Under our "Inspiring People" monthly column, we highlight the incredible journey of one person who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams too. This month, we bring to you a local doctor who spent the last 15 years helping villagers in China.
At 50, doctor Tan Lai Yong counts himself fortunate that neither he nor his wife feel the pressing need to do “something significant” with the rest of their lives.
But that’s because they have already led a “full life”, having spent the last 15 years in rural China, where Tan ran a village doctors training programme and worked with disabled people.
In 1996, Tan, his wife and one-year-old daughter moved to Xishuangbanna, a small Thai-speaking town in the southern tip of Yunnan. There, he spent four years training doctors and working with the disabled before relocating to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan.
Tan then joined the Kunming Medical University and trained village doctors and hospital doctors. He also led medical work with non-governmental organisation Bless China International, which is based in Yunnan.
“The past 15 years have been a sweet dream,” described Tan, who studied medicine in Singapore before making the leap to work in a developing country.
Tan’s experiences have been featured in several publications. Most recently, he was interviewed for the Singapore Medical Association’s (SMA) magazine and conferred the SMA lectureship, which is awarded to distinguished people who have made significant contributions to medicine and the community.
The doctor, who moved his family back to Singapore in 2010, is now studying full-time at the National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He’s on a scholarship to do a master’s degree in Public Administration.
Tan continues his outreach to the less fortunate by volunteering at local voluntary welfare organisation HealthServe, which provides help to migrants, and the disadvantaged and poor in the local community.
He also gives talks to other Singapore groups who plan to go to China to help villagers. Recently, he coordinated among 10 volunteer groups to take turns to help build a school in Longling County in the Yunnan province over two years.
Tan acknowledged that some people may argue: Should teams be doing this, spending all this money to go overseas? Is this a kind of charity tourism?
“It is, but since they’re already doing it, it’s not my job to fight the tide and say ‘Don’t go, we are wasting people’s money,” he said. “(My job is) to say, “Since we’re doing this, let’s do this best practice, do it safely, sensitively, do it sweetly.”
Inspiring the younger generation
When Yahoo! Singapore met with the doctor, he was at Temasek Junior College (TJC) briefing students who were going to Yunnan and Cambodia as part of the school’s overseas outreach programme.
“I love interacting with students, teaching. I would like to go into teaching of some sort (in the future),” he said.
The TJC alumni bantered with them, shot questions at each student and prepared them for what to expect. Importantly, he provided these students with a deeper understanding of villagers they may encounter.
For instance, it’s a common saying that villagers may be poor but they are happy. That’s not necessarily true – they may be friendly and full of smiles but it doesn’t mean they are happy, he told them.
And there will be challenges as a volunteer.
Sharing the difficulties he encountered, Tan said his Mandarin used to be so bad he even wrote his Chinese name wrongly when he was in JC. He had to get a tutor when he went to China.
As a newcomer to the community, there were times he felt “useless” because he was not part of the “information flow” and villagers also questioned his “agenda”.
They would ask, “What’s in it for you?” he said, sharing the frustration in such a situation.
And even after he managed to win over their trust, getting them to make the changes he recommended was another hurdle because they were used to the old ways of doing things.
There are times too when a volunteer may feel moved to help someone but for practical reasons, such as budgetary constraints, it is not possible, he added.
What matters is helping in a way that is sustainable, like planting trees, he said.
“You can really tell that he believes in what he is doing,” observed 17-year-old Sarah Tan, who met Tan for the first time at the briefing.
“He’s very engaging. He knows how to connect,” she added, glad to have gleaned greater insight on the Yunnan villagers.
It’s apparent that Tan still has a heart for the villagers, so why did he leave China?
The health conditions were changing, he told Yahoo! Singapore later.
There was growing concern over lifestyle diseases (Tan focused on infectious disease) and there was a need for stronger protocols, technical language, all of which were not his strong suits.
In addition, he felt it was time for him to step down as team leader after one incident two years before he left.
Tan explained that his team had been debating if they should head over to “town A” or “town B” and when Tan suggested the team visit the former because he knew the mayor would back them, the team agreed.
It was a signal for Tan to step down.
“On the basis of my connection, on the basis of my words, it swayed the decision. And I felt this was really unhealthy for the team. … If my words supercede due diligence, supercede the basic facts, sooner or later we will get into trouble,” he shared.
And there was one more reason for Tan to pack his bags and head home. He wanted his children – a 13-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl – to get the chance to develop lifelong friendships in their home country, he said.
“It’s the parents’ job to invest in their children’s friendship,” believes Tan.