From 1984 through 1987, I lived and worked in Singapore. It was a challenging time - the island nation was going through its first economic downturn since WWII and the business I was leading was experiencing difficulties. I was pretty young, and the job in Singapore was my first management gig. In many ways, I was clueless, and that cluelessness on the job migrated into my personal life as well. I needed backup in the worst way.
Michael Yeo Yew Heong applied for an opening in our Singapore office and I had the backup I desparately needed.
When you first saw Michael, you are immediately taken by his physical presence. His height, for one thing, set him apart in Singapore. There are not a great many tall Singaporeans, folks over six feet in height tend to be expatriates on a work assignment. Michael was 6 ft 5 in and his shoulders were very broad. He moved like a tall man in a short world, perhaps overly conscious of his unusual status. Michael's schoolmates teased him - called him a "Northern Barbarian" in reference to the physically imposing inhabitants of China's northern regions which prompted the Qin Dynasty to finish construction of the Great Wall . Michael embraced the "Northern Barbarian" tag, and laughed at himself frequently.
Michael was a highly competent executive. He had great intuition and strong cognitive skills. He was dependable and dedicated. His ability to solve problems impressed me. But all of those traits, though admirable, were not the aspects of Michael's personality that made him special.
Michael was kind.
He had a raucous sense of humor.
He had a talent for sharing wisdom in a casual, off-hand way that can impact the recipient for a long time. I still ruminate over some of the things that Michael said to me in the mid-eighties in Singapore.
Michael fully inhabitied his life. He enjoyed socializing with friends; we enjoyed many Tiger Beers together after work. He was an enthusiastic scuba diver. He was a deeply committed husband and father.
I left Singapore in 1987; Michael moved up into the leadership slot that I vacated. We didn't talk much after that - Chicago is a long way from Singapore - but I kept up with him via email, sporadically. He took a new job in 2001 and was handling business activites in China for his new employer.
Last week, I realized that it had been well over a year since I had connected with Michael, so I dropped him an email on Thursday. Due to the 14 hour time difference between Chicago and Singapore, I didn't expect to hear back from him immediately. My dog barked at 1 AM on Friday morning and I woke up. After dealing with the mutt, I saw that the email light was blinking on my Blackberry. I checked it - there was an email from Singapore, but not from Michael. One of his colleagues from work had intercepted my message and answered it. He told me that Michael died on December 5, 2010, while snorkeling in the Philippines.
I am trying to wrap my head around this. Michael would have celebrated his 58th birthday on March 15. He had stayed fit. He was a regualar scuba diver and therefore was a strong swimmer. This is a very improbable way for Michael to leave.
Michael Yeo wasn't a famous person, just an outstanding person. He stood by me during a difficult time. I let the relationship atrophy. Now I am feeling the deep regret that comes when you realize that you have no time to repair a friendship that has been neglected.
I went to a local joint, the Hop Haus, yesterday to take a look at their beer list. Sure enough, they had Tiger Beer from Singapore on the list. I ordered one and drank it, remembering my big-hearted friend, Michael Yeo.