‘Thank you to this lion of an island’: British author inspired by S’porean WWII pilot finds his family

British author Onjali Rauf managed to meet family members of Mr Tan Kay Hai, a decorated daredevil pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II, the inspiration behind a character in her book published three years ago.

Ian Cheng

Ian Cheng

The Straits Times


British author Onjali Rauf left flowers and a copy of her book at Mr Tan Kay Hai’s headstone at Kranji War Cemetery on April 29. PHOTOS: COURTESY/ THE STRAITS TIMES

May 2, 2024

SINGAPORE – British author Onjali Rauf, who set out to get in touch with the family of a Singaporean World War II pilot while on a 10-day visit to the Republic, has fulfilled her goal.

She managed to meet family members of Mr Tan Kay Hai, a decorated daredevil pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II, on April 30. He had been the inspiration behind a character in her book The Lion Above The Door, published three years ago.

She had wanted to let his family know how much his legacy meant to her, as well as the children who have read her book, and reached out to The Straits Times in a bid to locate them.

After the ST article was published on April 27, she was contacted by members of Mr Tan’s family, as well as individuals with stories of other Singaporean heroes and their brave deeds – “all wanting to help, all wanting to share”, she said.

“Every single heart who has reached out has reminded me of just how deeply wonderful human beings can be – and how the desire to share stories with one another, histories with one another, and aid any quest for peoples and truths, burns ever bright,” Ms Onjali, who arrived here on April 21 for a series of speaking engagements with various schools, said of her mission.

Among those who reached out was Mr Tan Thuan Kok, 84, the eldest of Mr Tan Kay Hai’s four children.

The pair, along with members of Mr Tan Thuan Kok’s family, met for dinner at the NUS Society’s Suntec City Guild House on April 30.

A day earlier, Ms Onjali had managed to visit Mr Tan Kay Hai’s grave at Kranji War Cemetery, along with friends of his family who had reached out to her. There, she left flowers and a copy of her book at his headstone.

“As I walked away and turned over my shoulder to say thank you and farewell to the place where Tan Kay Hai’s ashes now lay, it really struck me how beautiful a position the cemetery was, and how fitting it was that Tan Kay Hai’s final resting place looked out over the city: as if he, and all the other brave soldiers and women now resting too, was still watching over and protecting the city somehow,” she told ST.

On The Lion Above The Door, Mr Tan said that if his father and what he stood for could inspire generations to come, that would be a good thing. “I believe he would like to be remembered as a person who gave his best, whether during the war as a fighter pilot, in peace as a civil servant or as father to his four children.”

Mr Tan remembered his father as “not a man of many words, but pretty strong, firm and strict”. He held dear three values, which he made sure to impart to his children.

The first was honesty – to mean what one says, and to carry out whatever one says one will do, and have the courage to stand by what one says even if it proves to be unpopular.

The second was the constant pursuit of excellence. “Choose what you like, but whatever you pick, do well in it, and put your heart and soul into it,” he told his children. One of his sons, Olympian Tan Thuan Heng, was a former national swimmer and water polo player, and Singapore’s first Sportsman of the Year in 1967.

The third was to be open-minded, using food as an example: “Don’t ever reject what is presented to you, at least give it a try. Then, you have the right to say whether you like it or not. Apply that to the rest of your life – don’t say, ‘I won’t do this, I won’t do that’. If somebody gives you an opportunity, try it out first, and you may find your life a lot more enriched by doing so.”

After the war, Mr Tan Kay Hai returned to Singapore and joined the civil service. “I have seen enough of fighting and wearing the uniform,” Mr Tan cited his father as saying. “Now it’s time for me to contribute to society in a way that I think I can contribute towards.”

He worked with the Department of Social Welfare until he retired, choosing to care for youth on probation as he had a soft spot for the underprivileged in society.

“He often took us to visit these boys, just to remind us to not take what we had for granted, as a lot of people grow up with a lot fewer things than we had been given,” said Mr Tan Thuan Kok.

Following the meet-up, Ms Onjali said she plans to develop ideas linked not just to her books, but also to long-forgotten heroes globally whose stories deserve to be remembered and honoured.

“I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you to this lion of an island, to the editorial teams at The Straits Times, and every heart who has made this moment possible. This has changed my life in ways I am not sure I will ever be able to grasp,” she said.

“I have made a promise to go on commemorating Tan Kay Hai and using his story to amplify the stories of others like him until the end of my own days. It’s not a promise I plan on breaking, ever.”

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