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Sight unseen: The progressive loss of his vision has led Peter Tan on a journey of "learning to not be independent so that we can be more dependent on God". Photo by Thirst Collective.

The leisurely days seem to suit veteran principal Peter Tan just fine.

He responds to the rhythm of his grandson’s toy train chugging along on the living room floor and is as comfortable indulging the three-year-old’s imagination as he is regulating the number of strawberries he may have before dinner.

After four decades in the education service, Tan retired last December, having helmed two Anglo-Chinese Schools (ACS) and Queensway Secondary School in his time.

Milestones: Peter Tan was among the retiring principals celebrated at the Ministry of Education’s Appreciation & Appointment of Principals’ Ceremony in December 2023. The occasion was graced by Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing. Photo courtesy of Peter Tan.

The long-sleeved shirt and tie are no longer standard attire but, clearly, there is still work he is doing.

He was on the organising committee of the first Salt&Light National Christian Educators Conference (NCEC) last December, and shared his experiences in its forums and breakout groups.

The long-sleeved shirt and tie are no longer standard attire but, clearly, there is still work Peter Tan is doing.

Not By Sight, his memoir of his years as an educator, was launched in January.

On March 1, he was the guest-of-honour at ACS (Barker Road)’s 138th Founders’ Day celebrations.

“No,” he insisted, he is not going to be the principal of the soon-to-be established ACS Academy, a school for special needs children. His wife, Stacey, would not have it, and neither would he.

He is, however, on its curriculum committee and is anticipating his continued involvement when the Academy starts up in two years’ time.

“Christmas Eve was one of the days I didn’t have to think about the start of school coming up in the new year, with all the preparation, the staff meetings, the updating, the letters to the parents that would have been the norm for me,” he said with a laugh. “I’m enjoying it.”

There is no longer a need to get up early for school, but Tan continues to wake at dawn. He still begins his day as he always has, in worship and prayer.

“I have more time now,” he said. “I don’t have to rush.”

The discipline has reaped its rewards: Waiting on the Lord has more than renewed his strength (Isaiah 40:31). It has realised breakthroughs.

Behind the scenes

The ACS Academy is one such example.

As far back as 2005, while still the Principal of ACS (Junior), Tan had spearheaded a Special Education Needs approach in allowing two boys with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to be integrated into the mainstream school population. To help them manage, their parents provided a trained professional to come alongside them in the classroom.

No regrets: “To me being in education is mostly about life, touching lives,” said Peter Tan, pictured here at December’s NCEC with Daniel Wee, Senior Pastor of COOS (Church Of Our Saviour). COOS provided study space for students of Queensway Secondary School by availing of its premises. Photo by Thirst Collective.

The one-off trial proved worthy of a second look by then Minister of State for Education, Dr Aline Wong, and Tan started praying for God to open the way for special needs children to formally be given an education under the ACS umbrella.

“Unfortunately, dads of children with special needs are a silent community. They are very lonely and just don’t know what to do.”

Twenty years on, and the ACS Academy is set to see light of day in 2026. It will begin operations even before its Tengah home is ready.

Tan has also long carried a burden for the parents of these children – the fathers, in particular – and he has been engaging with these men under the auspices of Special Dads for Life, which was set up in partnership with Dads for Life and the Centre for Fathering.

The ongoing ministry organises talks and other opportunities for fellowship. “Those who want to stay back and share, do. And we pray with them,” he said. “We’re trying to build relationship.”

Citing the case of the father convicted last year of killing his autistic twin sons, he underscored the need to reach out to men like him, and urgently.

“At least two or three are going through what that father went through. They are at a very low point of their lives.

“Unfortunately, they are a silent community. They are very lonely and just don’t know what to do.

Coming of age: Tan celebrated his 63rd birthday in December 2023 and retired after 40 years in the education service. Photo by Emilyn Tan.

“To a certain extent, the children are taken care of. But what about the fathers? There is very little we know to do.

“There’s a lot we need to do to support them and we’re still praying about what else can be done.”

Precious moments

For encouragement, he keeps in his memory the occasion a student with ASD kept seeking him out while he was having an extra busy day as Principal of ACS (Junior). It was the year the school was one of the PSLE Group Centres.

The boy would not be placated by the receptionist in the general office who offered to relay a message. He went off and came back five or six times.

