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The Oil That Never Runs Dry

Dr Tan Lai Yong is an unusual man, a man that seems somewhat out of step with our Singaporean ‘kiasu’ (fear of losing out) mentality. Here, Dr Tan speaks of the people and ideas that influenced him.

To every man there openeth

A way, and ways, and a way.

And the high soul climbs the high way,

And the low soul gropes the low.

And in between, on the misty flats,

The rest drift to and fro.

But to every man there openeth

A high way and a low —

And every man decideth the way his soul shall go. ~ John Oxenham

IMPACT: How has Oxenham’s poem shaped your thinking and your faith?

Lai Yong: This poem is a word picture for me – that Christ took on the lowest of all low ways i.e. the Cross, so that as a forgiven and redeemed sinner, I now have the opportunity for discovering life and not just drift along. I first read this poem from a book by Isobel Kuhn.

IMPACT: You moved to Yunnan with your family in 1996 and rejected well-paying offers from healthcare players when you came back in 2010, choosing instead to teach university students about the realities faced by marginalised groups. Why the road less travelled?

Lai Yong: Some of my esteemed peers had chosen to serve in other even more challenging and sacrificial situations. My choice of being an educator is to take on the privilege of mentoring the next generation, developing my teaching skills and meeting people from diverse backgrounds. I didn’t set out to be different but it seemed to turn out that way. The writer Frederick Buechner said it well, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ( Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

IMPACT: Was there anyone who helped kindle your passion for teaching?

Lai Yong: My Sunday School teacher, Mr Roland Tan, exhorted me, “If God calls you to be His servant, don’t stoop to be a king.” That gave me a lot to think about; how in Christ’s kingdom the whole way of evaluating service is different. Good Sunday School teachers and mentors gave me a big picture as well as definite challenges. It would be a privilege for me to play the same role to the next generation.

IMPACT: Looking back on the decisions you have made, was there a struggle to choose a different way?

Lai Yong: One constant struggle is in the area of money. Being a Singaporean and knowing the trends in property prices, it is savvy to “invest”. When I first arrived in Kunming, it was a boom town. Not just Kunming, but also Yunnan. We all knew that property prices were very low but would rise.Tthere is nothing wrong with investing, but is this what I came to do?

I tried to imagine what people around me would say after ten years, “Wow, this Dr Tan is good. He came and served the poor but also made a pile of money through shrewd investments.” Was that what I wanted to go home with? With a somewhat heavy heart, I had to repeatedly say “no” to decent investments because I felt it wasn’t my high way. I didn’t go to Yunnan to train village doctors, and make investments on the side. Those decisions didn’t come easy.

IMPACT: What helped you recalibrate back to God every time you had those struggles?

Lai Yong: Psalm 37 has always been very helpful with making good, better and best decisions. Reality bites. There’s tendency to focus on fretting and being envious, and not on the people out there. Instead, ‘Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord…’ As Christians, we know that God will shape the desires of our heart.

IMPACT: Were there people that you admired and looked up to for encouragement?

Lai Yong: Dr Andrew Ng, a missionary surgeon who served at Galmi hospital in Niger, was a very humble man. He encouraged us in a very frank way. I remember, as a young doctor, asking him what specialty I should choose. I was bonded to public service for eight years anyway and thought of using those years to train as a specialist.

He asked a very strange question, “Can you play second fiddle?” He then explained that as a missionary surgeon, a lot of his time was spent on routine work e.g. treating coughs and colds, changing bandages. There was no-one else to do it, so that he could be freed to do what he was trained for as a specialist.

A very hard question for me to stomach. He was already playing second fiddle. Reflecting on Oxenham’s poem, the high way doesn’t mean success but meaning and purpose.

I think Andrew was prophetic. I discovered over the years that my strength is in playing second fiddle. I work best supporting someone. I make quite a mess when I am the number one leader. I do better when I am number two or number three — to support, give ideas and feedback or run a show. Whenever I face a situation where I’m asking myself if I should take over, I remember his advice, ‘Can you play second fiddle?’

That little conversation helped me understand that to every man there openeth a way, and ways. Being a second fiddle has taught me many things.

IMPACT: Would you describe that as a Damascene moment for you?

Lai Yong: Maybe not so dramatic, but it challenged my worldview. As a young person, you are taught - especially in today’s context - to reach for the stars, follow your passion, you can be who you want to be.

So, how can you be a supporter? If you are not number one, you are not excellent — that’s not true, is it?

IMPACT: Even in Christian work, there are ministries perceived as more glamorous than others. What type of ministries do you gravitate towards?

