Generation Grit: Survivor of shaken baby syndrome thrives as entrepreneur

Mr Tan Ruming survived abuse as a baby and endured a lonely childhood, but he found his passion and success in entrepreneurship. This is the latest in a series of millennials who overcame the odds.

Mr Tan Ruming, 25, suffered from shaken baby syndrome, which left him with a serious brain trauma and eye problems. Today, he runs a successful tuition business.

SINGAPORE - As a baby, Mr Tan Ruming, or Rum as he is known, almost died after being shaken violently.

The injury was most probably perpetrated by a domestic worker at the time, and it left him with shaken baby syndrome, a serious brain trauma suffered by babies when they are forcefully shaken.

Doctors said it was a miracle he survived. "The doctors told my mum I'm a miracle baby," said Mr Tan, 25.

But he did not escape unscathed. He cannot see properly out of his left eye as a result of the abuse. He also developed a lazy eye in the same eye and had to wear an eye patch over his good right eye for about seven years to force his brain to use the other one.

Lazy eye is the leading cause of vision loss among children and it happens when one eye does not see as well as the other.

The second of four children was two months old when he suffered a serious brain haemorrhage, leaving him in a coma.

The family suspected their maid of shaking him violently. They did not lodge a police report, but sent her home. After that episode, his grandparents cared for him and the family later hired two new maids to care for the four Tan children.

Because of his eye problem, Mr Tan was constantly teased and called names by other children in school. "My childhood was the most difficult time of my life. I could not see properly and had poor grades and low self-esteem. I was very shy and I found it hard to make friends. I felt like an outcast," he said.

 
 
 
 

But along the way, he learnt that "as long as we don't give up and persevere, anything is possible".

Because of his lazy eye, he was prone to dizzy spells if he read for too long. Studying became tedious and difficult and he was often ranked near the bottom of the class at Xingnan Primary School.

His lacklustre results continued until he was in Primary 5, when his form teacher saw his potential and encouraged him to keep studying.

He said: "I felt I wanted to do well for my teacher and I didn't want to let her down. So I started studying and ended up in the top 10 in class."

He scored 243 points in the Primary School Leaving Examination, and went on to attend Swiss Cottage Secondary School and then Nanyang Junior College, where he attained four As and 2 Bs in the A-level examinations.

But while his grades improved, his health did not. He was often ill, as he is allergic to dust and other things.

Things were also not going well on the home front.

His family plunged into financial trouble during the global financial crisis in 2008. His father's income as a remisier took a drastic hit and the family had to survive on his mother's salary as a teacher.

His parents sold their car and gave up employing a maid to cut back on expenses.

This was when he decided to earn some money to ease their financial burden. He started giving tuition up to four times a week when he was in his first year of junior college.

In his first year at the National University of Singapore Business School, he started SmileTutor, an agency that matches students to tutors. The business took off within a year and Mr Tan dropped out of university - to his parents' consternation. No one, except his girlfriend, supported his decision.


Mr Tan Ruming started SmileTutor, an agency that matches students to tutors, in his first year at the National University of Singapore Business School. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

To him, getting a degree was expensive and he felt he could use the time spent getting the tertiary qualification to develop his business.

"I wanted to be successful - fast. I feel if you want to do something out of the box, people will judge you and there will be a lot of naysayers," he said.

Within a year of starting his venture, he was making about $10,000 a month in profit.

Today, five years down the road, he says he has done well enough to help his family pay off some of the mortgage on their five-room flat, as well as to clear some of the loans taken out for his older brother's medical school fees.

 
 
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His father has found work as a taxi driver.

Now SmileTutor's revenue is over $1 million annually and the firm has 15 full-time staff.

Mr Tan is able to afford the rent on a condominium near Beauty World Centre in the Upper Bukit Timah area and he drives a second-hand BMW 5 Series car.

His girlfriend, Ms Jessica Mulyawan, 24, described him as a workaholic who is determined to make his mark. They met in church and she is a director at SmileTutor.

She said: "I have never seen him give up when we faced struggles (in business) and when we lacked guidance. He worked seven days a week, but never complained about being tired."

Given what he and his family have gone through, Mr Tan hopes to start a free or highly subsidised tuition programme for children from underprivileged or poor families soon. He said: "I strongly believe in giving back, as God has blessed me."

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