Peter Tan and QSS students

Encouragement's value: Peter Tan (in orange) affirming his Queensway Secondary School students on his Facebook page when they partnered with Rainbow Centre students in Singapore's first Play Inclusive! Photo courtesy of Peter Tan.

Peter Tan’s father was largely absent in his life. He would return most evenings for dinner, then leave by about 9pm. He stayed the night only once a year, on Chinese New Year’s eve.

“I never enjoyed Chinese New Year Eve because he would come home and quarrel with my grandparents over money, and that would make everyone miserable – particularly my mum. We were poor. Growing up was always tough.”

His dad even had to be reminded to register Tan for Primary 1. He walked the 15 to 20 minutes from their home to ACS – his own alma mater – and joined the already-long queue.

“The discipline master just said, ‘Get up.’ And, like a typical naughty student, he followed his discipline master.”

“People would queue two days, two nights, for this kind of thing. He was right at the end of the line, so he just squatted there.”

His former math teacher, who was also the discipline master at the time, walked by, saw him and asked: “What are you doing here?” 

“He said, ‘To register my son.’ The discipline master just said, ‘Get up.’ And, like a typical naughty student, he followed his discipline master.”

Tan was thus registered in the same school he would someday be principal of.

“If it was not for God’s hand I wouldn’t be in ACS. There was no way, because my father was right at the end of the line.

“So I’ve always said God wanted me to be in ACS to do the things that He wanted me to do.”

Don’t wait

Dad was “a hard man” who spoke little to his two sons, but two brief conversations stick with Tan to this day.

“I remember one evening when I was about 10 years old. There was this swing in my grandpa’s place, and we were sitting there.

“He thought for awhile, and he said, ‘We’re placed on this earth to make other people happy.’”

“I just asked him something like, ‘Why are we placed on this earth?’ He thought for awhile, and he said, ‘We’re placed on this earth to make other people happy.’

“To a large extent, that one statement from him has impacted my life. It was said with such sincerity that it really sank into me.”

Those same words were not easy to come to terms with, when it came to light that Tan’s father had another wife and family. That was the reason he was never around.

He attended Tan’s wedding in 1988, but would not take his place at the main table and sat instead with his other family, who was also invited. When Tan’s children were born, his dad did not turn up.

A vision of faith: The family of Shawn, Samantha, Stacey and Peter Tan. Photo courtesy of Peter Tan.

Tan’s mother maintained a civil relationship with her husband, and even took in his firstborn son from his other marriage and raised him. It was she who informed the family when Dad was hospitalised over Easter weekend in April 2014.

“I went to visit him,” Tan recounts. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Come for what? Nothing wrong with me. Go home, go home.’ 

“For the first time, he said to me, ‘I’m very proud of you.’ I needed to hear that.”

“Then, Monday morning I got a call from the hospital. They said, ‘You’d better come down now and get everybody.’”

Tan rushed to the hospital to find Dad – once a heavy smoker – uncharacteristically frail and on oxygen. While waiting for Stacey and their children, Samantha and Shawn, to arrive, Tan had a chance to be alone with him.

“For the first time, after so many years, he said to me, ‘I’m very proud of you.’ First time. In all my life.

“He said, ‘I know everything you have been doing. I read it in the newspapers. I’m very proud of you.’ ”

Tan collects himself as his voice breaks. “I needed to hear that.”

“I remember telling the parents of ACS(BR) students, and especially the fathers, ‘Don’t wait till you are dying to tell your son that you are proud of him. Your son needs to hear that you are proud of him.’”

The call

Tan’s father had been distant all his life, and even when Tan’s younger brother, Bob, passed away, “he was there for all the nights of the wake, but he would not make an effort to talk or anything”.

Bob Tan Chong Li collapsed unexpectedly after his regular Sunday game of football on January 1, 2010. He would have been 48 that year.

Before Tan and his wife could even pick his mum up for the hospital, Bob’s friend called and said: “Your brother didn’t make it.”

“When he placed his hand on my back I just went down – laid on the ground just feeling the warmth of God.”

“I was so stunned. It was the most difficult thing, having to break the news to my mum,” Tan says quietly. 

An obituary was placed in The Straits Times for January 3, 2010. Unbeknownst to them, the black-and-white ad would set the stage for another miracle to happen.

