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CEO of St Luke's ElderCare, Dr Kenny Tan, in Jerusalem just before the pandemic struck. The trip would not only prove revelational to Dr Tan, but would result in a book of photos and poems that is helping to raise funds for the elderly. Photos courtesy of Dr Kenny Tan.

When he decided to go on a tour of Israel with his friends from church, Associate Professor (Dr) Kenny Tan did not think that the trip would be anything more than just a personal journey to the Holy Land.

“We had travelled together to many places – Melbourne, Spain – and had always wanted to visit Israel. It was a chance of a lifetime.”

So, in November 2019, just before Covid-19 raced through the globe and put paid to international travel, the group journeyed to Israel to walk the very grounds that Jesus had trodden while on earth.

“During the trip, there were many moments of reflection, during bus rides, between places.”

At these stops, Dr Tan would write poems, some recording his thoughts, others as “a prayer to God”.

Dr Tan (fifth from the left) with his tour group in Jerusalem.

Photographs and poems from the 10-day sojourn would later result in a book that would go to raise funds for St Luke’s ElderCare (SLEC) where Dr Tan is CEO.

1,000 copies of the photo and poetry book Break Through: A Pilgrim’s Journey were printed in time for Christmas 2021 with the hope of raising S$100,000. For every S$100 donated to the charity, a copy of the book would be given.

Mount of Olives overlooking Jewish graves.

Some S$200,000 has since been raised and another 1,000 copies of the book is being printed.

“We didn’t think we would clear the books so quickly. Ye of little faith,” said Dr Tan with a laugh.

This has always been how Dr Tan’s life has been, a road paved with the unexpected.

The unexpected call  

As a youth, Dr Tan had always felt he had “the call of God” to what he thought was full-time ministry work.

Right after his ‘O’ level exams, he wanted to go to Bible school. His family objected because they felt he was too young.

He tried again after his ‘A’ level exams but, again, they say “no”. His results were too good to give university a miss, they said.

Dr Tan (sixth from the left, front row) in his first year of medical school in the National University of Singapore in 1993.

He would go on to earn a place in medical school and, as a medical officer, was working in obstetrics and gynaecology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH).

“I would work these 36-hour shifts and then go for classes. It was interesting but it wasn’t sustainable.”

“Life was very good. I had a good future, prestigious work and I loved delivering babies,” said the 48-year-old.

But he could not shake off the desire to go to Bible school. So, while working as a doctor, he signed up for part-time courses in missions and apologetics.

“I would work these 36-hour shifts and then go for classes. It was interesting but it wasn’t sustainable.”

Then, six months shy of taking his specialist exams to qualify to specialise as an OBGYN, Dr Tan was home listening to worship songs one night when he broke down weeping.

“I was listening to this song With All I Am. There was a line that goes ‘into your hands, I commit again, with all I am, for You, Lord’.

Dr Tan (second from left) with his tour group on the Mount of Olives. The city of Jerusalem is in the background.

“And I started to bawl. I cried and cried. And I was asking myself, ‘Why am I crying?’ And I thought I heard God say, ‘It’s time. You can quit and go to Bible school now.’”

At that, Dr Tan cried even more. He questioned God. Why had God not called earlier? Why did He not call later so that he could finish his specialist exams?

“But the call was so strong. And, with it, came a sense of release as well.”

The answered prayers  

The decision was such a major one that Dr Tan felt the need for confirmation. He spoke to a YWAM missionary who encouraged him to ask God for four signs.

Dr Tan on his first medical mission trip to the Philippines in 1997 in his fourth year in medical school.

With trepidation in his heart, he did just that. “Gideon put three things before God, I put four.”

The first was something small and seemingly frivolous. At the hospital dinner and dance that December, there was a lucky draw. One of the gifts was a digital camera.

He questioned God. Why had God not called earlier? Why did He not call later so that he could finish his specialist exams?

“I told God, ‘If you are calling me, I would like to win the digital camera. I have never won anything in my life.’

“When I won the digital camera that night. I thought: Siao liao, jialat (this is crazy, serious business).”

Over the next six to eight months, God would continue to surprise Dr Tan.

“I told God, ‘If you’re really calling me, I’m such a disorganised person, I will need bookshelves for my books. Can you provide them for me? I’m not going to ask anybody for it.’”

