Unable to Speak Normally, Let Alone Sing
An interview with Jean Tan
Born with a cleft lip and severe cleft palate, Jean Tan was told that she would never be able to speak clearly enough for people to comprehend. Yet through the amazing grace of God and the unconditional and meticulous care of her mother, she has published music albums like Dance (2010), Passage (2012) and Hideaway (2017).
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I am a singer and songwriter. I write, perform and bring music to different people from different sections of society, from the youth to young adults, as well as older people. I do it mainly to share my love for God and some of the experiences that He has given me over the course of my life.
How did your condition affect your childhood?
From very young I knew that I was different. Born with quite a severe cleft palate, I had to go through many operations: the earliest was when I was three months old, to repair the lip; then as a one-year-old to repair the cleft palate, and at nine, they discovered a hole at the top of my gums, which I thought was normal. Then at 15, due to a class 3 malocclusion, my lower jaw had grown out a lot. They had to basically saw it down. So, straight after my 'O' Levels, I went to the hospital. At 17, they also found out that part of my gum was eroding due to the screws which had been put in, and one screw had dropped out. So, I underwent procedures to repair that. And at 18 I had surgery to correct my nose asymmetry. Altogether that makes six operations.
The physical pain was one thing, but the emotional pain was worse. My mum remembers that when I was wheeled out after an operation at one year of age, my little body was twisted in agony and my voice had gone hoarse screaming and crying. For a parent, it was a painful sight to take in. I experienced physical pain only when I grew older, the worst of which was after the 12-hour operation I had to go through at 15. Part of my jaw was sawed off and I could not eat or talk for a month. After that, I had to relearn how to eat and speak again. Emotionally too, there were questions as to why I had to go through all that. Why am I different? You know - my own complaints to God.
I left church when I was 12 and only went back when I was 15. I tried to quell the emptiness by doing well in my studies, seeking perfection in whatever I did. I put that kind of rigour into my studies: when I got home each day, I would do my homework till about 6pm, take a nap for an hour, eat my dinner and study again till around 3am and then sleep and wake up at 6am. There was a kind of insanity in my devotion to my schoolwork. It did produce results but I still ended up feeling very worthless.
When I was around 15-16 years old, there was a lot of anger in me. Whatever I had tried could not really plug the gap. Then, one Christmas, I was in church when my uncle was preaching. I cannot remember the message, but I was crying uncontrollably because I felt the one thing I was looking for so much: the love of God. At that point, I decided to go back to church.
There was still a lot of questioning and anger. Inevitably you compare yourself with other people who look pretty and well. Why did I speak in a certain way? I could not eat properly and I looked different. And of course, there were also the emotional hurdles to get through with all those hospital trips. A sense of unfairness. I guess some people have a decisive point in their lives when things are turned around after attending a revival meeting. My journey has been a long one, with God helping me to overcome mental and emotional hurdles one step at a time.
I have always loved singing. It started with karaoke and then choir. I always had this love for music - playing the piano, strumming the guitar. During my university days, I went for an open mike session at a cafe bar where one of my friends happened to showcase one of her raps. I was spurred on by her confidence. I then started writing songs, one after another. One day I decided to perform them to friends. It began a cycle of affirmation: they liked the songs, and the more affirmation I received, the more I shared. And eventually I came back to Singapore and through divine opportunity, I met Christopher (Chuah), who is the director of Oops! Asia. That paved the way for my songs to be recorded.
Who do you reckon to be the most influential person in your life?
My mum has been very instrumental in my life. God gave her to me. She has a natural gift for being very precise with details. To take care of me, she had to be both meticulous and patient, especially with my condition. For example, I couldn’t suckle as a baby, so I had to be fed teaspoon by teaspoon. A bottle of milk which usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes to drink, took me one full hour. Sometimes after that, I would throw everything up and she had to start over again.
I had to go for speech therapy, but Mum found out that the sessions were not as effective as her own teaching. So she brought me home and effectively taught me how to speak – vowel by vowel, consonant by consonant. The moment I said something wrongly, she would ask me to repeat it again. Subsequently, the speech therapist was so shocked to find that I could speak very well. I was a teacher once, and met a mother at a parent-teacher conference. After discussing about my student, she suddenly broke down in tears, and asked me how I was able to speak so well. She had a son with a cleft condition, and had been struggling vigorously getting her child to speak well. No matter what she tried, she could not help her child speak better. My speech is testimony to God’s grace and my mother’s perseverance.
