

She was a labourer at building construction sites. In other words, she had to do anything and everything at the beck and call of many “bosses.”

Remember, those were the days when there were no stringent laws to protect workers. Many construction work were done manually and without any support from modern-day equipment.

It was a tough job and she had to work under the hot sun and even through thunder storms. What’s more, it required hard labour and working under unpleasant conditions.

Ma had to carry cement bags, bricks, and wheelbarrows of sand up and down multistorey buildings. I don’t think I can accomplish those feats even when when I was at my fittest and do it day in and day out for years.

There was a driving factor that drive her to do almost the impossible and you’ll soon find out about it.

Throughout my life, I have never heard Ma complained about her hard life and immense suffering she had to go through to bring us up. Come to think of it, every grain of rice that I’ve eaten and every cent spent on my education were literally covered by her pain and sorrow..

To Ma, complaints and grumblings would lead her nowhere. She never allowed circumstances to rob her of seeing the bright side and there was always a bright side.

She learned to be grateful and thankful for her life. A heart of gratitude, as I’ve always said, has no room for fear, unhappiness, and worry.

Midway through the conversation, I cheekily asked Ma, “Was it worth it to bring me into the world and raise me? Any regrets?”

Without hesitation, she replied, “No regrets. I’m proud of you and I’m proud of every one of my children.”

I should be feeling at the tops of the world and I did, but you need to also know that Ma speaks well of many others too. She is a relational person who believes in the good of every human and will go out of the way to help him or her.

Ma knew intuitively that it is the people in any organization that make the organization works. Positive relationships can contribute to well being and make for a fulfilling life.

Ma was very proud when she told me she was the de facto leader amongst the labourers.

She said, “My bosses knew I was a responsible person and they could rely on me to do a good job.

“I looked into every detail for them. For example, I made it a point to keep a comprehensive record of the building materials and how they were used. That helped to improve the business and operation.”

Ma’s words reinforced the belief that working smart and hard can never put anybody down. It can only lead you on an upward path.

Besides, you’ll never know how much you can stretch until you stretch yourself. When you press on in pressing on, you will eventually stand out from the crowd and lead the field.

Looking at the twinkle in Ma’s eyes, I knew she was skillfully weaving her experiences and leading me to a twist at the end. Like a good story-teller, she built the story to a climax to surprise me.

“By the way,” Ma said, “My bosses never thought I could do many of those tasks. I did it out of my own accord and much more than what they expected of me.”

Ma went on to share with me how she had to cycle many extra miles to go to the site and she did it for good of the company.

“By any account, I should be deployed to work near to our home.

“However, there was a site that was located a distance away. It had many problems and nobody could tackle them.

“My bosses decided to send me there to be a problem-solver and come out with solutions for them. For that, I had to cycle many more miles to and fro from work.

“I could have taken the opportunity to ask for a raise but no, I didn’t even ask for a single cent. I was happy to do it for my company and my bosses.”

I suppose in the lexicon of successful people, what Ma did is call value-addition. She value-added purposefully and for a good cause.

Ma’s bosses recognized her for the contributions and treated her well.

Ma also shared with me that she would never cow to any nonsense from any one of her bosses. She stood by her principles and would fight the good fight.

Once, one of her bosses did something wrong at the site. Ma took him to task, at the end of which she went to pack her things and was ready to walk out of the company.

That particular boss stopped her at the door, “Where’re you going?”

Ma replied, “What you did was unacceptable. I’m leaving the company.”

Ma stopped telling the story at that point and looked into the sky.

I knew Ma needed the job and could not do without the monthly wages. The face-off was therefore a very admirable action.

Ma allowed me to ponder over the cliff hanger and feel the emotion of that moment.

Subsequently, Ma told me it was fortunate that her boss apologized to her. The file was properly closed.

The construction site in the old days was a place of war. A dog-eat-dog world where every person lived for himself or herself.

Ma, my original and still my current super hero, lived on a different planet from them if you will. She chose to engage one and all and earn their respect even though she had no official position or power.

Ma said something that stuck in my mind.

She said, “It was not uncommon that colleagues tried to bully each other but no one dared to touch me.

“I’ve earned their respect and they gave me the space to live my life and do my work properly.”

After Ma spoke those words, I felt like I could hear heroic music playing at the background. It was like watching a movie in the olden days.

When the heroine appeared to save the world, we would stand up and clap and cheer for her. I almost felt like doing it if I was not in the car driving her home.

Ma chose to earn follower-ship through personal and not positional authority.

Leadership is not about the title of your job but how you discharge your duties. It’s not about about what you are in the organization but what you do to, with, and for the people in it.

Ma learned that respect has to be earned and was not a given.

Just before reaching home, Ma shared with me one more story that broke my heart.

She worked with many Samsui women, many of whom were characterized by wearing hats made of red cloth. Many of them also chose to live a life of celibacy and they worked hard to send money back to their villages in China.

These are sturdy women and they were both feared and respected for their strong character and tightly united cliques. It was well known that they would rather live in poverty than be involved with any vices or illegal activities.

Ma was happy that she has even earned the respect of the Samsui women at the construction site.

Once, Ma wanted to buy coffee for one of them. That lady rejected the kind offer and said, “I know how thrifty you are. You left behind your children so that you can earn every cent to raise them up.”

Those words hit me straight into my heart.

Ma lived and worked for a purpose. It was compelling enough to make her do everything possible to survive and by any account, succeed in life.

For Ma, her purpose is the family.

She pushed the boundaries to raise us. She strived to do better so that we can succeed in life.

In the final analysis, purpose will always drive your performance and pursuit. The more compelling it is, the farther and faster you’ll go on the journey to success.

(Ma, thank you. You gave me life and taught me how to live. I will continue the good fight for a worthy cause and will inspire others to do the same.)


I hope this message will find a place in your heart.

By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

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Life is FUNtastic!


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