'Wandering saint' of Singapore

Susan Long meets Dr Tan Lai Yong, medical missionary-turned-university don, who returned to Singapore from Yunnan four years ago, and hasn't stopped helping the downtrodden since.

Dr Tan Lai Yong gives free medical treatment and advice to Bangladeshi and Indian foreign workers, and takes them on weekly outings, such as this one to University Town. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

WHEN Dr Tan Lai Yong and his wife tied the knot at Bethesda Frankel Estate Church in 1991, they asked for a wedding prayer that made their solemniser do a double-take.

It was a verse from the Book of Proverbs: "Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God."

That, Dr Tan reckons, was the "craziest thing" he has ever done. It set the tone for life thereafter, and liberated him to "step out of the box", again and again.

At 53, the Singaporean doctor has no home to his name. No car. One pair of jeans he lives in. And lots of hand-me-down checked shirts. Lunch is often a loaf of plain bread, wolfed down on the run.

His office at the National University of Singapore's College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT) is like a storeroom, crammed with camping gear, bicycles and emergency rations, a habit from 15 years of living in China's earthquake- prone Yunnan province.

Four years after returning here in 2010, he lives the same spartan, spontaneous life of service. Last month, he was hailed in Parliament as a "wandering saint in Singapore", who "is rich in ideas, strong of heart and boundless in energy". Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng asked for $1 million for Dr Tan to carry out his "oddball" ideas to better society, vouching that he would spend the money well and carefully.

Dr Tan, who has no television set, didn't watch the broadcast. When told his new monicker, his rejoinder is: "I wander about, but am no saint."

While Mr Seah's proposed ground-up initiative warms him, the money leaves him cold. He recounts how, as a medical missionary in south-west China training farmers in basic medical and dental care and running clinics for villagers, he was offered up to half a million dollars in 2007 to scale up his work.

Of course, the big bucks would have enabled him to ramp up much needed cataract and cleft palate operations in the impoverished countryside. But he politely declined, explaining that his village dental programme ran on a mere $20,000 a year. "This sum was beyond what we could handle... We do best when we learn best. With a big bank account behind us, we may not learn so well," he reflects in his stream of consciousness way.

He also felt it would make him detract from his primary mission of "teaching, equipping, encouraging and nudging for changes through values", rather than running his own mass programmes.

Hidden communities

THIS is the man who was presented with numerous awards for his work in China, including one by former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao - and then decided to return to Singapore in late 2010. Reason: He felt that he was being treated "like a VIP" there, which was "dangerous for my soul".

Once back, he re-orientated himself by visiting voluntary welfare groups like the Tsao Foundation, sat in on classes at autism- focused Pathlight School and hung out with migrant worker communities to assess needs here.

Then he enrolled at the Lee Kuan Yew School Of Public Policy to do a master's degree in public administration to better equip himself. Upon graduation in 2012, he spurned "lucrative" offers from health-care players hoping to leverage his experience to grow their China portfolio. Instead he pounced on a "dream job", joining CAPT, a residential college in University Town geared towards community engagement, as a senior lecturer.

He teaches a course called Hidden Communities, which delves into the plight of the elderly who live alone, the difficulties of ex-offenders finding jobs and the living conditions of migrant workers.

A third of the course time involves field trips, including a twilight walk through Bukit Brown to observe grave diggers, weaving through Geylang's lorongs to explore the issue of women stuck in the vice trade, and ferreting about Jurong Fishery Port for the first catch of the day.

At CAPT, where he is director of outreach and community engagement, he regularly hosts meals and visits for disabled or disadvantaged kids on weekends. He and his students throw a frisbee around its lawns with the guests and share their own educational struggles, for example, of repeating O levels. The intended message: University is fun and you have a shot.

An "inclusive" trek to Endau Rompin in Johor that he helped put together for next month will involve 15 Assumption Pathway School students.

The end result he hopes for is not to convert his charges into social workers but that they will "go beyond complaining, see both sides of the picture and get off their soap box". As well as that they will have empathy, as bosses of the future, when an employee says her mother has dementia or his son has autism.

A father's No.1 job

AFTER four years studying the downtrodden and marginalised, Dr Tan concludes that the real scourge afflicting Singaporeans today is loneliness.

Sure, the many programmes targeting hypertension, diabetes and cataracts among the elderly are useful, but what about their creeping sense of loneliness? He's been pondering the fix and concludes that the art of forging friendships must be learnt earlier.

