Upfront! with Tan Kai Soon, Person Moving On!

Picture of a person (not Kai Soon) who suffers from muscular dystrophy.
Sometimes, we don’t recognize that what we’ve is precious. Studying may be a daily chore. Walking briskly from one point to another is easy. Taking a bath doesn’t require much effort. We take for granted what we should treasure.

When I first heard of Kai Soon’s academic journey, I wanted to speak to him, to know what he had been through. I wished to find out how an EM3 student eventually achieved an NTU degree despite suffering from progressive muscular dystrophy.

What I found out was more – much more – than what I intended to or imagined would. Thanks, Kai Soon, for sharing your story:

I’m so sorry about this, Kai Soon, but I’m not really sure what the symptoms of muscular dystrophy are. Can you please explain it?

It means that my muscles are wasting away over the years.

When I was younger, I didn’t know that I’ve a muscular disorder. My primary school teacher thought that I had flat foot. I struggled for the NAFA test. I was always tipping and falling for no good reason. Some classmates laughed at me because I took a long time to stand up.

It was hurtful, especially since I had no idea why.

Nowadays, I can thankfully still bathe myself. Ten years down the road, as my body grows weaker, I may not be able to do so.

When did you first realise that you’ve progressive muscular dystrophy?

When I was studying in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), I was diagnosed with this disease. The doctor recommended surgery so that I could walk better.

However, due to my muscle condition after the surgery, I am unable to walk as before and have to rely on the wheelchair to move about now.

For a while, I stayed at home and excluded myself from all social activities.

Thankfully, I’ve very supportive friends and lecturers from ITE.

So, Kai Soon, how had your education journey unfolded?

It was a long journey. EM3, Normal (Technical), ITE (known as Nitec and Higher Nitec after recent curriculum changes), Polytechnic, NTU.

In primary school, I was from the EM3 stream. In secondary school, I was placed in a Normal (Technical) class. I then moved on to achieve an ITE Nitec in Computer Technology and Higher Nitec in Electronics Engineering. Halfway through my Higher Nitec course, I was diagnosed with progressive muscular dystrophy, went for that life-altering surgery and became wheelchair-bound. For a while, I was really upset.

Thankfully, my friends supported me. One lecturer kindly drove me to and fro school for the remaining six months of the Higher Nitec course.

During my ITE days, I discovered the best way to study –

Really? What’s the best way?

There’s no shortcut. Flip through the pages. Study consistently. Spend every moment wisely.

Sorry for interrupting. What about the ITE?

Well, I studied Boodlean algebra then. That topic gave me the courage to believe in myself. If I could solve such algebra questions, I should be able to solve questions on easier topics. From then on, I found studying more manageable.

With my ITE grades, I qualified for a Singapore Polytechnic diploma course. I then moved on to complete an honours degree in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), majoring in Electronics and Electrical Engineering.

Just for interest, why NTU though?

NTU was the first school to offer me a place and, considering that it is more accessible for wheelchair users, I accepted it immediately.

So, after graduating, where did you work?

I applied for work at DSTA and did not manage to get it due to the physical requirement of the job. Actually, I wanted to serve National Service but was turned down as well. In the U.S., they have support such that even physically handicapped people can contribute. How I wish that this is the case too in Singapore.

In any case, I worked for a call center for eight months before I was hired by Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) as part of the support staff.

AWWA has been very helpful. They sponsored a significant portion of my university education loan under the bond-free Be With Me Scholarship. This relieved my financial burden. Currently, AWWA provides me with free physiotherapy once a week – as an employee benefit – to delay my muscular degeneration. Hopefully, it can stretch the period during which I have some form of control over my hands.

Kai Soon, there are so many students who don’t know why they’re studying. They sit in the classrooms – physically there but aren’t really there. They’re tired early in the morning, after assembly, tired before recess, tired after recess, tired before lunch, tired after lunch and tired before going home. In fact, they are listless the entire day! It’s such a shame that the students don’t recognize how precious an education is, the doors that education opens and the opportunities it provides. Do you have any advice for them?

Usually, people with my background would have been out of the education system quite early on. I’m thankful for the chance to get a university education.

And I understand why they feel this way. They’ve no reason motivating them to put in effort. In some ways, no future they can look forward to.

I’ve friends who now tell me that they regret not putting in more effort for their studies. It may sound overused but people do regret not studying harder when they could.

In our lives, opportunities present themselves. Quite often, I didn’t know whether I could make it or not but I wanted to try. When I applied for my polytechnic and university courses, I didn’t know if I could get in. I tried – put in effort and really tried. In the end, I managed to.

Students should believe in themselves, cherish what they’ve and strive for what they want.

Last question – were you ever angry about your condition?

Yes, I was once resentful – how could I not be? Over time, I’ve gotten used to the staring though. I am who I am. You are who you are.

We’re all responsible for our future. What we do now will affect what that will occur. To be honest, I always envisioned myself as an F1 driver. There are many junctions in life. The routes are long and winding. However, along these journeys, opportunities will present themselves. What we need to do is to treasure them.

Thanks, Kai Soon, for sharing. Really appreciate this candid chat.

I reached out to Kai Soon and realized that we couldn’t shake hands. I could only thank him profusely with words and hope that words would suffice.

I had set out to learn more from Kai Soon, to discover lessons that I can share with some students who need help. During the chat, I was humbled and understood more about what that should be important.

Often, we sacrifice what we’ve most willingly, as though it doesn’t matter. We give away what that is precious – our time, our energy, opportunities to study or work or serve national service. We take what we have for granted as though we couldn’t care less.

This really shouldn’t be the case. Once again, thank you, Kai Soon, for sharing your journey.