Close friends from all walks of life

Vital traits I look for in friends are empathy and compassion, not social status or wealth

By Lee Wei Ling

I am a member of a family that is perceived by many Singaporeans to be the most influential on this tiny island. As a result, I am always a little apprehensive when I first get to know someone new.

Those who know my family background may hesitate to show their true selves to me. Hence, I usually make an extra effort to assess each new person I have to interact with. My gut feeling or sixth sense of the truth behind the facade has often proven accurate, though I never act on gut feelings alone.

I observe the person’s behaviour to determine if my sixth sense is right or wrong. If I know of others who are acquainted with this person, I ask their opinions of him.

I have friends in different strata of society and, often, my friends are people whom others among my acquaintances would not suspect me to be associated with. If a trusted friend gave me feedback about a particular person that does not coincide with my own perceptions, then I become sceptical of my own gut instincts.

I categorise people I know into enemies, acquaintances, friends, close friends and comrades. This is admittedly a rough and perhaps simplistic way of classifying people, but it serves my purpose.

People whom I consider to be evil, I classify as enemies, though they may not have crossed swords with me personally. If they have coerced, bullied or harmed someone innocent, I will try to right the wrong whether or not the victim is a personal friend of mine. Perhaps that is why some people think I am aggressive.

Acquaintances are people whom I know but have little feelings for because I do not know them well enough. I am polite to them, though occasionally I forget and am brusque. My friends understand and take no offence, but those who don’t know me may well think I am rude or arrogant. I’m slowly changing in this respect but have to admit I often forget myself.

Friends are people I know fairly well and who I feel are good. Because I don’t know them well enough, or don’t have much interaction with them, they are not elevated to the category of ‘close friends’.

Close friends are people whom I know well, and usually have considerable interactions with. They don’t necessarily share the same values as I do.

An example is a classmate from medical school who is almost the exact opposite of me. She is feminine, good-looking and cares about her appearance. She is always elegantly attired, and is willing to spend a fair amount of money on her clothes and accessories. But she also cares deeply about people and is a competent and dedicated general practitioner. Empathy and compassion are important traits I look for among close friends, and on that score she passes with flying colours.

Social status or wealth is not a criterion I use to classify anyone as a close friend. For instance, my personal assistant (PA) is also a close friend of mine, though our social backgrounds are quite different.

There is a Chinese proverb that describes two contrasting kinds of friendship: Jun zi zhi jiao dan ru shui, xiao ren zhi jiao gan ruo li.

It means: ‘The relationship between two honourable persons (jun zi) is as understated as water (dan ruo shui). The relationship between two petty persons (xiao ren) is as cloying as sweet wine (gan ruo li).’

Between my close friends and me there is no account book of favours given or received. When help is needed, we render help even without being asked.

My close friends come from all walks of society, and I treat them all as equals regardless of how society categorises them. My 20-odd close friends thus include doctors, civil servants who work or have worked for my father, friends I made when I was undergoing rehabilitation at the Singapore Sports Council, my PA and my parents’ security officers.

Comrades are people who share my aspirations. While most of my comrades are also my close friends, not all my close friends are my comrades.

Most of my colleagues at the National Neuroscience Institute are my comrades. Our common aspiration is to do our best by each and every patient regardless of their ability to pay. Medicine among my comrades is a calling first – and a business a distant second.

The closest friendship I have ever observed is that between my father and my late mother. Since she passed away in October 2010, my father has carried on stoically, but I can almost always sense the sadness in him.

Finally, I would like to quote a Tamil poem that a close friend (and comrade) once taught me. It describes what happens to a person when he dies:

‘My wife accompanies me to the main door. My friends go with me to the main street. My children accompany me to the cemetery. Who goes with me to the end?’

I guess the reason I remember this poem so well is that I do not even have a spouse or child to accompany me even part of the way. Of course, to an atheist, there is nothing beyond the end. Once I die, I no longer exist. I hope my family and friends will not feel sad when I depart permanently, though of course I do when any of my own close friends or comrades depart.

Water is the element of my close relationships and the ripples remain long after my close friends have gone.