While out with a friend one day at a Christian bookstore, his friend suddenly turned to him and offered to buy bookshelves for him.

Dr Tan on another medical mission trip to the Philippines in 2003. By then, he had already graduated to become a doctor.

“He said, ‘I saw the books and thought of you and I thought I’d bless you with bookshelves.’”

Dr Tan’s third request of God was for a laptop. By then, he was almost certain he had heard correctly and was looking for a Bible school in which to enrol.

God said: “No need to apply for a job. The job will look for you.”

On the way to a mission trip, he received a message from his aunt asking him what kind of laptop he wanted. She was going to buy one for him as a gift even though he had never mentioned his desire to her.

“I thought, ‘Wah, like that also can!’”

The final step came when Dr Tan was on call at the hospital one night. Plagued by a gnawing feeling that “God wanted me to make a decision” and unable to sleep, he decided to write his resignation letter.

“When I sent in the letter the next day, there was so much peace. I was happy because I had finally obeyed.

“But I also broke out in cold sweat. I had just thrown away my career.”

So, came the fourth request.

Dr Tan in the Philippines in 2013. The boy on the right had a major congenital heart condition and was brought to Singapore for heart surgery.

“Now, I needed a job. It had to have flexible timing to allow me to study in Bible school, and spend time in church doing ministry and going for mission trips.

“But it also had to pay enough for me to take care of my school fees and give to my parents. I told God I wasn’t going to ask anyone for the job.”

A month went by and then two. Nothing happened.

Then, while at a church camp in Malaysia, Dr Tan got just the offer he had been waiting for: KKH had a research position that fit his criteria to a tee.

The surprising pivot  

For the next three-and-a-half years, Dr Tan worked part-time at the hospital and did a Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies at the Biblical Graduate School of Theology (BGST) and then a Masters in Education.

“That course was yet another miracle. One year into my studies, I was looking for Masters courses and was drawn to that one but it cost S$25,000.”

“There is no dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. Your whole life is a ministry.”

He took the application form, filled it but never sent it. Instead, he waited a year.

“The next year, the programme manager called me and asked if I was interested in the course. I talked to a church friend and she encouraged me.

“She said that God had proven Himself to me before so I should just go ahead and obey Him.”

But finances were still an issue.

Some time later, his aunt received her CPF payout and gifted him a sum of money. It was exactly S$25,000.

That degree would prove pivotal to Dr Tan’s career.

As the time neared for his graduation, he began to seek God for a direction, thinking that God would lead him into pastoral work. Instead, God told him to “go back to the deep end”.

Dr Tan had always wanted to study in Bible school, believing that, one day, he would become a pastor.

“I asked Him what that meant. And He said to go back to the marketplace. I thought: You’ve got to be kidding me.

“Yet, I heard it very clearly. He said, ‘No need to apply for a job. The job will look for you.’”

At first, Dr Tan found it hard to obey. He sent out his CV hoping to land a job but none came along.

“Nobody wanted me. I’m a doctor and nobody wanted me. That was when I remembered God saying, ‘Don’t look for a job.’

“I repented and stopped.”

While attending his brother’s convocation at the National University of Singapore (NUS), Dr Tan met his old professor. They chatted about what he was doing.

“God had to take me out of medicine to teach me who I really was. I had to learn that my identity is in Him.”

“When I told him I had a Masters in Education, his eyes lit up. He was looking for a doctor with some training in education because they were starting a student affairs unit at the School of Medicine.

“The job had found me.”

Asked if he had ever questioned why God sent him to Bible school only to have him return to the marketplace, Dr Tan said: “Bible school gave me a foundation for marketplace ministry.

“It taught me that there is no dichotomy between the secular and the sacred. Your whole life is a ministry. Your spiritual walk is not limited to Saturday or Sunday or cell group.”

The years in Bible school were also humbling ones. While working part-time at the hospital, Dr Tan saw his contemporaries and even juniors get promoted to senior positions.

“God had to take me out of medicine, put me in some obscure space, to teach me who I really was. Stripped of these titles, who are you?

“I had to learn that my identity is in Him. It used to be in the fact that I was a doctor in O&G.”