Lai Yong: I am drawn towards the ones with less red tape, and try to avoid those that are numbers orientated. I seldom use the word “ministry”. I am more comfortable with words like ‘vocation’. I look at the book of Ephesians on Christian doctrine and Christian living — the orthodoxy precedes the practice. Ephesians teaches that Christ is supreme and Christians should express Christ as Lord in our relationships — husband and wife, parents and children, employer and employee. These are the three relationships that Apostle Paul talks about — Christ being supreme in all three. It is those relationships that I want to invest in — at work or at home, in church or society.

Any so-called Christian ministries that invest in these relationships deeply, I will gravitate towards. I was once invited to speak in a church where the church leader told me, “Dr Tan, come and challenge our church! We have over 20 doctors in our midst and they should go out on short term missions.” I got to know some of the doctors and we did a mission presentation. At the end, I told them, “Hey, you are young doctors or professionals; I welcome you to Yunnan. Bring your kids. Sit under the pine trees and have a picnic with some of my youth. Go to bed early and rest for the week. You have a huge workload. I am not sure if a mission trip has a place at this stage of your life, because it will take you away from your family but I want you to invest in your family. Come to Yunnan and have family time together with the families that I work with.”

IMPACT: How would you respond to people who say that you are “one of a kind” or a contrarian?

Lai Yong: I often don’t need to respond to that. A person is responsible to live his life before the Lord. I would encourage that person to read books like “The Normal Christian Life” by Watchman Nee. I don’t think I set out to be a contrarian. But we live our lives to celebrate the opportunities, the realities of what God has enabled us to do.

Maybe communion would be a better word. Communion brings things together. Communion of spiritual life. There ought not be a secular or spiritual divide between Sundays and week days. There is a lot of meaning and purpose when I bring these together,

IMPACT: Would you have chosen a different way?

Lai Yong: Oxenham’s poem is quite sombre. I would love to have the same message but with some humour. Looking back, I wish I could have been less antsy, less impatient and laughed a bit more. I have written way too many complaint letters.

IMPACT: How have your parents influenced you to be the person you are today?

Lai Yong: My parents are simple folks. They didn’t have a formal education. Like many Singaporean families back in the 60s, paying the monthly bills was always a challenge. But they didn’t worry and were not anxious.

There were seven kids in our family and we all lived in a one-room flat. At one point, we even had a foster kid so, there were 10 people in the house. Many nights after dinner, my parents would say, ‘Ok, good night’. And they would go and watch an English movie for 50 cents. I always wondered why as they do not know English! We would ask to tag along but their answer was always ‘No’. They had no problem leaving us at home.

When I was a residential fellow in NUS, there were a few occasions when I organised parental visits to our residential college. When the parents came, I would ask some undergrads to share some things that their parents did during their ‘A’ levels which were helpful and some things that were not so helpful. This was unrehearsed but time and time again, some would say, “I wish my parents were not so anxious. The anxiety ate into everyone.” The students were even more nervous, not only coping with their exams and personal expectations, but their parents’ anxiety as well. When parents become anxious, their priority is somewhere else and not celebrating that their child is in school.

I am very thankful that my parents, though under trying situations, were not very anxious for our future. They reminded us very plainly and simply of the responsibilities in National Service and later at work. Life can be tough, but you need to be responsible. That was it.

IMPACT: What is the best thing you can leave behind for your children?

Lai Yong: We give them a happy and fun childhood. Once we trekked up to the border of Myanmar and Yunnan hiking on a forested mountain in a geothermal area. There were two waterfalls. One had hot water from a hot spring. The other had cold icy water. I watched my son jump from one to the other. I said to myself, ‘Wow, what an amazing experience!’ I had never swum in a waterfall pool before and now these kids could swim in both the hot spring and cold waterfall pools.

I thanked the Lord many times for giving our kids a childhood of discovery. You don’t have to go overseas to do that. A lot of these can be found in the playground. I remember once returning to Singapore when my daughter was a little older than a toddler. I thought I would bring her to Marine Parade as she had never been to the seaside and introduced her to swimming. Bad mistake. I brought her into the sea; waves came and salt water splashed into her eyes and she got frightened and cried and then she didn’t want to go in again.

During the next vacation back in Singapore, we went for a picnic together with a church friend whose three kids love the sea. I just sat on the beach together with my daughter. Within minutes after my friend’s kids played in the sea, my daughter went to join them on her own.

It really takes a village to raise a kid. So, I encourage parents to let kids play together. I would like to leave my children a lifetime of interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. They enjoy and learn new things and conquer their fears. There is a saying: “Instead of just leaving them an inheritance, I want to leave them a legacy.” And there is always a legacy of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God is your guide (Ps 48). That is the legacy I would like to leave for my children.

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