Remembering a Pioneer

Pioneer Jesuit Refugee Service Singapore volunteer Michael Chan, who passed away in May 2023 aged 89, was a man of quiet virtue, who shunned attention as he went about his many good works.

The former policeman volunteered with JRS Singapore for about 25 years, since the beginnings of the Catholic organisation, which is part of a global network serving refugees and internally displaced persons.

In the year 2000, with a small group led by a priest, Michael visited Timor Leste in South-east Asia, where there had been years of unrest ahead of the country’s independence from Indonesia in 2002.

He donated a van from the pet hotel business he started after retiring from the Singapore Police Force, where he spent 11 years in the dog unit, and rose to become Assistant Superintendent. He arranged for the vehicle to be shipped to Timor Leste to help JRS contacts supporting Timor Leste citizens who had been internally displaced by the violence.

Michael Chan, seen here as a young man, was a career policeman who spent 11 years working in the police dog unit.

“Michael always wanted to help, anywhere and everywhere he could. Whenever he saw a need, he would always be the first to volunteer,” says his wife of more than 60 years, Joan, 85. The couple have three children, six grand-children and a great-grandson who is just under a year old. 

Refugee children had a special place in Michael’s heart. Joan recalls: “When he saw the refugee children, he cried. 

“He felt more for them than he did for his children, who were already grown. His own children had everything they needed. He felt very satisfied that he could help people who didn’t have the advantages that we have in Singapore.” 

During the 2000s, once or twice a year, Michael would visit refugee communities with JRS Singapore, usually in northern Thailand’s side of the border with Myanmar, in areas like Mae Hong Son and Mae Sot. Many of them were ethnic Karen who had been displaced from their homes in Myanmar, which has seen many internal conflicts. They were supported by JRS, which has an office in Thailand, and the JRS Singapore team would visit with donations. 

Whenever Michael visited, some refugee children would look out for him, says Joan. One girl, Yolander, asked him: “Can you be my grandfather?”

This was the start of a long relationship with four children from the Mae La Oo refugee camp in Thailand near the Myanmar border. Michael called them his “adopted grandchildren ” in the plans for his own funeral that he outlined to his family shortly before he died this year, just three months after his colon and pancreatic cancer diagnosis in February. 

He wrote letters to the youngsters and encouraged them, and their bond grew. Supported by a priest in charge of a boarding school for refugee children in Thailand, Yolander and two others in this group of four from Myanmar, whom Michael and Joan had informally “adopted”, went on to embrace the religious life as two nuns and a priest. 

Father Saw Augustine Shwe, 42, who eventually returned to Myanmar and is now a diocesan priest there, was one of these children. Growing up, he had been inspired by Michael’s strong faith, which contributed to his own vocation. Before Michael died, Fr Augustine came to Singapore and gave Michael the Eucharist. 

Fr Augustine says: “The kind concern and faith-filled life of Michael Chan always encouraged me on my priesthood journey. Since we met in 2000 and up to his last days here on Earth, we always had contact and shared our lives. He had me as his family member and I was his adopted grandson. He was a man of deep faith and he lived very spiritually. When I visited him, what most touched my heart was seeing how his whole family gathered for meals during the weekend, which shows love, peace and caring for one another.”

Fr Augustine adds: “I am so blessed to have had the great privilege of paying a visit to Michael and giving him Holy Communion and Anointing before he passed away. I have the feeling that this is the precious gift I could give him before he departed from this world to his Heavenly Father’s Eternal Home.”

Michael and Joan (seated) and their daughters met with Father Augustine and Sr Yolander during their first visit to Singapore in 2017.

Michael, a cradle Catholic, was anchored in his faith throughout his life. An altar server as a boy, Michael served in various ministries in his parish. He and Joan met as teenagers from St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) respectively, which were located in the Victoria Street area then. They were both in the Legion of Mary. 

Joan says: “He was always pious. He liked to go to novena. He used to look forward to his duties as a Eucharistic Minister. Towards the end of his life, the Eucharist was very close to him.” In 1999, Michael and Joan went on a retreat in Sabah, Malaysia. “He was touched by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues,” says Joan. 

Even as a child, Michael showed courage and mercy. During World War Two, Japanese soldiers moved into lodgings near where his family lived in the Kampong Bahru neighbourhood close to the Church of St Teresa. Some prisoners of war were ordered to work there. One day, they asked Michael, who was around 10 then, and his friends if the boys could help them. His friends ran away but Michael eventually managed to get the Allied soldiers some quinine, which is medicine for malaria, after exchanging it with a watch they left for him under a rock. Michael’s youngest daughter, Germaine, 59, says: “Can you imagine how risky that was? Considering how close the Japanese were to him.” 

During his career in the police, secret society members tried to influence him but they failed. Michael used to go on police raids, once nabbing a big-time gangster in a gambling den. Joan says: “I could never sleep at night when he went on raids.” His immediate family sometimes only found out about his real-life experiences through friends or the youngest family members. Germaine says: “He never wanted to toot his own horn. He would tell his grandchildren instead of us. “My father never sought fame or money. His principle was always to do good.”

Michael’s family has set up the Michael Chan Memorial fund and we are grateful for their sponsorship of the current cohort of 41 refugee students in our E3 digital marketing course. Michael remains an inspiration to all of us at JRS Singapore.