‘Wandering saint’ of Singapore

Tan Lai Yong1

When Dr Tan Lai Yong and his wife tied the knot at Bethesda Frankel Estate Church in 1991, they asked for a wedding prayer that made their solemniser do a double-take.

It was a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God.”

That, Dr Tan reckons, was the “craziest thing” he has ever done. It set the tone for life thereafter, and liberated him to “step out of the box”, again and again.

At 53, the Singaporean doctor has no home to his name. No car. One pair of jeans he lives in. And lots of hand-me-down checked shirts. Lunch is often a loaf of plain bread, wolfed down on the run.

His office at the National University of Singapore’s College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT) is like a storeroom, crammed with camping gear, bicycles and emergency rations, a habit from 15 years of living in China’s earthquake- prone Yunnan province.

Once back in Singapore, he re-orientated himself by visiting voluntary welfare groups like the Tsao Foundation, sat in on classes at autism focused Pathlight School and hung out with migrant worker communities to assess needs here.

Then he enrolled at the Lee Kuan Yew School Of Public Policy to do a master’s degree in public administration to better equip himself. Upon graduation in 2012, he spurned “lucrative” offers from health-care players hoping to leverage his experience to grow their China portfolio. Instead he pounced on a “dream job”, joining CAPT, a residential college in University Town geared towards community engagement, as a senior lecturer.

He teaches a course called Hidden Communities, which delves into the plight of the elderly who live alone, the difficulties of ex-offenders finding jobs and the living conditions of migrant workers.

A third of the course time involves field trips, including a twilight walk through Bukit Brown to observe grave diggers, weaving through Geylang’s lorongs to explore the issue of women stuck in the vice trade, and ferreting about Jurong Fishery Port for the first catch of the day.

At CAPT, where he is director of outreach and community engagement, he regularly hosts meals and visits for disabled or disadvantaged kids on weekends. He and his students throw a frisbee around its lawns with the guests and share their own educational struggles, for example, of repeating O levels. The intended message: University is fun and you have a shot.

An “inclusive” trek to Endau Rompin in Johor that he helped put together for next month will involve 15 Assumption Pathway School students.

The end result he hopes for is not to convert his charges into social workers but that they will “go beyond complaining, see both sides of the picture and get off their soap box”. As well as that they will have empathy, as bosses of the future, when an employee says her mother has dementia or his son has autism.

After four years studying the downtrodden and marginalised, Dr Tan concludes that the real scourge afflicting Singaporeans today is loneliness.

Sure, the many programmes targeting hypertension, diabetes and cataracts among the elderly are useful, but what about their creeping sense of loneliness? He’s been pondering the fix and concludes that the art of forging friendships must be learnt earlier.

“By the time somebody is 70, talking about making friends, especially for men, is very late,” he observes. During visits to Geylang, he notes that most of the elderly Singaporean men huddled in the red light district’s coffee shops are not looking for sex. “They are no different from those who hang out at senior day-care centres. They are just there to drink kopi and play games with their friends.”

But what troubles him is many teenagers, especially bright boys in top schools who spend their holidays preparing for Olympiads, are desperately lonely too.

“I hang out at swimming pools. Singaporean kids who swim are training for competition. They don’t play. Only the foreign kids come and play,” he observes. On weekends, he sees the fevered brows of kids in glass-walled tuition centres, while their fathers read newspapers outside.

And he yearns to tell them: “Your No.1 job as a father is to help your children build friendships. Your No.1 job is not to send them to tuition centres.”

To encourage more to play with their kids, he started several father-and-son football games islandwide. One programme, that began in 2011 at University Town on Saturday nights, is ongoing. Typically, 30 teens come looking for a game, accompanied by five fathers, which, he feels, is a start.

For six hours a week, he also volunteers at HealthServe, which runs subsidised clinics for needy Singaporeans and foreign workers. He takes the workers on weekly outings to public swimming pools, libraries and parks like Gardens by the Bay “to break down invisible barriers”. He helps them buy medicine and resolve employer disputes, as well as persuades them to sign casino self-exclusion forms to safeguard their earnings.

Last year, he even helped to organise a fully foreign worker- starred concert featuring a Bangladeshi band, a PRC (People’s Republic of China) choir, Nepalese singers and Bollywood dancers.

In fact, Dr Tan has so many pots on the boil that – anything to do with affirming individuals, building inclusiveness and countering negativity – you name it and he’s probably already looking into it and percolating an idea.

Edited from the article first published in The Straits Times, April 4, 2014

The Starits Times



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