He was a self-taught swimmer who competed in the 1956 Olympics, the region’s first Rhodes Scholar, former senior minister of State…and over the decades, much has been written in the press about Singapore’s original multi-hyphenate whose name is inextricably linked to the growth of sports and urban development. Now at age 79, Dr Tan Eng Liang sits on the board of three public-listed and numerous private companies, and is the vice-president of the Singapore National Olympic Council.
In his recently released autobiography Simple Beginnings, Tan shares anecdotes from his humble growing up years; private life as a father to twin girls and a boy, and grandfather to five; and his years in public service. It was co-written with the younger of his twins, Lynn Tan. She resigned from Estée Lauder (a company she had been with for two decades) to focus on the book. The result is an inspiring read of Dr Tan’s impressive life, his tenacity of a sportsman and his values of a gentleman.
Prestige talks to father and daughter about the writing process.
What were the highlights of writing the book together?
L: It was nice I got to spend time with my dad because before that, he was always busy. He’s still busy [but] because of the book, we would make time.
EL: It allowed me to be impressed by her talent. I never knew how well she wrote. She made the book easy to read and brought out the message that I truly love sports. For example, in the Prologue…
L: …I imagined him as a cancer survivor after chemotherapy, leading Team Singapore as chef de mission to the Commonwealth Games into the same stadium exactly 50 years after he went in first as an 18-year-old for the Olympics.
EL: Lynn also interviewed 30 of my friends for the book. Former classmate Prof Tan Cheng Lim rang me and said: “Your Lynn is such a good writer. She wrote it better than I could express.” And Cheng Lim is a good writer. The feedback is all complimentary. They were cooperative because of her friendliness and they felt at ease with her. And she responded quickly to them with a script of the interview. I never knew how efficient she was.
L: I like to get things done. Which is what he is. The whole family is type A.
What did you learn about your father, Lynn?
L: The 30 people I interviewed all said the same thing about him: Helpful; goes out of the way to help; not someone who is trying to get status. So it was all consistent. I got to hear different aspects of what he was like and I felt very proud that he is my father. It was the small things that showed his character. It’s not in the book, but his former secretary was saying how her husband would be in the car waiting for her when she worked late. And dad would greet him and say: “Sorry I kept your wife late.”
His achievements were eye openers, like when Alan Choe told me about the things that they did for URA. To us, he’s always just a dad.
There were other parts that were intellectual. Like I didn’t know about him training in a swimming pool of brown water with probably urine mixed in, or that they had no goggles and wore homemade trunks. It was very touching when my uncle told us they wore their school uniforms as Chinese New Year clothes.
Dr Tan, which memories were emotional to recall?
EL: A week before my Honours year final exams, I had a breakdown. Dr Ho Boon Liat gave me a tranquiliser and took me home to stay with his family. Prof Kiang Ai Kim visited me and told me: “You must take the exam. You try your best. Your work is good, you will definitely be okay.” On the day of exam, Dr Ho got his driver to send me to university. I went into the exam hall, with a jacket, feeling cold and having no confidence.
When they posted the results on the notice board, I started looking at the list from the bottom. I nearly fainted when I saw I got a First-Class Honours in Chemistry.
Later on, Prof Kiang suggested I apply for the Rhodes scholarship. “Are you serious, Prof?” I asked. I never even dared to apply for a local scholarship. He said: “What have you got to lose?”
The Rhodes scholarship was a life-changing event that literally put me in a totally different path. Or a different plane. All my achievements or contributions are because of that. Going to Oxford — and all the things that happened after that — I had never thought or dreamt about.
Without these two people, I probably wouldn’t have survived going to the exam and I would have had no degree. Or I would have been an ordinary nice guy with maybe a Third-Class Honours.
What episodes made you chuckle?
EL: When I had cancer, I packed painkillers and a bag of catheters and went to Beijing against my doctors’ advice. That was a bit irresponsible. But at that time, I had the responsibility and I wanted to finish the job of leading Team Singapore to the Olympics. It was a situation of service before self, but to take it to that extent…crazy guy.
Lynn, what emotions did the writing process bring back?
L: I was sad that the days were over. Like when I had typhoid and was in hospital, Dad would come sit next to me. At that time, I didn’t know he was so busy and it was such a sacrifice to give that time. He would bring assessment books that were filled up; he basically did my homework for me. And I just sat there and revised.
But there were a lot of things that were encouraging. It’s not in the book, but after I came out of hospital, I read about a fire destroying the home of a lady I recognised as the cleaner of my hospital room. I brought my piggy bank to Dad and asked: “How can we give money to this lady?” He affirmed this is the right thing to do to help the less fortunate. So he’s always counting our blessings. These are the things I treasure very much.
Did Dad encourage you to follow his sporting footsteps?
L: Dad exposed us to sports. We started out with the gym; it didn’t work out. My sister was very good in sports [but] I wasn’t competitive. Even in badminton, I was a reserve. I remember asking him: “Can I quit?” Our mother didn’t encourage us to swim because she didn’t want us to become tanned and look like wrestlers…
EL: …brown hair, sun tan. They didn’t have the instinct nor the interest to want to excel in sports. I encourage but if they are not interested, I leave it. Interest is the first requirement; if you force yourself, you won’t do fine. For example, during my time in politics, all top government officials sent their kids to Nanyang kindergarten. I was the exception. I thought about it: We speak English at home, it was so easy. Why force them to take Mandarin? Someone said: “You silly man. Lee Kuan Yew wants everybody to speak Mandarin.”
What was it like growing up with dad in the spotlight?
L: When Dad was in politics, he had security guards and a chauffeur. People said they saw my father in the papers. When I was in Primary Four, a teacher put the newspaper in my face and asked: “What is the reason why your father quit politics?” People were trying to fish information. Reporters would call.
What functions did you attend with him?
L: We went as VIPs to watch football matches and went to the SEA Games when Dad was chairman of the Sports Council. We also saw Donny and Marie, and Pavarotti when they performed in Singapore. We kind of grew up at the Pyramid Club (for the political elite and senior civil servants), where we learnt swimming, attended Christmas functions and special tours. You meet all the MPs and their kids there.
But maybe it was our upbringing. We are not showy. We are very normal.
Simple Beginnings is available at major bookstores and online at graceworks.com.sg