Tuesday 30 April 2013

Tan Chio Lin: The boy who couldn't go to school

...went on to marry the girl who worked at the bookshop. Together, they raised three children who went on to win nine scholarships and grants for their higher education. Today, one is a fund manager, one a musician and one an artist. A Singaporean family tells its success story.
By Tan Chin Hwee & Tan Kai Syng, Published The Straits Times, 29 Apr 2013

FIRST, there was the boy who couldn't go to school.

Tan Chio Lin began school at age 10. He was a jovial and mischievous boy who loved playing pranks. Seven years later, he left school with no qualifications.

You may think that is the end of the story for this boy. You are wrong.

In fact, it is the beginning.

Tan, born in 1937 in Singapore, was given away as a baby to a family in Johor in Malaysia.

There, his life was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. He had to give up studies to work when his foster parents died. Yet, or because of the adversity, Tan was insatiable when it came to learning and life in general. He loved reading, writing, thinking, imagining and singing. He turned strangers into friends, mastering English, Chinese and Malay along the way. He liked to watch sport, play sport and play the fool. He cracked jokes and whistled a mean tune.

He was passionate and serious about what he was interested in, and worked hard, head down, to become successful in it. He was steadfast - a classic bull, who would push and stretch himself and give his all once he was set on doing something.

In his adult life, Tan made significant strides in different fields in Malaysia and in Singapore, where he came to work at the age of 30: He was a journalist for the Nanyang Siang Pau, a showbiz magazine journalist, a sports commentator and scriptwriter for the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, an advertising canvasser for Lianhe Zaobao and a writer on politics, arts and life in Lianhe Wanbao.

People would ask him which batch of Nantah he graduated from, referring to the former Nanyang University, famous for nurturing Chinese intellectuals, and he would chuckle: "But I left school at 17!"

The young man had an inexpensive hobby, which was reading books in a small bookshop. He met and fell in love with the young woman working there.

Ang Geok Aye had a similar story to Tan's. She had to leave school early, enjoyed writing, had a zest for life and was passionate about learning.

On Oct 5, 1969, they got married and set up home in a one-room flat in Toa Payoh.

Boys who went to school

TWO years later, Chin Hwee was born. Two years after that in 1973, Philip came along, and in 1975, Kai Syng.

Unlike our father, Chin Hwee was able to spend more than 20 years in education, from primary school right up to his postgraduate studies. Chin Hwee's eldest son, Brian, now nine, started to read at two.

The story of our family is unusual in many ways, yet so ordinary in many others.

It was typical, as it was a Mandarin-speaking, working-class family with traditional values. Our father held down several jobs simultaneously to support the family.

Our mother devoted her life, energy and passion to raising us, at the expense of her own. And typical of households then, the misbehaving child was not spared the rod. Shouting matches were followed by beatings, tears and pink cane marks that ran across our thighs.

But it was atypical too, as our parents, who had fought adversity and criticism in their own lives, raised us with the same tenacity, creativity and fearlessness with which they faced their lives - as well as a good dose of humour.

Our household was not run with a "Tiger Mummy" approach. There was no micromanagement. While other parents were sending their children to tuition or enrichment classes - yes, even in the 1980s - we spent time outside school swimming, cycling and playing catch at the void decks, or throwing marbles in the sandpit.

Philip specialised in "catching ghosts" in the boys' toilet in primary school. Way before we subjected our own children to "mind-enrichment" course systems such as MindChamps, our mother was exercising our mind with creative quizzes and puzzles that she invented herself. She was innovative and resourceful - but you would be too, if you had few resources. This was Chin Hwee's training for Mensa membership years later.

Neither did our parents dictate that we should be doctors or lawyers. In fact, when it came to exploring our interests and dreams, they were generous - liberal, "hippy" and "angmoh-pai" or Westernised even. They never once forced their own narratives or society's pressure on us, but allowed and encouraged us to find our own way, shape our own voices and sculpt our own stories, however raw, uncool or uncertain the stories seemed.

Our parents went out of their way to support us in everything we chose to do and gave us the strength to make bold moves.

When Chin Hwee opted for the Chinese High School as his first choice of secondary school, his teachers mockingly said: "Don't waste your choices. You won't get in."

Furious, my mother refused to make any changes. He got in, graduated as one of the top students annually, and went on to Hwa Chong Junior College, Nanyang Technological University, and then Yale University in the United States, winning three scholarships in the process.

Happy music

OUR parents were also ahead of the times in how they opened our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to appreciate the arts.

And this is where the other children's stories come in.

Motivated by their own interest in the arts, our parents encouraged all three of us to join the school military band and Chinese orchestra, and learn the yangqin, clarinet and drums. We even went for drawing classes and private piano lessons. Learning these skills meant that we could entertain ourselves by reconstructing scenes of wars - by drawing on paper, and creating our own sound effects to enliven them.