Tan’s family had lost touch with his youngest paternal aunt. All they knew was that she had travelled to Hong Kong after the death of her father, the Tan family patriarch.

“A couple of weeks after my brother passed away, my mum got a call from this aunt.

“The one day that we put up the obituary was the day that a (random) couple from Singapore was going to the Philippines to visit my aunt. It seems she had become a Christian and was in the Philippines as a missionary. This couple was going to work in the mission with my aunt, and that was the one newspaper they had brought.

“Typical Singaporean, my aunt pored over the newspaper and saw my brother’s photo. So, she came out from the village where she was working to call my mum and witness, ‘Look, your sons are all Christians; you really want to pray about that.’ ”

Tan could hardly believe his ears when his mother related all this. He had been praying over 30 years for his mum’s salvation, and urged her anew to really give it a thought.

She started accepting invitations to go to church and, after attending a rally, she told him: “I’ve accepted Christ.”

Miracle after miracle

God’s miracles in his life were not over.

His eyesight has been in gradual decline as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic eye disorder in which the retinal cells die. A patch that appeared on his right eye hindered his vision, and he contemplated resigning because he felt he could not do his job effectively.

“God, show me what else I can do and I just trust that journey with You.”

“Recognising people was a tremendous challenge. How to be a school principal? I have to engage with students, I have to engage with parents, teachers – I can’t even see who they are.

“I was telling God, ‘If You need to do something You have to do it soon. If not, show me what else I can do and I just trust that journey with You.”

At the time, Tan had several prayer groups going. One fortnightly appointment was with two of the ACS chaplains, Rev Barnabas Chong and Rev Lek Yong Teck. They were praying one day for “revival and a breakthrough of God’s love into the lives of the students, the teachers, the parents” when a cyst Tan had on his right ear burst.

“There was no blood, just a lot of liquid. I was quite relieved, and we just continued praying.” All by itself, the cyst healed, Tan testifies. “That was the first breakthrough.”

Subsequently, there was a Good Friday prayer meeting in his church, Barker Road Methodist Church. Healing ministry was offered but Tan didn’t stand.

“It’d been such a wonderful evening of worship and prayer, I didn’t want to spoil it. People have been very kind; I’ve been prayed over many times. I just wanted to linger in God’s presence.”

Peter Tan (back row, in checked shirt) with fathers from ACS (Junior), ACS (Barker Road), Fairfield Sec and St Andrews coming together to pray for their students, teachers and Singapore. Photo courtesy of Peter Tan.

The leader issued the invitation many times, and Tan was suddenly standing after the final call. “It must have been the Lord, because I wasn’t going to stand.”

A group of 20 or so people gathered around, and a good friend of Tan’s stood behind him. “When he placed his hand on my back I just went down – laid on the ground just feeling the warmth of God.

“As I was lying there, I felt some things moving in my eye region. I laid there as long as I could and then got up. I looked around, nothing had changed.”

It was only in the morning on Easter Sunday that his bedroom looked different and he realised the patch blocking his vision was gone. “I kept looking in the mirror. That thing is gone! That was something really miraculous and only God could do it!”

Be thou my vision

The patch has never returned, but the retinal degeneration continues and Tan has been declared legally blind.

“The doctors say there’s no healing. If there’s healing it must be from God.”

As advised by his eye doctor and encouraged by Stacey, he submitted to learning to use the white cane.

“The doctors say there’s no healing. If there’s healing it must be from God.

“To me, to accept that I’m blind is like not having the faith that I would ever be healed. That was something I struggled with for a very long 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 is needed.”

He attributes the courage to live out his convictions to the open heavens he finds at dawn. “I think a lot has to do with the time with God. I’ve had many hours, days sometimes, just waiting on God and always knowing His presence.

“Even in the very dark moments, sometimes very severe challenges, I thank God for the little faith that I can hold on to – to believe that He would not leave me. (Hebrews 13:5)

“Sighted or not, I will serve the Lord, all the days of my life.”

“Fathers, don’t wait till you are dying to tell your son you are proud of him”: Veteran educator Peter Tan

This is the second of a two-part story on veteran educator Peter Tan’s faith journey. You can read the first part here.

About the author

Emilyn Tan

Emilyn once spent morning, noon and night in a newsroom in the US, then in the Mediacorp office in Singapore. She 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.