Letters from Grandpa: J. Y. Pillay – Shaping Character and Purpose

J Y Pillay, 73, and Chairman of the Singapore Exchange (SGX), has four grandchildren. He is one of Singapore’s former top civil servants and an entrepreneur who helped shape Singapore. He serves in various community organisations, including the Singapore Indian Devlopment Association, Assisi Hospice, and Council for Third Age, among others.


My dearest grandchildren,


Three of my grandparents did not live to see me.  The fourth, my maternal grandfather, died when I was six.  My mother took me to see him, in India, when I was three. Of course, I recall nothing of that encounter. Had I benefited from propinquity to my grandparents, I wonder what they might have told me, or what I could have learnt from them

My father hailed from Lanka, my mother from India.  They had six children.  We generally lived in rambling old houses, government-owned or self-owned, or rented, in various towns in Malaysia, comfortable, but not as posh as your digs are today, or mine for that matter.

My parents’ strict upbringing, and their repeated emphasis on education, particularly in the sciences, as my mother was a science graduate, seeped deeply into our consciousness, and shaped our character and purpose in life.  For all that I, and my siblings, are truly grateful.  Later in life, as I reflected on their sacrifices, I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and some guilt.

I still recall, however, some of the stories my mother occasionally told us of her childhood and student life in India.  My father, who came to Malaysia as a young boy, occasionally recounted stories of some of his daily activities, like bathing at a stream or a well near the present Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, or walking long distances to school.  Those stories stuck in my mind. There was one poignant remark my mother once tossed out that struck me, even though I was only nine or ten at that time.  She just mused, almost absent-mindedly, that she wished she herself could occasionally utter the word “mother”. Her mother died when she was three.

I am not sure if writing an encomium to you will work.  Also, I am reminded of the words of the 19th century Lebanese writer, Kahlil Gibran in his poem entitled “On Parenting”.  He cautions parents (and grandparents too, by extension):

“You may give them your love but not your thoughts,  For they have their thoughts.  You may house their bodies but not their souls,  For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.  You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you,  For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

What really matters is how we relate to you, and describing to you, from time to time, interesting snippets of our lives that you may not pay particular attention to now, but might recall nostalgically in the future.  That, I suspect, will be more enduring, and acceptable, than yet more “wisdom and advice” in written form for you to ignore.  So, please don’t appear too bored and preoccupied when I tell you tales of bygone times.

Yours Pettappa

This letter is republished with permission from the National Library Board. Letters From Grandma and Grandpa (2008) is an initiative to create opportunities for youth and seniors to strengthen ties, enhance understanding and appreciate each other. Singapore grandpas and grandmas share their stories from the past, their hopes for the future, their love from their hearts, and their values for the soul. The letters capture their thoughts and feelings on important values, such as family and heritage, respect for the elders, generosity, love, courage and responsibility.

First published on 14-02-2011.


Categories: Letters from Grandpa


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