MLK once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. This is true of most lives that I know and read about.
Take former NTUC chairman and MP Phey Yew Kok for example, he is at last a free man. He has paid his debt or sins to society. Once a fugitive, prisoner of conscience, now he is a former inmate, a person at liberty to live his life by his own will and choices.
Mr Phey spent 36 years on the run overseas because of an act he did in December 1979 as the appointed NTUC president and chairman. It reports that “he was accused of misappropriating more than $200,000.00 in supermarket goods and taking money from the International Metalworkers Federation and Boon Teck Education Centre.”
He was out on bail then, and was expected to return to court on January 7, 1980. “But on New Year’s Eve, he took a train to Kuala Lumpur and went to Bangkok, evading attempts to track him down.”
For 36 years, he remained a wanted man in Bangkok, and when asked about his life in Thailand, he could only reveal that he had to work to “earn (his) living to survive.”
You must be wondering, why bother to return then? Why not stay where he was for the reminder of his days?
At 80 plus, how many years are you left with anyway when you have already spent 36 years adapting to a life that takes into account all the misdeeds you have done in the past? Why not die a fugitive instead of returning to the shame you have left behind?
Well, when asked why Mr Phey surrendered himself in 2015, being a man of few words, he said: “I knew that I was wrong and at the right time, I decided to come back.”
With that terse revelation, Mr Phey was kept in custody since June 23, 2015, while he waited for his “60 months’ sentence for criminal breach of trust, abetting the fabrication of evidence and intentionally omitting to appear before a court.”
For good behaviour, Mr Phey was allowed to spend the final year of his sentence in home detention. Mr Phey said: “I must apologise and accept what I did was wrong.”
Lesson? Well, I have just two.
The first is what he had said earlier - “I knew that I was wrong and at the right time, I decided to come back.”
It appears to me that there is a gap between knowing that one is wrong and waiting for the right time to face the music. Knowledge is one thing, resolution is another.
Alas, it took 36 long years for him to come to terms with what he had done. The circumstances that filled the 36 years are too murky (or complex) for tracing or dissecting (for what’s the point, right?), but it is safe to say that Mr Phey never forgotten what had done. His past still haunted him.
For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in good or bad health, with a stained or broken conscience, his struggles within himself very much coloured all his work in Thailand to earn a living to survive.
This reminds me of a saying that you do not drown by falling into the water. You drown by staying in it.
Mr Phey’s life was not over because of a mistake or wrong he had committed about 40 years ago. In fact, if he had surrendered himself in 1980, he didn’t need to live his life as a fugitive for the next 36 years.
So, he was free only to the extent that he was not externally bound. But within himself, he could not run away from the prison bars of his conscience. It presumably casts a looming shadow on whatever that he did in the 36 years.
You can say that by falling into the water, you still can get out of it by paying for your wrongdoings. But you can also choose otherwise and stay in the water for years struggling with that drowning sensation until you pull yourself out of it.
That was what Mr Phey did, eventually. But like he said, there was a right time for that. For Mr Phey, that right time took him 36 years.
Alas, it bears repeating that knowledge must thus come with a personal resolution to want to change. Or else, what you know, the projection of that knowledge to ”wow“ the crowd, is all just but a show - a magic show to an audience of one, that is, your deluded self.
And the second lesson is in his plea for a second chance. Mr Phey said that “he was sorry for what he had done and hoped he would be given a second chance.”
He added that “second chance means that if I am still physically and mentally strong and fit, I will be allowed to do what I can do. I am a trade unionist.”
We all cry out for second chances. Some of us cry for more because life has a way to test us until we come to a point or crossroad where we can distinguish clearly between what is conviction and what is pretension.
Somehow, life has its own way to punish a soul for pretension. But it liberates the same soul for conviction.
It reports that when the electronic tag was removed from him on Tuesday, signifying that his sentence had formally come to an end, Mr Phey felt the lightness of being because he said he didn’t feel “the stress of rushing home to comply with the terms of his detention.”
Mr Phey also acknowledged that he “feels and looks healthy”. He said with a smile: “In my first press picture after my return, I looked haggard, like a sick old man.”
I guess there are always two kinds of freedom that we fight for (or struggle with), and the external one, the bars outside of us, will not give us the enduring peace we need to flourish (and not just surviving) as compared to the one that sets us free from within.
So, the arc of the moral universe is indeed long; and for some of us, it may take longer to come back full circle.
But having said that, let me add that the arc not only bends towards justice, it also bends towards redemption. It is the redemption of a truly transformed life. And no riches, fame and power can do that except a heart that surrenders to the conviction of what is right, what is true and what is unqualified repentance.
And I guess the only thing Mr Phey is rushing home to now is to a clear, restored and free conscience. Cheerz.