Dyslexia didn't stop mayor

Picture above: Mayor of Central Singapore District Sam Tan playing with kids from StarHub-Central Singapore.

SINGAPORE - The size of this text may seem huge to you, but for Mayor Sam Tan, anything smaller means he won't be able to deliver speeches and presentations.

Mr Tan, the Mayor of Central Singapore District, is dyslexic.

Dyslexia is a condition that makes it very difficult for children and adults to read, write and/or spell.

As a child, Mr Tan struggled in school because of his condition, and failed his O- and A-level English as a Second Language oral exams.

For instance, Mr Tan could not recognise the word "fire". He could not get the meaning nor could he say the word. So he failed his O-level English oral exam.

The same thing happened during his A-level English oral exam. He could not recognise the word "mosque" and failed the exam.

But far from being a dolt, Mr Tan, who is also Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports scraped through his English as a Second Language exam to enter the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 1979, where he read political science and Chinese Studies.

He graduated with a second class upper honours.

At NUS, an American who was an English language lecturer, pulled him aside after class one day and told him that he was dyslexic.

Said Mr Tan: "I didn't know what dyslexia was."

The lecturer suggested that Mr Tan could overcome his dyslexia in English by attending classes at a language lab daily, and pointed out that Mr Tan could recognise and pronounce words by sound.

Finding a rhythm

Said Mr Tan: "I picked up a technique where I followed the sound or rhythm. If I get the rhythm right, I can read. If I don't, then it is very difficult for me to complete the sentence."

Today, Mr Tan writes his speeches in simple and short sentences in arial font of 20 points with lines double-spaced.

"The outcome is that my speech will always sound like it's been written by a 12-year-old. I seldom use big, bombastic words."

Mr Tan has come a long way from being unable to read and speak English when he was in primary and secondary school.

He said: "I would get 90-over per cent for maths and Chinese, but 30 to 40 per cent for English in primary school, and my mother would cane me - I had lots of caning - because she thought I was not working hard.

"But I did try hard and yet I got poor results. It was very demoralising and terrible to be misunderstood by people," he said.

To compound the problem, Mr Tan, the middle of five children, is the only one in the family who is dyslexic.

"The sense of helplessness was great. At that time, there was no Nurture programme, help from community development councils or anyone who understood what dyslexia is.

"It was a lonely struggle until university," he said.

Help's around

Today, there are resources that pick out learning problems or disability in a child, such as the StarHub-Central Singapore Nurture Plus programme, which identifies the reading fluency of the child and ensures that he learns at his comprehension level.

The children are grouped and then taught according to their reading abilities by allied educators. There are about 200 kids under the Nurture Plus programme.

Speaking to some 30 kids last Saturday at Toa Payoh East Community Club, Mr Tan said: "If you're an A-grader, well done.

"If you're a C-grader, you can also be a mayor or someone more important. Don't give up. The obstacle to success is lack of self-determination," he said.

But Mr Tan acknowledged that for dyslexics, effort alone will not be enough, and that "professional help" is necessary.

He said: "Sometimes you get bad grades, but parents don't understand why and jump to the conclusion that you're playful and scold you. But bear in mind, all this is done with good intention, " he said.

Nurture programme volunteer Eugene Soh, 18, told The New Paper that he felt privileged to hear Mr Tan's struggles with dyslexia.

"Coming from someone who could not read to achieving what he is today is very inspiring," said Eugene.

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