"By the time somebody is 70, talking about making friends, especially for men, is very late," he observes. During visits to Geylang, he notes that most of the elderly Singaporean men huddled in the red light district's coffee shops are not looking for sex. "They are no different from those who hang out at senior day-care centres. They are just there to drink kopi and play games with their friends."

But what troubles him is many teenagers, especially bright boys in top schools who spend their holidays preparing for Olympiads, are desperately lonely too.

"I hang out at swimming pools. Singaporean kids who swim are training for competition. They don't play. Only the foreign kids come and play," he observes. On weekends, he sees the fevered brows of kids in glass-walled tuition centres, while their fathers read newspapers outside.

And he yearns to tell them: "Your No.1 job as a father is to help your children build friendships. Your No.1 job is not to send them to tuition centres."

To encourage more to play with their kids, he started several father-and-son football games islandwide. One programme, that began in 2011 at University Town on Saturday nights, is ongoing. Typically, 30 teens come looking for a game, accompanied by five fathers, which, he feels, is a start.

For six hours a week, he also volunteers at HealthServe, which runs subsidised clinics for needy Singaporeans and foreign workers. He takes the workers on weekly outings to public swimming pools, libraries and parks like Gardens by the Bay "to break down invisible barriers". He helps them buy medicine and resolve employer disputes, as well as persuades them to sign casino self-exclusion forms to safeguard their earnings.

Last year, he even helped to organise a fully foreign worker- starred concert featuring a Bangladeshi band, a PRC (People's Republic of China) choir, Nepalese singers and Bollywood dancers.

In fact, Dr Tan has so many pots on the boil that - anything to do with affirming individuals, building inclusiveness and countering negativity - you name it and he's probably already looking into it and percolating an idea.

Exercise in gratitude

HE GREW up in the gangster-infested Old Kallang Airport area, the seventh child of a Teochew- speaking pirate taxi driver and a Cantonese-speaking seamstress. School was a struggle, especially languages.

His brothers went to Raffles Institution, he went to Siglap Secondary. Despondent, he signed up to be an infantry foot soldier in the army. Then he scored three As - a freak A-level result, he says - and qualified for medical school here on a Public Service Commission scholarship. The young Christian decided, in sheer gratitude, to become a medical missionary.

After getting married at 30, he and his accountant wife, Lay Chin, resisted the shackles of a home mortgage. He also quit his anaesthesia specialisation training midway to avoid a longer bond. And in 1996, they upped and left for mountainous Xishuangbanna, with their 16-month-old daughter Amber. There, he trained some 500 doctors in impoverished villages to carry out vaccinations, dress wounds, diagnose common ailments, balance their books. He also treated the orphaned, disabled and leprous.

Three years later, their son, Edward, was born. Dr Tan then taught at Kunming Medical College's School of Public Health, set up a Kunming-based Christian medical NGO and brought in many other Singapore doctors to do free surgery in the villages.

In 2010, he decided to come home to raise his teens as Singaporeans, with Singaporean friends who would "see them through life". His son is now in Secondary 4. His 20-year-old daughter, who believes that curing diarrhoea is noble but that the antidote to village illnesses is clean water, is studying engineering at Nanyang Technological University. They live together at the University Town staff quarters.

His valuation of property operates on an entirely different calculus from most Singaporeans. Above all, he values community, rather than exclusivity. He's now looking to buy an HDB flat in a low-income area, where neighbours still leave their doors open and borrow soya sauce from each other, rather than "transient communities where people are just waiting to upgrade".

Whenever he passes a palatial mansion, he asks himself: "Is this house worth six years of my life?" And he concludes No. He thinks the aspiration of living in a landed property with two maids to look after one in retirement is just "unsustainable".

"You don't live in HDB, you die a very lonely man. You live in HDB, you can go down to lim kopi (drink coffee) with your peers," he says in his colloquial way.

The man who believes that "Godliness with contentment is great gain" enjoys life's simplest pleasures most. His indulgences are sleeping early (by 10pm), the serenity of a sunrise run, devouring a book a week, camping twice a year on some nearby isle and a meaty durian.

He muses: "We just need our daily bread and to learn the value of humility."

With that, he is replete.


The Long Interview takes a break and will resume later in the year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2014, with the headline 'Wandering saint' of Singapore. Subscribe