Illustrations by Ng Weng Chi


I want to tell you a story. One of courage, compassion, fear and cowardice.

It is about how my dad fought pirates.

My father would relate this story often to my friends. Making the same exclamations and the same hand gestures for dramatic effect. He wouldn’t miss a beat on the story because it happened during a significant time for him—a time of great struggle. This period had taught him many great things and telling this story was his way of passing his own life morals to others.

In a nutshell, my father is in the shipping business. Buying and selling boats, he is a person made of suits, glasses, old-Chinese-cinema honour and old-fashioned perceptions of integrity. He would come across almost like a stereotyped Asian father. Protective, firm, proud of his work, and most of all, endearing in unexpected ways. But like any long-time entrepreneur, his stories and life experiences run deep.

It was a tough year for anyone. Economy was down and business was just not going well for anyone. But my dad finally got a buyer. The ship was ready to be moved from the origin of production down to the determined destination. It would take about four months and a few days for the whole journey. The trip was smooth sailing and everything seemed to work out perfectly.

But on the last day of travel, my father got a call. The ship, and its crew, were caught by pirates.

My dad lifted his hand and smacked it on his forehead. “Oh shit. What do we do now?”

Making the right decision.

Making the right decision.

He shook his head in worry. “What they wanted was such a huge sum of money. All of us were already doing badly.”

Without the ransom, the boats would be taken, any goods on the ship would be looted, and the eight crew members would be killed. It was due in three days.

He called up everyone involved in the business deal. There were constant phone conversations back and forth with the buyer, with the seller, and with a local businessman that they could trust. It was finally settled. Half the ransom would come from the buyer and the other, the seller. It seemed easy enough. My father and the seller would then fly over on their behalf and negotiate the matter with the pirates.

The night before, the seller’s assistant called. He was pulling out. Both himself and the money. Nothing else could be said or done and my father could no longer reach him.

My father smacked his forehead again. This time he furrowed his eyebrows.

“You see, if I thought about the money… I wouldn’t have gone.”

It was a point that always struck me. We’ve always talked about what-ifs and hypothetical scenarios. But when the real situation arises, what would we really do? Eight crew members that you’ve never met. You’re completely broke. And there’s a potential possibility where your life is at stake because you’re dealing with people you’ve only heard horror stories about. If they were ruthless enough to kill eight people for unpaid ransom, what would they do to you?

So in the end, what would you really do?

Fortunately, he thought beyond the money. He thought beyond his business and his life. He just thought about the eight crew members whose families had been in tears with worry and helplessness. And so, he went off to meet them.

I’m not sure how my dad did it, but he managed to raise the other half of the ransom. He flew over, sat down, and negotiated with the pirates.

“This guarantees the boats and the men to be released safely.” This was where he was very firm. He knew there was only one way to do it.

At this point in his storytelling, he often half-giggles. “They really do look like those on TV. You know, with the cloth around their heads and looking all fierce and tough.”

Thankfully, the meeting was short. Best to be brief. He watched them take all the money away and all there was to do was wait. A few days later, the men were all returned home. Unfortunately, the boats were never to be seen again.

I guess you must be disappointed.

There were no sword-fighting and rope-swinging aboard ships. There were no scruffy, gruff men brandishing weapons, charging and screaming as my father wiped them all out with one hand. And for all the men he saved, they still have not met the person that risked everything to help them come home safe. He didn’t even sue the seller that bailed out on him. He didn’t want the matter to linger. Because sometimes, lingering on meant dwelling on the money. He just wanted to continue doing good work and look after his family.

Where have our storytelling sessions gone?

Where have our storytelling sessions gone?

I tell this because I miss the point of the story where the storyteller looks deep in our eyes and asks, “so do you know what the moral of the story is?” Morals that were rooted in the actions of the characters. Morals that were well-versed from generations to be passed on through stories and through theatrical speech. Values that were of such importance that the only way to completely understand and comprehend the depth of it was to listen in awe and have it slowly sink in.

A few years later, my father dealt with a serious problem. He needed to have this business deal go through but he felt he was being cheated on and and was feeling helpless at resolving the situation. Out of the blue, he received a call. It was a call that helped him in more ways than one.

His business was saved.

He would laugh and make a cheeky smile every time he mentioned how he got out of it.

In case you’re wondering, the call was from a person who knew one of the eight crew members my father had saved. When word got out that he was involved in this matter, they offered to do what they could to help him. Even if it meant that they had to risk their life.

So, it’s a pretty simple lesson. But one that will always remind me of one thing. When you look out for others, when you don’t put th­e money before anyone else, including yourself, they will also look out for you. Because at the end of the day, that’s more important—to have family.

Cleo Ngiam

Cleo Ngiam

Graphic & Web Designer at Melewi
Cleo Ngiam is a writer, designer, simple cooking enthusiast, and a travelling junkie.
Cleo Ngiam

Latest articles by Cleo Ngiam (see all)