When the receptionist was finally able to get Tan to spare a few minutes, the boy drew near and whispered into Tan’s ear: “I love my daddy.”

That was all he had to say before he ran off.

“The things that can happen if only we give them an opportunity.”

The boy’s father was incredulous when Tan called him to tell him. The father exclaimed: “What? What did you say?”

Tan replied: “All he wanted to say to me was, ‘I love my daddy.’ He waited almost an hour-and-a-half just to say that!”

The father broke down in tears on the other end of the line. Tan recalled: “After he collected himself, he said, ‘My son has never said those words to me.’

“He was so thankful that I took the time to let him say it.

“The boy was seven or eight years old. The father had never heard those three words ‘I love you’ from his son all those years.”

While Principal of Queensway Secondary School, Tan had a student with ASD who topped his class. His classmates recognised his potential in spite of his lack of social skills and elected him to be Class Chairman.

“The things that can happen if only we give them an opportunity.

“He learned how to adjust himself, and I could see how the others didn’t treat him like he was a person with special needs.

“I was very glad for him. The more we can do, I think the families will have fewer challenges.”

Roads less travelled

Tan has the compassion of one who is no stranger to personal challenges.

He grew up poor and under the shadow of acrimony between his mother and father, who had a second wife and family. Amidst his difficult circumstances, he put his faith in Christ during his secondary school years.

Putting God at the centre of his life proved to be seminal. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

While Tan was his 20s, just as he was settling into his teacher-training course, he was abruptly terminated on medical grounds due to retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable genetic eye condition that was known to lead eventually to blindness.

He saw the hand of God intervene on his behalf to the then Institute of Education. And he remained an educator over the decades, validating His call. (Romans 11:29)

His eyesight has indeed deteriorated significantly, particularly since he contracted Covid in 2021. Nowadays, he wears dark glasses even at home to protect his eyes from any glare there might be.

Reliving good ol’ days: Peter Tan with his former ACS (Junior) Vice Principals, Sharon Liat and Christine Bok. Photo by Emilyn Tan.

Outside of the home, he carries the white cane that is de rigueur for legally blind persons.

“You know you actually are blind. You should go and learn how to use the white cane.”

Accepting the need to depend on his cane did not come easily to him. His initial reluctance to learn to use it was shared in his book, Not by Sight:

On one of the visits to my doctor, he said, “You know you actually are blind. You should go and learn how to use the white cane.” It was hard to hear him say that …

It was something I had to journey with God for a period of time, crying to Him and just being transparent about my own insecurities in not knowing what would happen but also knowing that He would provide that support and the protection that was needed.

Through my early morning times of just waiting, praying and crying, God spoke about accepting that there was not going to be an astounding miracle that would allow me to trumpet God’s mighty hand of healing.

I sensed His gentle voice saying, “Just go!” So, one day in 2016, I told Stacey, “Okay, I am ready to go.”

Unexpected rewards

Tan’s occupational therapist at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped (SAVH) encouraged and urged him to gain proficiency with the white cane while he still had some measure of sight to navigate his way around.

“I now see the wisdom in that,” he said.

Along with the new skill, he acquired a friend at SAVH: A young man blind from birth, who took to Tan and taught him how to harness visual aid technologies available as applications on the iPhone.

“It gives us a bit more handles to be able to manage things ourselves,” Tan enthused.

The appreciation is sincere: “I try to do things myself as much as I can.”

As Guest-of-honour at ACS (BR)’s 138th Founders’ Day celebrations, Peter Tan spoke on the importance of active rethinking, humility and service in preparing for the future. Pictured here with the school’s current principal, Khoo Tse Horng. Screengrab from ACSBR Facebook.

He has translated his new ethos into advocacy by accepting an invitation to serve on the SG Enable board.

“I am still adjusting. It’s not just about the physical challenges. The thing is learning to trust.”

“Singapore is very blessed to have a Government that has set up something like SG Enable,” Tan said of the agency striving to develop a disability support ecosystem. “We are just at the beginning of doing the things we do and we’ve still a long way to go, but we are moving in that direction.”

On his part, he actively keeps abreast of the advancements in assistive technology, and was recently part of a mixed-ability group that tested navigation software in the “controlled” environment of the Enabling Village.

The technological advancements are heartening, but Tan recognises that there will be varying degrees of limitation. “I am still adjusting,” he said, and conceded that dependence is hard to learn.

