Pioneer champion of the visually handicapped, who was himself blind, dies at age 86

Mr Tan Guan Heng was the first blind person to helm the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, a charity which serves the blind. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO FILE

SINGAPORE - A pioneer leader and advocate for the blind, Mr Tan Guan Heng, died on Tuesday of a heart attack. He was 86.

He was the first blind person to helm the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH), a charity which serves the blind.

His younger sister Annie Tan, 72, said of Mr Tan: “He does not complain. It is just so amazing. If I were in his shoes, I would be miserable.

“He wanted very much to help others, to inspire others and uplift them. It was like his mission.”

Mr Tan, who has a degree in economics and history from the then University of Malaya, suffered a detached retina while in university and lost his sight completely in his late 20s.

He could not find a job after graduation and that was how he started his own business, G.H Book Forum, which supplied books to schools and libraries.

His love life also inspired his book, My Love Is Blind, which was published in 1995 and which Mr Tan described as semi-autobiographical. In it, a man loses his eyesight in an accident and falls in love with a nurse, only to lose her to a “lady-killer” doctor. The book was turned into a musical.

The Raffles Institution (RI) alumni also wrote other books, including 100 Inspiring Rafflesians and Pioneering Disabled And The Able. 

Mr Tan was president of the SAVH from 1975 to 1980, where he started the Low Vision Clinic and a library, among other initiatives like promoting sports for the blind.

In 2005, he returned to lead the charity through turmoil after the Commissioner of Charities started a probe into its governance and financial management under its former management. He remained as president until 2012.

Mr Tan won recognition for his contributions to the community, including the President’s Social Service Award in 2010, which is the highest accolade for volunteers.

Law Society president Adrian Tan, who is the former honorary general counsel for SAVH, said: “Mr Tan Guan Heng was a giant in the visually handicapped community. He was widely respected for his ability to lead the visually handicapped and his strong advocacy for their rights.”

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, who was a classmate of Mr Tan at RI, called him an inspiring role model for people with disabilities.

Mr Tan’s nephew, Mr Marvin Bay, remembers his Uncle Sunny for his generosity and inspiring in him a lifelong passion for literature. 

Mr Bay, 56, who works in the judicial service, said: “He was a pioneer in changing our mindsets of what persons with physical challenges could achieve. True to his name (Sunny), he always had a sunny and optimistic outlook in life.”

SAVH president Derek Ong described Mr Tan as an inspiration to the visually impaired community.

The eldest of six children, Mr Tan, a bachelor, lived with two of his sisters and a domestic helper. His sister, Madam Tan, said he was always independent and active, taking walks and swimming regularly.

However, a prostate problem two years ago slowed him down. 

His neighbour, Ms Juliana Chia, a 50-year-old personal assistant, became firm friends with Mr Tan eight years ago after she asked him a blunt question.

She said: “I always see him around in my condo and he is very independent. One day, I just went up to him and asked him point blank if he was angry that he was blind. He laughed, told me his life story and that he had led a rich life.

“I have always shunned people with disabilities, as I had the perception that they are negative, until I met Uncle Tan,” she recalled. “He was always smiling, always gentle and loving. I had never seen him lose his temper.” 

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