Philip was very similar to our father in being cheeky and rebellious. He loathed playing the tunes of dead composers, and would bang on the piano keyboard and treat it like a percussion instrument. Even as a kid, Philip composed his own music. He would switch on Rediffusion's music channels and play the piano to "jam" with the musicians.

Restless as he was, he would extend his repertoire by going around the house to hit pots, pans, walls, floors and so on, and generate complex soundscapes.

It was a din - literally and me-taphorically - but our parents never shut us up. In fact, our mother was Philip's conspirator. According to Philip, she was and is the Tan household's "first and best improviser". She would transform nothing into something - something magical.

She would summon us to the dinner table by singing us an operatic recital, complete with improvised lyrics, variations of the original theme and turns of pitches if we still did not budge. In fact, it was she who supplied the pots and pans and encouraged Philip to cook up a riot.

It was our mother too who encouraged Philip as an adult to pursue music as his interest and career. Philip had taken up a diploma in business studies but she knew his true passion was music. It was she who saw the newspaper advertisement of a scholarship to study music at the then Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, and encouraged him to apply. He did, won the scholarship, and three years later, won the SIA Award for top student. He went on to win a National Arts Council grant to read his Masters in Composition at Kingston University.

Today, Philip is a household name in the local cultural scene as a creative director, composer and sound designer well-known for his exuberant improvisational skills and energetic percussive compositions. He has led tens of thousands of spectators in musical jamming sessions at the National Day Parade (2003 and 2008), won the Life! Theatre Awards for Music several times (2003, 2005, 2009 and 2012), and last year cooked up magical worlds of sight and sound as creative director of the OCBC Garden Rhapsody and World Orchid Conference, which its chairman described as a "world-class event that resembles what China did for the Olympics".

All this while, Philip has never forgotten our humble beginnings, and continues to spread his love of music to diverse communities including children, the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped and the sceptics. To us, he simply makes "happy music", music that makes us happy when we hear it, music that makes him happy when he plays it, music that makes people happy when they hear it, and then itch to play it for themselves.

Philip is married to a former music educator who now stays home to care for their three children aged four, eight and 10.

Philip and Kai Syng both won the National Arts Council (NAC) Young Artist Award in 2007, Philip for music and Kai Syng for visual art.

Kai Syng's art career began at age four, when our mother took her all over the island to drawing competitions. When she first expressed interest in going abroad to study fine art at 19, our parents were prepared to sell our four-room flat in Ang Mo Kio to raise the money to fulfil her ambition. Fortunately, she won a scholarship, one of the nine scholarships and grants that the three of us were fortunate enough to attain to fund our higher education.

Today, at 38, Kai Syng, who is single, has returned to school and is completing a PhD in Fine Art at the Slade School in Britain.

And this year, Philip has been nominated for the Cultural Medallion.

Not the end

TODAY, our mother is 66, and our father, 76. They live in a Yishun flat near Philip. Our parents taught us tenacity, the courage to dream and to pursue our dreams. They seemed to embody the world view that there is nothing to lose - not least because they did not have much to lose anyway as we were poor - and that we should realise our vision. Without them, there is no chance that we would be where we are today.

They dote on their six grandchildren, aged two to 10, and scold us if we lay our fingers on them. My father sighs at every family gathering, saying: "I was one person from a small village in Johor Baru - and now I have such a big family! Who would have known?"

We are not telling our story to paint a romantic picture of a "success story". Our story is non-conformist in some ways but also banal at the same time. You will know of stories more moving or dramatic than the one we have shared. You must know someone who was like the young Chio Lin or Philip. You must know someone who grew up in difficult conditions but, with resilience, did okay and raised a family.

Our story does not come with a grand moral. It does not even come with a conclusion since we are still living it. We tell our family's story to raise a few questions:

How do we measure success?

How do we ensure social mobility and meritocracy in our system?

Would you have disallowed your children to make unorthodox decisions and followed society's tastes and trends instead?

As we chauffeur our children to tuition, cultural enrichment and sport classes, do we sometimes forget that there are many possible twists and turns of plot, many different possible outcomes for our stories, many different genres of stories, many kinds of intelligence, many definitions of success and many paths to happiness out there?

As a society, we need to accept broader definitions of success. Enjoy hearing your child's story. Let them learn to write it for themselves. Don't write them off and say "it's over" too soon.

Tan Chin Hwee, a fund manager, is currently president of CFA Society Singapore, a society of chartered financial analysts. Tan Kai Syng is completing a PhD in Fine Art at the Slade School in Britain.

No comments:

Post a Comment