Award-winning medical missionary-turned-lecturer Dr Tan Lai Yong once dreamed of being a grass cutter
by Gemma Koh // September 21, 2022, 6:01 pm
He grew up in a one-room rental flat, then went into a profession that could have given him a life of material wealth. So why did Dr Tan Lai Yong (pictured in China) choose to serve marginalised and rural communities? All photos courtesy of Dr Tan Lai Yong.
For the first seven years of his life, Dr Tan Lai Yong was not allowed to leave the one-room rental flat he shared with six older siblings and his parents.
It was for his own safety, his stay-at-home mother decided. Their area around Kallang Airport was rife with dangerous gangs in the 1960s.
“My dream job was to be a grass cutter.”
“Once or twice a year, my mum would bring us downstairs to play,” Dr Tan, now 61, shared.
“She warned me not to go near the canal where it was muddy and dangerous; there were snakes, and the tall lalang (coarse grass) would cut my fingers.”
His father eked out a living as a pirate (illegal) taxi driver. The family could not afford to send him to kindergarten, let alone purchase toys or a TV. So Dr Tan passed his days “imagine-playing with brooms and utensils”.
“I also spent a lot of the time looking out of our seventh floor window watching the world go by,” he said.
He was especially fascinated by the grass cutters maintaining the area, as well as Indian cattle raisers cutting the grass to feed goats and cows.
They would manually cut the lalang by swinging a sickle – a long pole with a blade tied to it – overhead.
“My dream job was to be a grass cutter.
“The grass cutter was fearless. He could go up to the edge of the canal. He was not afraid of the gangs, the snakes, the lalang, the river. This guy could go to the ends of the earth,” Dr Tan recalled.
Little did Dr Tan foresee how his early hunger to explore would one day lead him to China to work with rural communities. He would come to be nicknamed “the barefoot doctor” and “the wandering saint”.
ABCs for food
When Dr Tan was seven years old, his mother told him that he had to go to school like his gor-gor and jie-jie (older brothers and sisters). He had no clue what to expect.
“She told me that going to school was to fan (Cantonese for play). I thought it was the best thing in the world.
On his first day of school, young Dr Tan didn’t understand what the English or Chinese language teachers were saying. He didn’t respond when they called his name (which incidentally means “come glory”).
“I only knew that my name was ‘Ah Weng’ (what my mum called me in Cantonese).”
“I only spoke Cantonese at home, and had no exposure to other languages.
“I only knew that my name was ‘Ah Weng’ (what my mum called me in Cantonese),” he said.
Dr Tan didn’t know his ABCs either. And in the first week of school, he was not allowed to go for recess until he finished writing the alphabet.
“I could see my mother standing outside the classroom with food for me. So my game plan was to get out and eat the food she brought,” he said.
Motivated by food, he quickly learnt his ABCs.
Danger during Job Week
It was only in Primary 3 that Dr Tan was allowed to go about on his own.
“Then something happened when I was in Primary 5 that verified what my mum said about the dangers of our area,” he recalled.
Dr Tan had joined the Boy Scouts, and during Job Week, he and his friend Dr Tan Mann Hong (now an orthopaedic surgeon) went door-to-door asking for chores to do in return for small donations.
“On a lonely path near the old Gay World amusement park, a bigger sized teenage boy – a neighbourhood thug – came between us and put his arms around our necks,” Dr Tan recalled.
“He accused us of insulting his brother, and tried to extort 10 or 20 cents from us.”
But thanks to Mann Hong, who had his wits about him, the two young scouts reached the bus stop and escaped on a bus.
Man on a mission
Dr Tan’s world opened up in an unexpected way when he was in Secondary One in 1974.
He had joined the Christian programme Youth for Christ, located next to his secondary school, where he read the Bible for the very first time.
“Coming from a restricted childhood, reading about Jesus Christ opened up the world for me. He sailed the seas, walked into Samaria.
“He was alive to me. He went places and told stories about people like robbers in the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).”
As a young boy, Dr Tan knew first-hand what it meant to have people come to steal and destroy.
One Bible verse in particular left a big impression.
It was Acts 1:8, which read: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
“I had a picture of the grass cutter who could go right up to the canal where no snake, gangster or lalang was going to affect him,” he said.
Dr Tan was also fascinated that Jesus spent time with people like outcasts and lepers, whom most would not usually associate with.
Another Bible verse, John 10:10, captured his attention. In it, Jesus said: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
As a young boy, Dr Tan knew first-hand what it meant to have people come to steal and destroy.
“The promise of ‘life abundantly’ attracted me to be a Christian. That was a transformation.”
He was nurtured by Bethesda Frankel Estate Church, which has a strong focus on missions – spreading the love of God through good deeds.
“Growing up, going on missions was part of the Christian experience,” said Dr Tan, who was 20 when went on his first mission trip to a country up north.
“I didn’t know what university was”
Dr Tan would see how God would direct his path to becoming a doctor.
While doing NS (National Service), he planned to sign on to the army as an infantryman.
He thought he had failed his ‘A’ levels and didn’t bother to go to Temasek Junior College to collect his results. It was too far from camp.
Dr Tan also admitted to the professors: “Even if you give me a place, I don’t have the money to go.”
Dr Tan’s former classmates only managed to get through to him at night via the platoon’s public payphone, which was perpetually engaged. They told him about his good results. In disbelief, he assumed they had mixed him up with someone else in his platoon with a similar name.
Dr Tan shared the news of his unexpectedly good ‘A’ level results with his platoon mates. He was unsure of what to do next.
“I didn’t even know what a university was,” he admitted.
