If leading a purposeful life has a face to it, Dr Tan Lai Yong would be a serious contender. But try putting forth this suggestion to him and chances are, the unassuming and sanguine Dr Tan will shrug it and laugh it off.
It’s been a year since he returned home from Yunnan, China after a 15-year stint running clinics and training village doctors there. But for Dr Tan, the pace of life and his earnestness to impact lives hasn’t changed much. On the day I met him for our interview, he shares how his day panned out the day before:
In the morning, he volunteered with a seniors’ exercise group. Then a speaking engagement at a seminar at Ngee Ann Polytechnic before going for his classes at NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. This was followed by a late afternoon session with Ngee Ann Polytechnic Bio-Engineering students on how students from Singapore can have meaningful experiences with hospitals in rural Yunnan. Next, another seminar at University Town where he discussed fall prevention among the elderly. Finally, a visit to a workers’ dormitory at Kaki Bukit where he spoke with Bangladeshi workers how they could spend their five days off from work during the Chinese New Year period. Dr Tan was to bring his friends and family for a celebration at the dormitory. He even planned to take the workers swimming.
The youthful-looking Dr Tan poses for the camera in front of a block of flats in Commonwealth where he volunteers with a seniors' exercise group.
“They don’t want us to go swimming, they’re very shy. With us (doctors) or a lady around, they will never wear shorts,” enthuses Dr Tan, who also volunteers at low-cost clinics for Bangladeshi workers. He speaks fondly and affectionately of them, not unlike how one speaks of family members.
The youthful-looking 50-year-old lets you know that that is not his typical day, but it is evident how driven he is to further a social cause he deems worth pursuing. When I note that his wife, Tan Lay Chin, was left out of the equation of that busy day, he laughs and quips that his wife was “a little upset”, but adds that he will be having breakfast with her after our interview.
In 1996, Dr Tan moved to rural, mountainous Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, with his wife and then year-old daughter, Amber Tan. Explaining his decision, he says: “The whole driving force of being a doctor was to work with the poor. My wife and I knew that we wanted to work with the poor.”
His decision to uproot his family was very much influenced by his religious background – he is a devout Christian – and how he views himself to be in a position of privilege. Born to an unlicensed taxi driver father and a seamstress mother, he grew up in a two-room Housing Board flat near the former Kallang Airport. It was with a government bursary he managed to study medicine at the National University of Singapore. To Dr Tan, being born in Singapore is analogous to “striking jackpot”. “I taught in medical school as staff and guest lecturer throughout China. If I were born there, I would never have gotten into a medical school. There are students whose IQs are higher than mine and the competition is stiffer. I had no money…I got into a medical school that’s totally paid for. There were very few places in the world where I didn’t have to beg. I just filled in a few forms, appeared for interview and lo and behold, my studies are paid for. Where else can you get this?”
His 15 years in China saw him running clinics and training village doctors. They were taught how to draw up management plans, handle prescriptions and nursing of patients. Initially confined to Xishuangbanna, the training programme became so popular that Dr Tan travelled to other districts to deliver the programme. From 2003 to 2010, he was a Clinical Lecturer in Kunming Medical University.
Dr Tan also acted as a bridge, bringing in Singapore doctors who performed free or subsidised surgery, as well as Singapore students, who built facilities, taught English or planted trees in the villages. For his efforts, he was presented many awards, no less by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and ex-President S R Nathan.
In November 2010, the family finally packed their bags to head back home. The prime consideration was his children. He wanted them to have a close-knitted group of friends they could keep for life. “I explained to my daughter that friends in school in her teenage years would be her friends for life. And now everyone (her friends in China) is transiting and she’s going to lose this cohort of friends. I said one beautiful thing about Singapore is that it’s small enough that she will see her friends. She was very sad to lose her friends in China. But when she came back, the CCAs won her over.”
Home might be beckoning, but it was not before the family went on “one last happy fling” which he describes as “the time of his life” – a backpacking trip where they camped, stayed with friends and slept in trains. $24,000 took them across Europe -- including Croatia, Finland and Romania -- for four months. “It was great. My wife, being very meticulous budget wise, said: ‘Is this worth our money? What are we doing?’ I said the downside is, our kids cannot sit down and study anymore,” he laughs. The backpacking days were idyllic and laid back. In Finland, they stayed in a lakeside cottage and Dr Tan’s children, Amber and Edward, would row out a boat to catch fish. “If there’s fish, we’ll eat fish. If there’s no fish, we’ll eat potato. It was until the third day that my wife said: ‘I think you should buy some chicken from downtown.’”
Dr Tan exudes calmness and free-spiritedness -- something he attributes to his mother who is in her 80s. His mother became blind two years ago and after a health scare, decided to take to the skies alone. “She said: ‘I’m going to take A380 to London. She booked the flight alone.” The illiterate matron rationalised that since she was blind, she would not need to feel shy about not knowing how to fill in the white card. She could just bring it to the air stewardess.
Life back in Singapore takes getting used to but he “quite likes it”. He lives life by his own rules and is not conceding to the rat race many Singaporeans are caught up in. He does not own a car and hopes to buy an HDB flat soon. “Can I work very hard and buy a $2 million house? Possibly. But is it worth the next 5 years of my life? No,” Dr Tan says firmly with conviction. And how will he be spending his time freed from chasing after materialistic pursuits? My guess is as good as yours, but we can be sure it will be about bettering the lives of others.
By Yee Wei Zhen