The long interview: 'Wandering saint' of Singapore

The long interview: 'Wandering saint' of Singapore
Dr Tan Lai Yong gives free medical treatment and advice to Bangladeshi and Indian foreign workers, and takes them on weekly outings, such as this one to University Town.

SINGAPORE - Then Dr Tan Lai Yong and his wife tied the knot at Bethesda Frankel Estate Church in 1991, they asked for a wedding prayer that made their solemniser do a double-take.

It was a verse from the Book of Proverbs: "Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God."

That, Dr Tan reckons, was the "craziest thing" he has ever done.

It set the tone for life thereafter, and liberated him to "step out of the box", again and again.

At 53, the Singaporean doctor has no home to his name. No car.

One pair of jeans he lives in. And lots of hand-me-down checked shirts. Lunch is often a loaf of plain bread, wolfed down on the run.

His office at the National University of Singapore's College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT) is like a storeroom, crammed with camping gear, bicycles and emergency rations, a habit from 15 years of living in China's earthquake-prone Yunnan province.

Four years after returning here in 2010, he lives the same spartan, spontaneous life of service. Last month, he was hailed in Parliament as a "wandering saint in Singapore", who "is rich in ideas, strong of heart and boundless in energy". Member of Parliament Seah Kian Peng asked for $1 million for Dr Tan to carry out his "oddball" ideas to better society, vouching that he would spend the money well and carefully.

Dr Tan, who has no television set, didn't watch the broadcast.

When told his new monicker, his rejoinder is: "I wander about, but am no saint."

While Mr Seah's proposed ground-up initiative warms him, the money leaves him cold. He recounts how, as a medical missionary in south-west China training farmers in basic medical and dental care and running clinics for villagers, he was offered up to half a million dollars in 2007 to scale up his work.

Of course, the big bucks would have enabled him to ramp up much needed cataract and cleft palate operations in the impoverished countryside. But he politely declined, explaining that his village dental programme ran on a mere $20,000 a year. "This sum was beyond what we could handle... We do best when we learn best. With a big bank account behind us, we may not learn so well," he reflects in his stream of consciousness way.

He also felt it would make him detract from his primary mission of "teaching, equipping, encouraging and nudging for changes through values", rather than running his own mass programmes.

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