Sunday 25 August 2013

The road less travelled: Dr Tan Lai Yong

By Kim Lee, Published TODAY, 24 Aug 2013

After 15 years of rural medical service in Yunnan, China, Dr Tan Lai Yong, with his wife and teenage children, returned to a more modern and crowded Singapore, bringing home a different perspective on life choices.

Forgoing a comfortable life here, he had chosen to serve the needy by living among them in the Thai-speaking part of southern China.

A one-year volunteer stint in 1996 turned into a 15-year epic. He joined a commune to train its minority ethnic community as Clinical Lecturer at Kunming Medical Centre, where he helped treat the poor, the orphaned, the disabled and the leprous.

He also forged links of friendship between Singapore and China among doctors and other professional groups, initiated a tree-planting programme and started a mobile library for children. This and more earned him the China National Day Friendship Award in 2004. He returned home in 2011 and is now a National University of Singapore Resident Fellow focused on outreach and community engagement.

What helped you cross the cultural barriers?

China in the late 1990s was really developing. All sorts of organisations were coming to run similar programmes. Everybody was always asking me the same things: “What’s the budget? What’s the planning process?” I thought they were missing the point — but one Malaysian doctor said, “I can read about the budgets and the rest. Tell me, who are your friends?”

He was the first person who understood that when we talk about community development, the people need to understand that you are not there to do a research paper and disappear after you get your PhD.

They need to know you are there for the long run. Once they discover that you are loyal, not there to embarrass them or take pictures of the deplorable orphanages or hospitals, but that you are there to go through the difficult times with them and to celebrate life with them, then it works. The budgets and the KPIs are secondary.

How does being Singaporean affect your ethics and perspectives?

It was our aim, when my wife and I were younger, to work with a needy community. The rich can afford access to medicine.

With every vacation we took in the eight years I worked as a doctor here, my wife and I would visit other countries — Sri Lanka, Taiwan — and I would ask: “Can I work here? Three years, five years?” In Singapore, I worked with the prison service, volunteered with the Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens and went to community centres to run clinics.

As a Singapore doctor, I have a choice to work with the very poor or the very rich, or to study. I had Filipino doctors who really wanted to work with the poor, but they didn’t have the financial resources. Really, if you are born in Singapore, you’ve hit the jackpot ... and it is a privilege for Singaporeans to have that kind of choice.

What does public recognition mean to you?

It is affirmation for the work I am doing and affirmation for my family and the team. On the other hand, they are also a sobering reminder. They say you trained 500 village doctors, so China gives you this National Day honour — but in your heart, you realise there are another 5,000 who are not trained yet, and this is just within the region I was living. So awards are just awards.

Why did you come back?

I had been there 14 years. My Chinese is not good enough and the disease pattern had changed — from typhoid prevention and vaccinations to more lifestyle diseases like hypertension and diabetes. You need the right protocols for them and more teamwork; you need to be trainer of the trainers.

I’m a doer, not a leader. I can describe a grand vision and go off and do it myself — and I will be happy with that. So, a younger team needs to come, with better Chinese, better training in systems and computers. I don’t do spreadsheets or flow charts, I still use pieces of paper.

Then there is due diligence. After you have been at something for some time, there is a tendency to take shortcuts. But there are risks in that. It means that I don’t do a proper situation analysis or budgeting, and that habit is not good for the team. It’s why famous musicians keep practising the scales — because it is foundation work. I realised I was not doing the scales, and that was one more reason to come back.

Another reason is my children. They grew up in China and they wanted to be Chinese. I thought they were studying too hard — my daughter went to school from morning to night, spent three to four hours on homework, and six days a week in school. I told her it was time to go back because I wanted her to be more than a bookworm. She asked: “What is wrong? Millions of Chinese do this.”

Do you see Singapore as a thought-leader or trailblazer?

I think we are just a well-run country.

How do you see the heart and soul of Singapore?

I think we have lost a bit of the soul because we blame others as a community. It comes from the present mood of malaise, and I fear that people are using it for political gain — instead of trying to build trust, they are building distrust. It is a good strategy to remove political opponents, but it is not a good strategy to build community.

What Singapore values do you champion?

Singapore has values but we don’t celebrate them enough. For example, how many countries in the world have so many races living together? I don’t know about integration, but just different races living together and not pointing a gun at one another — we have to value that. It is one of the reasons why I brought my kids back ... I want my kids to learn Malay. I want them to have Indian friends.

Does social responsibility have a future here?

In a settled rural community, character, values and personality will shine because when you observe a person for 10 or 20 years, you’ll know if this is a steadfast guy or an honest woman. Social responsibility in a small community hinges on people like that — they are the role models, and community builds around such people.

In an urban society, there is high mobility, people move and change jobs, and things have to get done in a short time. We don’t have time to see character surface, so we use performance in presentations and projects as a substitute to determine worth. I think it is sensible to have community involvement projects and make it a part of the habitual DNA of our citizens. You may complain that people are not doing it with their heart. Well, I see most of my patients with a combination of duty, a sense of reward that they will pay me, a sense of fear if they should sue me, and a sense of compassion ... that’s how it comes together.

So I think it is decent to get our schools and companies to teach social responsibility and lay the foundation, and see where it goes. It is better than saying: “Don’t do it if you’re not doing it from the heart”.

This is an abridged version of an interview that appears in the upcoming edition of SINGAPORE magazine published by the Singapore International Foundation.

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