By: Wilson Chan (15A01C) Tan Su (15S07A) Michelle Choy (15S05A) Trudy Chak (16S03D) Vanessa Chia (16A13A) Stella Soon (16A01C)
It’s nerve-wracking to interview a man of great stature, much less someone as dignified as Dr William Tan, but his exuberant smile reflects an inner warmth and genuine enthusiasm that puts us immediately at ease when we first meet him. Dr Tan is a man who wears many hats. He juggles his day job as a doctor in Singapore General Hospital with a competitive sporting career, while also participating in various humanitarian efforts.
His path to success has never been easy. Paralysed from the waist down since the age of two, he has had to overcome many obstacles to achieve what he had set out to accomplish. And it is these exact circumstances which imbued in him a sense of gratitude for those who were by his side every step of the way, as well as the motivation he needed to embark on these diverse pursuits.
Though he is already known for the immense struggles he has overcome, one of Dr Tan’s greatest struggles began quite recently.
Dr. Tan noticed the first warning signs when he was racing in the Paris marathon of April 2009. His nose was bleeding, but he dismissed it as part of the weather. ‘I continued, struggled and pushed for 42.2km right until the finish line. I bled a lot and soaked up my wristband.’ However, unable to ignore the obvious indicators that something was amiss, Dr Tan underwent multiple tests back home and was diagnosed with Stage 4 leukaemia on the 16 April 2009.
‘I was shocked; the first thing that came to my mind was that I still had a lot of things lined up to do – I had an event in a city called Kisumu, which was in Kenya, to raise money for orphans with HIV.’ Even for someone so mentally, emotionally and physically strong, the diagnosis and all its finality was shattering. ‘The hardest thing was for me to accept that I had leukemia… I was told by my doctor that I had 12 months to live. That was devastating.’
Determined to recover, Dr Tan battled six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant from his sister that, unfortunately, was rejected by his body leaving him with badly affected skin, lungs, and knee joints that can no longer bend or straighten. Dr Tan, however, has defied the odds again – it has been six years since he was first diagnosed with cancer and his hectic schedule of work and sports training resumes.
‘But I missed sports because when I look out of the window, and I watched all the other kids play, I was envious of them. I had a lot of energy but I didn’t know where to put it; I was restless.’
In his time battling leukaemia, a great hurdle for Dr Tan was being away from racing. ‘As an athlete somehow you’re always an athlete; you can’t live a day just sitting around not doing any sports!’ He tried to pick up less strenuous sports – and after failed attempts at archery and air rifle, he recalled that table tennis was a favourite childhood activity. As Dr Tan got back into table tennis, he realised that ‘there [were] a lot of people playing table tennis recreationally but there was no organisation uniting them’. Not one to sit still and do nothing about it, Dr Tan founded the The Table Tennis Association for the Disabled Singapore which, now helmed by Mr Kevin Pang, has grown to 30 members strong.
Dr Tan’s eventual foray into sports stemmed from his yearning for a way to channel his energy into a meaningful activity. It was in Secondary 3 that he seriously considered entering the sports arena. After being inspired by an article featuring a disabled gymnast, Dr Tan sought out Mr Wahid Baba, an ex-policeman injured in the line of duty, who was training disabled youth to become top-notch athletes. He fondly remembers how he raced on his crutches to meet Mr Wahid, and used the latter’s wheelchair to power himself around the track multiple times. ‘I went to seek out Wahid, and I found ways to play my own sports in class and at home. I was actively finding my own way.’
But Dr Tan had set his sights on a much bigger goal: the Paralympics. ‘I started training four years before that, even harder than before.’ he declared. Making history by being selected to form the first Paralympic Singapore team in 1988, he was overjoyed to be able to compete in Seoul, but that excitement dissipated when he realised that he was at a disadvantage. ‘My competitors and rivals were all very competent and very experienced racers. I had too little exposure in international games prior to the Paralympics in Seoul.’
Not only was he up against strong powerhouses, but his equipment was also sorely lacking as well. ‘These people are using top racing chairs, and I was using a chair that was made in an Ang Mo Kio workshop.’ This disparity in quality became evident during the competition where he unfortunately got disqualified as his wheelchair went into the wrong lane in the first 100 metres. Nevertheless, he was content with the progress he had made. ‘That was very disappointing. But in spite of all these constraints of equipment and racing experience, I think I didn’t fare too badly – I was ranked about 12th in the world.’
