Monday 30 April 2012

The man who helped the Internet go global, Tan Tin Wee

S'pore pioneer came up with solution that enabled multilingual Web, e-mail addresses
By Grace Chng, The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2012

Associate Professor Tan Tin Wee looks at the men and women recently honoured alongside him at non-profit organisation Internet Society's inaugural Hall of Fame and says: 'My contributions pale before theirs.'

But ask Professor Bernard Tan what he thinks of the biochemist who became an unlikely Internet champion, and the former National Internet Advisory Committee chairman says right away: 'His breadth of knowledge and never-say-die attitude have made him a highly effective crusader for the Internet.'

He calls Prof Tan, 50, a 'towering figure for Singapore in regional and international Internet committees and forums'.

Friends and long-time associates describe him as an ideas man, driven, motivated, generous and inspirational. To think that Prof Tan started out as a young biochemist who was only looking for a way to gain electronic access to research information for his own work.

But that interest led him to promoting the use of the Internet among other academics and researchers, and then pushing for it to become accessible to everyone in every language.

Among his achievements from a list too long to publish, he:
- Set up the first Singapore World Wide Web server with Mr Jek Kian Jin, who was with the then National Computer Board; this held the first website for government information services InfoWeb;
- Promoted Internet multilingualism and provided access to the Internet to the deaf and others with disabilities;
- Built the $28 million transnational research Internet link called Singaren-Internet 2, the first between Singapore and the United States;
- Invented Internationalised Domain Name in Applications (IDNA), which became the global standard, that lets websites be named in non-Latin languages and non-Roman script, and championed its test-bedding throughout Asia; and
- Helped Tamil communities in Singapore and Sri Lanka set up Tamil websites.
His first brush with the Internet was in Britain in the 1980s when he was a student at Cambridge University.

'I wanted to use the research network - it wasn't called the Internet then - to access biological databases,' he recalls.

When he returned to Singapore and joined the National University of Singapore as a lecturer in 1991, he plugged into the network which was now the Internet and soon became the university's biggest downloader of data.

'The folks at the university's Computer Centre wondered what I was downloading,' he says. 'When they found out, they asked if I could give talks to lecturers, to demonstrate to them the benefits of going online. I agreed.'

He built Singapore's first online biological and biomedical databases in 1991.

The follow-ing year, he picked up a gold medal from the World Congress on Medical Informatics for his live Internet demonstration of how scientists could use the global network to access information. It was the first of numerous awards that would come his way.

That year, he set up Singapore's oldest and longest operational website,, now renamed, which lets scientists everywhere access biomedical data easily and quickly.

His soft spot for the disadvantaged set him thinking of ways to extend the use of the Internet to them.

In the mid-1990s, as head of TechNet, Singapore's first Internet service provider for the research and development community, he spent his lunch hours helping the disabled.

At the Singapore School for the Deaf's Prince Charles Square premises, he climbed a ladder to wire up the office himself.

'I wanted the hearing-impaired kids to use the software, to be able to do Internet chat with one another and their teacher using the keyboard instead of signing by hand. They could go online to look for information, to learn. A whole new world would be opened to them.'

The school became Singapore's first primary school with Internet access. Prof Tan also helped the Disabled People's Association and Singapore Association for the Deaf set up their websites.

But he dreamt of everyone using the Internet, and for that to happen, the network had to be multilingual.

He and his researchers wrote a program that converted Chinese language computer code into readable images for the Web which at that time did not support multilingual fonts. He extended his solution to the Tamil language and that led to Tamil websites here and in Sri Lanka.

By 1998, Web browsers supported multilingual content but Internet addresses were still locked in the English alphabet. So he came up with a solution that was tested throughout Asia, but found himself blocked by Internet engineers and Internet Society policymakers.

They were opposed to 'tinkering' with something so fundamental as the Domain Name System (DNS) which was responsible for mapping Web addresses into memorable words such as

'They said that the DNS must remain pure and that something bad would happen if we tinkered with it,' he recalls. 'Our software was adopted by the different Web browsers. Nothing bad happened when people used the browsers.'

By 2003, Prof Tan and his team had authored the Internet standard Internationalised Domain Name in Applications (IDNA). But it was not until 2010 that the standard was ratified, allowing all kinds of language scripts to appear in Web and e-mail addresses.

'This effort was such a lesson for me. It wasn't about the technology, it was about lobbying and political manoeuvres. It took a lot more time and effort than I had dreamt.'

Those who know Prof Tan knew he would persist in pushing through what he believed in, because he never took 'no' for an answer.

Bioinformatics Centre manager Mark De Silva, who has known Prof Tan for 16 years and worked with him on several computing initiatives, said he was always thinking five to 10 steps ahead of everyone else.

But working with the man can be both frustrating and rewarding. 'You have to figure out what he is talking about,' says Mr De Silva. 'But once you get it, your own boundaries are pushed and that makes us better at what we do.'

For Prof Tan, his Internet experience has been one enjoyable roller-coaster ride, and he sees ever more possibilities for the Internet. He is excited by what the future may hold as human genetic data becomes accessible online.

'Today we can sequence all the genetic information. All this data will be secured and anonymised and available on the Web, easily accessible by scientists who will use them to get more discoveries. People will also learn more about themselves by accessing the information,' he says.


Internet pioneer Tan Tin Wee, 50, was inducted into the Internet Society's inaugural Hall of Fame in Geneva last Monday.

The biochemist did much to promote Internet development and organisations in the Asia-Pacific region, with a personal mission to make the Internet accessible to everyone, including the disabled and those who do not speak English.

The Hall of Fame was initiated to mark the 20th anniversary of the Internet Society, a non-profit organisation that looks after the global network's policies, technology standards and future development.

Associate Professor Tan, who is with the Department of Biochemistry at the National Universty of Singapore's Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, was among 33 Internet champions honoured.

They included its most influential engineers and evangelists such as Mr Vinton Cerf who co-wrote the software that runs the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the Web, and Mr Al Gore, former United States vice-president.

Prof Tan was nominated by Mr Rajnesh D. Singh, the Internet Society's regional director for Asia, who said: 'I hope his recognition by ISOC also brings him credit here in Singapore and the region.

'People in the early days of the Internet and its development did not really do what they did for the glory, but because it was a good thing to do so that the Internet could realise its potential.'

Prof Tan is also considered the father of bioinformatics in Singapore, for founding the Bioinformatics Centre in 1996, and is heavily involved in regional and global bioinformatics organisations.

He is chairman of A*Star's Computational Resource Centre and is looking into ways of providing supercomputing resources to research agenices here.

Married with two children, he is Master of Eusoff Hall at NUS.

For good, not glory
'People in the early days of the Internet and its development did not really do what they did for the glory, but because it was a good thing to do so that the Internet could realise its potential.'
MR RAJNESH D. SINGH, the Internet Society's regional director for Asia, who nominated Prof Tan for the Internet Society's inaugural Hall of Fame

Big lesson
'This effort was such a lesson for me. It wasn't about the technology, it was about lobbying and political manoeuvres. It took a lot more time and effort than I had dreamt.'
PROF TAN TIN WEE, on getting Web and e-mail addresses to go multilingual

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