A trip like no other  

During the Israel trip, God confirmed once more Dr Tan’s call to do ministry in the marketplace. It was something he needed.

“It has always been my struggle – the call to go to the marketplace. It took many years for me to come to terms with it.”

While on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee – a journey that moved Dr Tan so greatly that “I was crying on the boat” – he was reminded of Jesus’ encounter with a demon-possessed man (Mark 5:1-20).

Dr Tan at the Sea of Galilee, a place he found most meaningful because of all the insights he gained about God and his relationship with God while there.

After Jesus casts out the demons from the man, he offers to follow Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells him to go back to his people and to serve Him by testifying of what God has done for him.

“I felt it was a confirmation to go back to where I had come from – which was the marketplace – and serve Him.

“It was like God was saying, ‘You stay on your side of the lake and impact your people.’ It was very poignant for me.

Mount Arbel overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The mountain is in The Lower Galilee near Tiberias.

“The Sea of Galilee was an important turning point for me in terms of recommitment. I was seeking God – is God calling me elsewhere?”

That reflection is captured in the poem Across the Lake.

On another day, the tour group spotted a flock of sheep. They stopped to take photographs. That was when Dr Tan saw one lone sheep, across the ravine, separated from the rest.

“How did the sheep get there? So near (to the other sheep) and yet so far because there was no way to get across the ravine. Yet it was still grazing.

“That’s like me. Still grazing and doing my own thing, not realising that, oh dear, I have gone so far and there was no way to go back.”

“That’s like me. Sometimes so near, yet so far. Still grazing and doing my own thing, not realising that, oh dear, I have gone so far and there was no way to go back.

“Then, Jesus crosses the ravine, plucks me up and sends me back. Talk about the grace of the Shepherd. All I had to do was to just rest and thank God.”

Out of that encounter came the poem Ninety-Nine & One.

The Science-educated Dr Tan only started writing poetry in 2018. He reckons he has penned some 500 poems so far.

“I was at a retreat and we were told to wake up and go to the beach at 6am to have silence and solitude. The instruction was to spend time with God and write a poem to God.

“I was grumpy but I tried to obey. Surprisingly, as I walked down the beach, I ended up writing two poems. The poetry writing hasn’t stopped since.”

The invitation to reflect 

The poems from the Israel tour would have remained part of Dr Tan’s private collection but for the need the next year to raise funds for St Luke’s ElderCare (SLEC).

Having published two poetry books for charity before, Dr Tan decided to contribute his collection of Israel-inspired poetry and photographs towards SLEC’s fundraising efforts.

The Sea of Galilee can be seen in the background.

The Desert Rose which Dr Tan came across on the way to the Dead Sea. Also known as the Rose of Jericho, it grows in the valley of the Dead Sea on the edge of Jericho in the Judean desert.

Their next challenge was to find the funds to print the books. While hosting two visitors at SLEC one day, Dr Tan and the visitors got to talking about publishing books.

Beyond funding the charity for the elderly, Dr Tan wants to “invite people to go on a journey of discovery”.

“One of the gentlemen, who is not a Christian said, ‘I have given money to organisations to publish books for fundraising. How much do you need?’”

Two days later, he wrote SLEC a S$20,000 cheque to cover publication costs.

“That started us off. Now, we were sure God wanted us to do it.”

Beyond funding the charity for the elderly, Dr Tan wants to “invite people to go on a journey of discovery” with the book.

“One of the poems I wrote was Desert Rose. It is one I identified with the least. But my friend messaged me and told me her friend read the poem and it spoke very deeply to her.

“God can use poetry to speak to hearts. We hope that the book can be used as a pre-evangelistic tool to touch lives.” 

Every donation of S$100 to St Luke’s ElderCare entitles you to a copy of Break Through – A Pilgrim’s Journey as a token of appreciation. The donation goes towards supporting 5,000 elderly people with physiotherapy, transport, milk feeds, diapers, day and residential care. You can donate here.

All donations will receive 250% tax deduction. In addition, donations to SLEC will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Community Silver Trust Fund.


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Honouring the Abrahams in our midst: Why caring for our seniors is part of revival

How you can pray for the Israel-Palestine conflict

About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told, which led to a career in MediaCorp News. Her idea of a perfect day involves a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.