I recall the 12-hour operation I had as a teen. My jaws were tied and I could not eat solid food. I was on a pure liquid diet for a month, on high-energy milk from the hospital, as well as other supplements from my mum. She would think of all kinds of ways to balance my diet, and would feed me one syringe-full at a time, six to eight times a day. She was always by my side. Before I went for the operation, the doctor said that I would lose about seven kilograms, but by the end of it I had only lost three kilograms because my mum planned my diet so comprehensively . All credit goes to my mum. All these years, it has been really hard on her. She struggled with the same ‘why’ questions, yet had to remain strong for me. God really sent me someone like her.
Was there a time that you had to face all these difficulties alone without your mum?
Yes. Just when we thought everything was getting better, I was diagnosed with a kidney disease in 2010. I was 21 and I had just produced my first album and started my work and I had an ambition to do well. The illness came as a shock - I felt as if I’d been tossed up into the air again. I had to take a long period of hospitalization leave. Even during months when I went back to work, I had to take two to three days medical leave every week. I put on about 16 kg of weight with water retention. I could not walk and stand very much and spent most of my time lying in bed.
My mum was hit very badly because she was older and she was ready to put everything in the past behind us, and now she had to start all over again. It was very tough on her. However, the lesson God was teaching us was that I had to walk this journey on my own and I could not walk this with my mum anymore. That was a tough call for her because she had to let go. But it was also tough for me because I had to stand up on my own, to literally fight the giants of depression and despair. Every time I looked at the medical reports, they would say, "Your cholesterol has gone up six times over. The protein in your blood is abnormally low." What can you do when faced with such a prognosis? You really have to choose to believe that God is still on your side.
I also had to come face to face with the same anger that I had had as a teen, but this time it became full-blown. God really gave me the grace to overcome it and to continue to praise Him still. Having to face questions of loss and long bouts of hopelessness, and to come out of them, was a spiritual breakthrough for my life. At times I could not utter even a single word of prayer. But one night when I gravitated towards my piano and ended up singing ‘Here I am to Worship’, I knew there was a breakthrough in being able to praise even through pain.
Various people praying for me have consistently revealed that ‘the joy of the Lord will be my strength’, especially to fight the battles with depressive and discouraging spirits. I am on my final lap of medication now, slowly reducing it. According to the doctor, there is a 70 percent chance that people will need to come back to medication, potentially needing lifelong medication. I am choosing to believe in God that I’ll be the 30 percent who won’t need it. I am still praying about this. I think I have come a long way.
If you had to go through all these trials and difficulties again, how differently would you live your life?
I would have liked to have learnt the lesson of thanksgiving and praise much earlier, because I think a lot of our sickness and problems come from our minds. There are many lessons that I have had to learn and relearn. No matter what, God is good in each of our circumstances and will make things beautiful at the end of the day. So we should praise God for life, and hope.
What is your life verse?
My Chinese name “En Qi” actually means grace-sufficient. So, 2 Corinthians 12:9 is my life verse. ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness.’ It came about when my mum was thinking of a name to give me, but was still struggling emotionally that her child was born different. This verse came to her twice and she knew that God was speaking to her. ‘My grace is sufficient for you’. And that has proven true through everything I have been through: my speech impediment, emotional pain, searching, and illness. God has proven Himself, time and time again, that no matter what is thrown at me, my weakness becomes strength. The doctors said at birth that people would not be able to understand my speech. Yet I have ended up using it in my profession, and also now sing to glorify God. His grace is sufficient for me.
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness.’
In Singapore, we have access to music from many Christian artists all over the world. Is there a need to have more Christian artists in Singapore?
I have not thought about this from an economic point of view. But if I have been called to do it, I will do it. God has given me a specific message and a story to tell. People will always face challenges in their lives and it always helps to hear one more story. To me, my music is my passion, something I love. It is a medium through which I can express love and convey hope.
Is there a key message embedded in all of your songs?
Not really. But there is a key message in each of my albums. “Dance” is about intimacy with God. “Passage” is about going through a journey, with everything that I have been through: struggle, despair. No matter what you are going through, if you don’t understand it, hang in there – God always gives us cause for hope for the journey, and will turn everything we go through into a beautiful masterpiece.
Jean Tan's influences from folk, jazz and piano ballads lend an interesting style and range of genres to her music, with lyrics filled with much authenticity and soul. Her two albums, ‘Dance’ (2010) and ‘Passage’ (2012), are both available on iTunes and Christian bookstores in Singapore. Her performances take her to various places and occasions, from churches to acoustic cafes and street and rooftop concerts both in Singapore and abroad. Her choral experiences have also taken her across the world to Greece and the Czech Republic for international competitions. Through her performances, she shares stories that speak of life, love and loss, hoping to bring others closer to who they are.