One platoon mate advised Dr Tan to apply to medical school. He was Mann Hong, his old Boy Scout pal who had gone to a different secondary school.
Dr Tan believed that it was by God’s hand that the two of them had ended up as bunkmates in NS.
“God is kind. He put Mann Hong beside me,” said Dr Tan.
Someone helped him to get the application form for medical school and paid for the $5 application fee.
Dr Tan was shortlisted for an interview, but did not give a first good impression.
“Through God’s provision of friends and finances, I saw education as a gift, a privilege.”
“I got lost and was 10 minutes late,” he said. An interviewer also chided him for sitting down before they invited him to do so.
Dr Tan also admitted to the seven senior professors on the interview panel: “Even if you give me a place, I don’t have the money to go.”
But he needn’t have worried. He received a PSC (Public Service Commission) bursary that enabled him to study medicine.
Again, Dr Tan credited this to God’s goodness.
“Through God’s provision of friends and finances, I saw education as a gift, a privilege,” he said.
Welcome to the jungle
While in NS, Dr Tan was chosen to serve in the aviation medicine course in the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Only seven medical officers are picked for the highly-coveted role each year.
“It was high-tech, cutting-edge, and there was aircon in the office,” he said.
Subsequently, Dr Tan got wind about an overseas posting in a jungle. The assigned doctor would need to check on the water supply, keep an eye on the sewerage and toilets of the camp, and care for trainees and the communities around it.
Dr Tan volunteered for the work.
Why was he willing to give up creature comforts for a camp in a jungle with no proper toilets?
“The experience was going to be very important in my long-term interest to work with rural communities,” he explained.
“It was a wonderful opportunity. Where else could I learn about sanitation and public health?” he asked.
Dr Tan thanked God for providing a way to merge his love for missions with his view of medicine as a gift.
Called in to see the boss
Dr Tan put in his request to be transferred to the jungle. His higher-ups were understandably less than thrilled.
He was called in to see his boss, the Chief Air Force Medical Officer.
Major (Dr) Peng Chung Mien – who later became a Colonel – asked: “Are you serious? MOs (medical officers) are trying to get into the Air Force and you want out?”
Dr Tan explained that his plan was to work in missions.
The Major asked if he had bought property in Singapore.
Dr Tan replied that he had bought an HDB flat which would give him a home, along with the freedom to go on overseas missions. He told the Major: “If I had bought private property, I won’t go. Because I will have to keep earning money to finance a mortgage.”
Satisfied that Lai Yong had “thought about it, counted the cost and was serious about it”, the Major – who is currently an elder at Bethesda (Bedok-Tampines) Church – signed the release letter.
Dr Tan’s one-year stint at the overseas jungle camp turned out to be a highlight of his life.
Along with new skills, he also picked up a new language.
As a doctor, Dr Tan is currently able to take someone’s medical history in Thai and Malay, and speaks functional Teochew, Hokkien and Cantonese.
Afterwards, Dr Tan would also give up a coveted stint at a major hospital, to become a prison medical officer instead.
In 1996, he left to be a medical missionary in a rural, Thai-speaking part of southern China for 15 years.
Dr Tan received numerous awards for his work in China that included efforts to alleviate poverty, develop the community and train village healthcare workers. One award was presented by former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.
But Dr Tan and his family returned to Singapore in 2010 because he felt that he was being treated “like a VIP” there, which was “dangerous for my soul“.
“In God’s kingdom, the heroes are the silent ones.”
“Medical missionaries are put on a pedestal. People say ‘Wow, you gave up so much’,” he said.
“I have classmates who went off to even tougher postings, like to the slums in one Asian country.
“In God’s kingdom, the heroes are the silent ones. Other people, like teachers and homemakers, also give up a lot for Christ.”
On his return to Singapore, Dr Tan rejected well-paying offers from major healthcare players. Instead, he chose to teach university students about the harsh realities faced by marginalised groups like ex-offenders, migrant workers and red-light workers. Students learn about the trauma of childhood abuse and debate policies that may have led to income inequality.
Today, Dr Tan is in transition. He works a few months of the year as an adjunct associate professor at the College of Alice & Peter Tan at the National University of Singapore. He and his wife are also learning a new language and culture as they prepare to work in remote islands around the Asean region.
Life of abundance
Dr Tan lives a life of abundance, but not in the way some would see it. His focus isn’t on owning supercars – or even a car – and mansions.
Neither is his focus on deliberately living a frugal life.
For example, he takes the bus because it gives him time to read.
“I’ve read books like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Knowing God by JI Packer all on the bus,” he likes to tell people.
“When Jesus said ‘I come to give you life, and life-abundantly’, He was not promising material things, but the fullness of relationships.
“I have experienced this fullness: God has given me the privilege of studies, friends and fellowship at church. It sounds logical – rather than mystical – to bring this kind of relationship to other communities.”
This story first appeared in Stories of Hope.
Support Dr Tan Lai Yong’s birthday triathlon
Dr Tan celebrated his 61st birthday and the passing of the pandemic by taking part in a triathlon on September 4, 2022. It was to raise funds for the work of the care and counselling team of St Luke’s Hospital. They provide psychosocial support to distressed patients and their caregivers who may be experiencing burnout. You may wish to support Dr Tan’s fundraising effort here (till September 30).
St Luke’s Hospital started as Singapore’s first hospital to serve the elderly sick. It has since expanded its services beyond the elderly to enrich more lives. The Institution of a Public Character cares for 2,300 inpatients and 3,500 outpatients each year, regardless of race, language or religion.
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