Generation Grit

Generation Grit: She overcame difficulties in speaking and found her voice in song

Doctors said Jean Tan, who was born with a cleft palate, would never be able to speak properly. But she defied the odds and became a singer-songwriter. And then she was struck with an incurable kidney condition. This is her story, told to The Straits Times in a series about inspiring millennials.

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Born with a severely deformed cleft palate and lip, doctors said Jean Tan would never be able to speak clearly. But the 32-year-old singer-songwriter has defied the odds.
Born with a cleft palate and later struck with an incurable kidney condition, Jean Tan defied the odds to become a singer-songwriter. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR
Miss Jean Tan discovered her love for singing when her father, a businessman, brought home a karaoke set when she was about five. ST PHOTO: SAMUEL RUBY

SINGAPORE - First there was silence. Then gasps and a flurry of activity. The doctor's next words to Madam Ann Png were: "Don't worry, it can be mended."

Madam Png's newborn baby had a cleft that sliced through her palate and lip. No one had seen it coming.

"It's definitely not the first thing a mother expects to hear," said Miss Jean Tan, now 32, recounting the story she had been told by her mother.

"There weren't many baby photos of me. Like any other person, I think it was hard for my mum to accept it at first," said Miss Tan, whose older brother was six then.

Said Madam Png, 64: "I cried that night. But the next day when I held her at the nursery, I told her the journey ahead would be long, but we would do it together."

Doctors said the second of her three children would have problems hearing and never be able to articulate her words clearly.

But the singer-songwriter, who has produced three albums - and composed and performed a song for the 2015 South-east Asian Games - proved them all wrong.

To help her only daughter overcome her lisp and slurred speech, Madam Png, a Chinese language teacher at the time, made her practise exercises over and over that she disguised as games. Countless soap bubbles were blown and candles puffed out to train those palate muscles.

"My mother is a persistent woman. Every time I slurred she would gently flick my cheek and make me repeat the word," said Miss Tan, without a trace of the speech impediment she once had.

She discovered her love for singing when her father, a businessman, brought home a karaoke set when she was about five.

Born with a cleft palate and later struck with an incurable kidney condition, Jean Tan defied the odds to become a singer-songwriter. ST PHOTO: BENJAMIN SEETOR

Her parents separated when she was about eight and her mother got custody of the children.

Miss Tan, whose full-time job is in the education sector, went through six operations to correct her cleft deformity - the first when she was three months old and the last when she was 18.

She was 12 when she started noticing people's stares, and when puberty hit she became even more self-conscious. "Growing up, I knew I looked different. I remember walking home from school one day, and passing through a void deck. This little girl came up to me and said, 'Oh my gosh, you're so ugly. No one will marry you.'"

"But my mother never made me feel like there were things I couldn't do. I joined the choir, public speaking competitions and cheerleading competitions," said Miss Tan, who also found studying to be a positive outlet and did well academically.

A major operation at the age of 16 to fix her protruding jaw and another at 17 to correct her slanted nose helped to boost her confidence. "For the first time I looked physically normal. I felt a bit more confident of who I was," she said.

But it was an ordeal. In her 12-hour long jaw operation, doctors sawed down her jaw bone, pushed it back and locked it in with screws. For a month she could not open her mouth or speak. Her mother would feed her liquids via a syringe, five times a day.

While studying Literature on a scholarship at the University of York, she started performing during open mic sessions. It began as a way to help her overcome anxiety, but soon became more fun than nerve-racking. "The community I met (in York) was very affirming... I was also able to heal from the feelings of inadequacy I had as a child."

She also started writing and composing her own songs, which became her channel of self-expression.After completing her studies in 2008, Miss Tan returned to Singapore.

In 2010, she began work as an educator and produced her first album, which was personal and faith-based. She took part in events supporting international non-profit medical organisation Operation Smile, which helps children who need treatment for cleft or facial deformities.

It was also the year she was diagnosed with an autoimmune kidney disease.

She first noticed she could not fit into her clothes and later there was froth in her urine. A kidney biopsy confirmed she had a nephrotic disorder. "After six operations, I thought I'd never have to visit a hospital again. But there I was facing a new series of challenges."

Her condition causes her kidneys to leak protein and her body to swell. When it acts up, she can find herself 20kg heavier from the water weight, and her organs bloat, making it hard to breathe, eat or walk.

"But I pushed myself through each step and tried to be thankful; thankful to be alive, thankful that I can see, thankful for the next step," said Miss Tan, who got engaged last year. She met her fiance in 2015 when she was looking to buy a guitar from a friend of a friend.

To keep her condition under control, Miss Tan takes immunosuppressants, but has yet to find the "right one". She is currently on her fourth type of medication.

Her latest 2017 music album, Hideaway, chronicles her journey through the ups and downs of her illness. "(The disease) stripped away my self-worth, dreams and achievements. It made me take stock of who I was despite losing everything."

The experiences have taught her the importance of coming to terms with reality but also not losing hope. Even as she continues to battle an illness for which there is no cure, Miss Tan chooses not to dwell on what she cannot control.

She has also grown stronger with each experience. "Resilience isn't about banging your head through an obstacle. Rather it's about allowing yourself time to rest, recharge, and to try again."

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