Remembering my husband, Richard Wong Ho Leng

Speech by Irene Chang, widow of Wong Ho Leng, at a memorial service in Sibu on 8 July, 2014

wong ho leng and wifeGood evening. I know I am supposed to be here tonight to speak about Richard (Wong Ho Leng) as my husband and the father of our five children. But truth be told, it is simply impossible to talk about my husband without bringing in his political beliefs. For that was simply who he was – a man who lived for his political beliefs. Politics have always been a third party in our marriage and DAP, like a second family.

Richard and I had never believed in blowing one’s own trumpets. But tonight, I will make an exception and I know Richard will forgive me for this. The 23 years of marriage with Richard had never been boring. It was a lot of things but it was never boring.

I remember once in an election campaign, a reporter asked me, just what did I see in Richard which had made me agree to become his wife. And I told the reporter, that right from the beginning when I first met Richard, I had likened him to an uncut and unpolished diamond – rough and even at times, a bit uncouth but after a bit of polishing, his brilliance and strength and goodness would really shine through.

That was my husband, a person who might talk a bit rough sometimes but he was really someone with a good and gentle heart with a very strong sense of righteousness and justice.

If you had been following his political career, you might think that his heart was carved in iron and that his head had ruled in making every decision, political or otherwise. That was true to a certain extent but Richard had never let his head forget where his heart should be in every circumstances.

In fact, the higher he climbed the ladder, the more humble he would become and the greater he felt his personal sacrifices should be. This he expected not only from himself but also from us, his immediate family.

I remember once, there was a political rally organized by DAP and of which the police permit had been refused. Nevertheless we decided to go ahead with it but Richard forbade me from joining him and others.

But before he stepped out of the office door, he came to my room and told me, “Well, if we should get arrested, you have to arrange police bail for us, starting from the veteran party members, the grassroots, the ladies and the leaders. Do not bail me out until everyone else is out.”

Richard had said that to me in a light hearted manner, but I knew he expected me to obey without question and I would have done just that.

The six times he cried

Richard had always portrayed himself as a very tough person. But in reality, he was a gentle person with a soft heart. Though he was a man of the world, there were occasions when he had let his emotions got the better of him and he had actually cried. There were 6 occasions when he had cried.

The first time was on our wedding day. He told me that while waiting for me at the church, his eyes had started to well up when he saw me finally arriving at the church.

The second time was when our first daughter, Suzanne was born. I supposed he was just so overwhelmed that he could be a father after all.

The third time was during the 2011 Sarawak State election. Even though that was Sarawak DAP’s best show in the state elections, Richard took it very personally that we did not clinch the Bawang Assan seat. He took it personally as the leader in charge at that time. That was just the kind of leader he was.

The next time that Richard cried was when we were both in Sunway Medical Centre, getting second opinions after being confirmed for brain glioma in Gold Coast Medical Centre. While waiting for the various tests results to come in, I asked Richard if he was scared.

He looked at me and said, “I would be lying if I say I am not. I am worried of what might happen and what would happen to you and the children if it happens.” At that time, I joined him in his tears.

The fifth time I witnessed him crying was during the 2013 Parliamentary election. To say that he was very concerned in retaining the Sibu seat (contested by Oscar Ling) was an understatement. Even though he was already battling his personal war against brain cancer, he did not let that stop him from going to ceramahs to appeal to people to vote for our DAP candidates, Oscar Ling and Alice Lau.

He went to “boost the ratings” (as he had put it to me) and to assure the people that even though he was not standing in the election personally, he wanted his supporters to extend that support to our candidates. This is despite days of extreme fatigue and exhaustion and all the other side effects from radiotherapy.

So when the result from Sibu constituency came in showing a victory of more than 2000, Richard let his emotion slip for a while. That was tears of joy and relief that despite feeling very bad that he could not personally lead the election campaigns for the first time since he became the Chairman of Sarawak DAP, DAP Sarawak had managed to win 5 Parliamentary seats.

The feather in the cap was the retention of the Sibu seat, which we had wrestled from the Barisan Nasional in 2010 by-election, the very hard fought victory of all time.