Dr Tan embarked on his first ultramarathon in 1986 and wheeled non-stop for 16 hours, raising more than a quarter of a million for dollars for the National Kidney Foundation who helped patients needing money for kidney dialysis. He explains that he chose to participate in the ultramarathon instead of a normal marathon in view of its more grueling nature, in order to encourage others to donate.
Encouraged by its success, he continued participating in ultramarathons thereafter, eventually heading overseas to places like New Zealand and Malaysia to further this newfound passion. There, he participated in one from Wellington to Auckland, in support of children with diabetes and even from the bottom of New Zealand, which is from Bluff to Cape Reinga, to raise money for disabled children. What started off as a desire to support charity soon became part of his career.
‘So I had this long experience with doctors and nurses, and I really liked it. I really admired the doctors a lot; they were so gentle, nice and caring. I wanted to be a doctor.’
Although his plans were seemingly derailed when he failed to secure a place in the National University of Singapore, Dr Tan did not accept that as the final word on the matter. After studying Life Sciences and working in the Civil Service to fund his siblings’ education, he earned his PhD in Brain Science and enrolled in medical school in Australia, finally achieving his dream after 21 years.
Being the only doctor on a wheelchair in Singapore, the typical reaction he receives has been equal parts amazement and intrigue. ‘Being on a wheelchair doesn’t make me a second-degree doctor. Some people do perceive it that way and believe that I’m not up to it. So I had to work really hard as a medical student, a house officer and a doctor.’
Now, Dr Tan works at the National Cancer Centre, looking after patients undergoing chemotherapy. His story is an inspiration to all those who hear it, no doubt, but it is all the more valuable to the cancer patients under his care who need all the strength they can get. ‘We have patients of all ages young and old, and when they hear that their own doctor had cancer, they’re uplifted.’
‘I crawled all over the place as my parents couldn’t afford to buy a wheelchair, or even leg braces or crutches.’
Recounting the times in RI when several teachers chipped in to drive him to and from school every day, he said that he wanted to express his gratitude by giving back to society. ‘My parents and teachers made a difference in my life, and there are also a lot of people who come and go in my life. It’s my way of using my little life to impact and change, and to make this world a better place.’
But what really ignited Dr Tan’s passion for volunteerism was his own experience as a disabled person. “People came to help me pick myself when I fell down on my crutches and leg braces. Naturally you would develop an inclination that whenever other people needed help, you would be there for them. You wouldn’t leave a person who had just fallen down like that too!”
Furthermore, he also wanted to help other disabled individuals by being their voice. ‘I encountered a lot of barriers growing up. I would get very frustrated with staircases and inaccessibility, and difficulties in finding employment. It created the awareness in me that I had to do something to help the younger disabled people, so that they need not go through the same kind of trouble and barriers that I have gone through.’ Describing himself as a ‘strong advocate for people with disabilities’, the ex-President of Singapore’s Handicapped Welfare Association led his team to request for full wheelchair accessibility in all MRT stations.
Dr Tan goes to great lengths to reiterate his belief as global citizens, we also have an obligation to humanity in general. ‘We can’t just go there and study, then after benefiting from the education system, bid goodbye. As a global citizen, we can benefit but we must give back to benefit other people. That’s why we’re called global citizens.’
Dr Tan’s drive to give back and continually make positive change stems largely from his time in Raffles and the kindness he received. Steering the conversation back towards his time in RI, Dr Tan joyfully recalled fondly how because there were no lifts in schools at the time, his classmates would make a fireman’s lift with their arms and carry him all they way up to the 4th floor for art class. ‘I really depended a lot on my friends’ help to move around from one place to another. [Even in chemistry] class, can you imagine me on my crutches carrying a test tube of sulfuric acid?’
The school also gave Dr Tan the chance to pursue his passion. In his last two years, after taking up wheelchair racing, he was allowed to miss morning assembly to train. One would find him tirelessly going round after round at the track, chasing after his passion. ‘I was given that privilege, and the teachers were very supportive; they understood that I found my love and my passion on the track. Very meaningful, isn’t it?’
As grateful as Dr Tan is to RI, he hopes that future Rafflesians do not take things for granted. It must be about embodying the school motto, Auspicium Melioris Aevi. ‘I think when Sir Stamford Raffles said that, he didn’t mean for us to just sit there and hope for a better age. We can’t just hope. We demonstrate it through action.’
At the end of the interview, we can’t help but feel an immense amount of respect for Dr Tan and the amount of energy and verve he has within him all the time. After all, as we bid goodbye to him, he flashes a bright smile and prepares to gear up for his evening run, already dressed in his sporting attire.