“In a sense, it’s learning to not be independent so that we can be more dependent on God in our journey in life. It’s something all of us have to come to, because we can choose to be independent from God.

“It’s not just about the physical challenges. The thing is learning to trust.”

Back to basics

Being schooled to trust in God and His approval has been a process long in the works for Tan.

He shared, for instance, that while Principal at ACS (Junior), he was serving in multiple church committees as well as leading a worship service.

“I questioned myself: Is the next-most important priority my recognition?”

His days and nights were so occupied that his wife finally said to him: “You know, your children hardly see you.”

“So, I asked myself: Who are your priorities?”

He checked off his top three: “It’s always been God. My wife.

“Then, at that point, I questioned myself: Did I mean my family, or me? Is the next most important priority my recognition?”

That reckoning would lead him to give notice that he was stepping down from his key positions in church.

“It was a major decision to prioritise my family and I think that was a good decision, because once I was sure what my priorities were – my wife, my children – then there was the recognition that it is more important for me to be a husband and a father than to be a chairman of a committee or a CEO or whatever.”

“With my teachers, I saw our initiatives and programmes coming into fruition before our eyes.”

Tan had opportunities to move on to other roles in his career, “but it was not something I chose”.

He said: “After a run of a few years at ACS (Junior), I was asked if I would consider taking on higher appointments at MOE HQ if offered. I laughed politely at the question and affirmed that there was nothing I enjoyed more as an educator than being a principal, as that is where education happens with life touching life in a very real sense.

“With my teachers, I saw our initiatives and programmes coming into fruition before our eyes.”

That having been said, he offered: “In the job that I had to do as principal, I could do my best and still be allowed to be true to my two priorities after God. Understanding that helped me to move in the direction of making a decision.

“I think for men it’s difficult. For a lot of men, the priority is the recognition they get from their job. When you succeed in your job, you are somebody.”

Joys to behold: In retirement, Peter Tan has more time for his family. From left: Peter, Stacey, Caleb, Samantha, Nathan, Kai Seng, Vanessa and Shawn. Photo courtesy of Peter Tan.

In retirement, Tan has no regrets, and does not look back wistfully. Knowing that no labour in the Lord is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), he said: “I don’t see the need for man’s recognition.”

“Without the business of work I have that space of time for my children, my grandchildren. To me that’s more meaningful.”

The “next space”

There are also others God has introduced, to whom Tan sees himself ministering in what he called “this next space”.

Aside from the informal mentoring of school teachers and principals who come his way, there is his continued involvement with fathers, as well as men carrying emotional hurts which their own fathers had inflicted. 

A visually impaired person in his 50s was connected with Tan through his brother. To this day, this man’s father still puts him down for being disabled.

The husband of a woman whose sight was failing was another person who reached out. Their difficulty was in communication. Tan was able to share with her some of the technological advances he makes use of in the everyday.

“The opportunity to take the time to listen to them, hear their stories, is important.”

“Mostly it has been Christians who have been put in touch with me,” said Tan, who has shared his struggles openly on Salt&Light, and elsewhere. “I’m finding clarity in that.

“All of us have different pain points. The opportunity to take the time to listen to them, hear their stories, is important.

“In a sense we share life when given the opportunity to, for instance about the assistive devices that can give us some level of independence.

“But my hope also is that, in engaging, whether the disability is with their eyesight or some other, they see my dependence on God.

“I read the Psalms quite a lot – David had challenges which were quite astronomical – and it’s very comforting.

“So, in a way, hopefully I can do something like that for others – to be someone who knows what they are going through and can journey with them, hear them out and, if possible, guide them to know the God I know.

“That, to me, is the more important thing.”

Peter Tan’s retirement from the education service in December 2023 after 40 years in education marked God’s fulfilment of His word, “40”, given to Tan when he first started out as a trainee in 1983 in the then-Institute of Education.

Other words spoken by God and works ordained by Him for Tan’s life are recounted in Not By Sight, Tan’s recently launched memoir.

It is available at major bookstores.


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About the author

Emilyn Tan

After years of spending morning, noon and night in newsrooms, Emilyn gave it up to spend morning, noon and night at home, in the hope that someday she’d have an epiphany of God with His hands in the suds, washing the dishes too.