Inspiration to us all: 'Barefoot doc' reaches out to foreign workers

Dr Tan Lai Yong playing sepak takraw with migrant workers at Westlite Dormitory in Mandai Estate on June 25.
Dr Tan Lai Yong playing sepak takraw with migrant workers at Westlite Dormitory in Mandai Estate on June 25. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Dr Tan Lai Yong spends his Saturday nights playing sepak takraw with migrant workers at their Mandai dormitory.

His goal is really to set up a subsidised clinic there, where he will train workers to volunteer on weekends and help diagnose their own countrymen. He would rather start out, however, by kicking a rattan ball around with them.

"I want to come in playing sports rather than parachute in as a doctor," said the 54-year-old. "This way, you form a multi-layered relationship that builds community."

Before he moved back to Singapore in 2010, Dr Tan had spent 15 years as a "barefoot doctor" in rural China, moving there with his wife and 16-month-old daughter.

In the impoverished countryside of Yunnan, he ran village clinics, cared for orphans, lepers and the disabled, and gave farmers basic medical and dental training.

In Singapore, he confronted a different set of needs. He said: "In Yunnan, I entered into communities. Here, I am trying to create community. It's an uphill struggle."

Today, he serves as director for outreach and community engagement at the College of Alice & Peter Tan in the National University of Singapore, where he lives with his wife, son and daughter in campus housing.

He also volunteers about four to six hours a week at non-profit group HealthServe, which runs subsidised clinics for migrant workers here.

He often takes his students on field trips, be it to visit migrant workers at HealthServe clinics, yong tau foo sellers at People's Park Food Centre, or the back alleys of Geylang. "This is what leadership is - it's not charity. I want them to learn to hear voices from the community," he said.

He puts his achievements in Yunnan down to a simple linguistic barrier. "I didn't speak Chinese well, so I was forced to listen and learn."

What does he hope to do next? "I wish we could set up social enterprises to allow injured foreign workers or workers with a day off to do something meaningful and with dignity," he said. For example, he said, they could earn money as sports coaches or barbers.

When a group of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) students wanted to do community service by washing toilets at HealthServe, he said no.

Instead, he told them to let Bangladeshi workers teach them cricket. He recalled one worker telling him how happy he was to step up to the plate, saying: "For three years, I dreamed of playing cricket. Today somebody listened to me."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline Inspiration to us all: 'Barefoot doc' reaches out to foreign workers. Subscribe