The final time when Richard cried was when he was already not physically conscious. Richard lost his consciousness on 13th February 2014 in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore and I brought him home to Sibu on 27th April 2014. We were flown back in an air-ambulance and while in the plane, I told him that we were going home to our family and loved ones. The tears just started rolling down his face.

A family man with no regrets

Wong Ho Leng and family christmas tree

Wong Ho Leng celebrating his birthday with family, December 2013

Richard loved politics – not for what he could gain from the power and position. He loved politics because he saw it as a way to serve the country he loved. In January 2013, after a particularly bad day after a radiotherapy session, I had asked him if he ever regretted joining politics.

His answer was characteristically quick and sharp; “Why should I? It’s like asking if I had ever regretted marrying you.” I have to say here that Richard was at times, very impatient with all my questions but I take it then that his answer to my question was a no.

Richard’s love of politics did not allow him to participate in all family functions. But despite so, Richard had always made sure that he was present for all of our children’s birthdays whenever he was home in Sibu. He would stay for the cutting of the cake, and then he would be off to another meeting or political function.

When the children grew older, he would combine family time with his political duties. He brought us to the constituency walkabout, to political forums and ceramahs, to lunches and dinners with party members, so much so that our children grew up with the party members and are very comfortable around them.

Whenever he was travelling and that was very often, he would make sure that he called back every evening to say goodnight to all 6 of us, one by one.

As a father, Richard was only strict on big issues. I made all the daily decisions but even so, he liked to be kept well-informed of what was happening at home, especially on the children’s conduct and activities.

I recall that there was once a Parents-Teachers meeting which I did not inform him about. He got really upset when he found out later. My explanation that he could not have made it anyway was not acceptable to him and he told me that he liked to be “in the know” even when he could not be physically present.

Richard was a father who led by example. He was not a man of many words especially in teaching the ways of life. Instead he simply expected us to follow his lead and through politics and everything else he handled, the children and I saw in him a sense of righteousness, of justice, loyalty and of duty.

A meticulous and humble man

He was a champion of the underdog and the underprivileged and was always drumming into us the need to appreciate the unrecorded contributions of the veterans and grassroots of the party. Richard had a fierce sense of loyalty and obedience toward our party so much so that for him, the best interest of the party always comes before self.

In the cases he handled, Richard was meticulous and professional. Even when he was already suffering from a slurred speech, double vision and a lack of sense of balance, Richard would still call clients to the house to discuss their cases. He believed in professionally discharging his duty and the personal disability of his senses did not deter him from trying to discharge that duty toward his clients.

Since the diagnosis of the brain glioma and especially toward the end, it was obvious to me, as his wife, that in spite of what many would have seen as a justified acclaim to a successful life, Richard remained humble to his Maker and Creator.

In his diary, he had written, “I recall being slain by the Holy Spirit more than 20 years ago. While I was lying there on the floor, God through the Pastor, told me that I was made to do great things for the nation and for the will of God. I won’t know whether I had done that but DAP Sarawak had fared much better than before. I am proud to have contributed toward its growth.”

My husband, towards the end, had remained humble in his perception of his contributions toward his nation.

One would have thought that after all this, that I had married a saint. That is far from the truth. Richard had his faults – in fact, many faults. He was a perfectionist and like all perfectionists, he had to learn to be more tolerant of other people.

In the 1996 state election when he was a political unknown going against the then Deputy Chief Minister, Wong Soon Kai and the latter had told the press that he knew nothing about Richard except that he was a young lawyer with a very sharp tongue.

Well, he did not reserve his sharp tongue only for his political foes but had used it on his family and loved ones too. But whatever his faults were, Richard knew that and had tried to correct himself to the extent of keeping his displeasure to himself.

54 years of life is not a long life. But it was a very meaningful and victorious life for Richard. And tonight, I stand here and I say that I am indeed very proud to be Richard’s wife and to be able to share 23 wonderful and beautiful years with a man like Richard. And everything which he had ever taught us, will always continue to be a part of us as a family. It is also my hope that whatever he had contributed to the party – will always be used positively by the party in the days to come.

* Wong Ho Leng, DAP’s MP for Sibu and Sarawak State Chairman, passed away on 21 June 2014.

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