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Teachers, friends help Normal (Tech) student in his journey to NUS

SINGAPORE — A nudge from his older brother and family friend, and prodding and support from his school spurred Mr Tan Wang Ren, 25, to pull off something that no one in his school had done before: Move up to the Express stream from Normal (Technical).

Mr Tan Wang Ren with his mentor and former teacher Ng Chee Keong, who lent him S$13,000 to pay for his flat.

Mr Tan Wang Ren with his mentor and former teacher Ng Chee Keong, who lent him S$13,000 to pay for his flat.

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SINGAPORE — A nudge from his older brother and family friend, and prodding and support from his school spurred Mr Tan Wang Ren, 25, to pull off something that no one in his school had done before: Move up to the Express stream from Normal (Technical).

Mr Tan, who comes from a low-income family of six, found himself in Normal (Technical) at St Andrew’s Secondary School after a poor Primary School Leaving Examination scorecard.

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At home, Mr Tan faced a “disruptive and chaotic” environment where bitter quarrels often broke out.

His mother, 62, is a housewife, while his father, 70, worked as a driver for a private-bus service run by Mr Tan’s uncle.

His father’s paychecks were irregular, drawing anywhere between S$50 and several hundreds a week based on their family’s needs.

Often playing truant during primary school, Mr Tan ended up in a “tail-end” class.

The turning point came only at the end of his first year at St Andrew’s in 2006, when he fell short of the overall 70 per cent grade to advance to Normal (Academic).

He needed a game plan, urged his brother and family friend.

They sat him down and sussed out the areas he could work on to make the cut.

In Secondary One, he joined the rugby team at St Andrew’s where his coaches and teacher-in-charge, Mr Ng Chee Keong, 40, became his role models.

Mr Ng, who has since left St Andrew’s to set up a tuition centre, remains a mentor to Mr Tan, even giving S$13,000 in a loan to the young man for his family’s Build-to-Order flat in Sembawang.

In Secondary Two, Mr Tan began to pick himself up and hit the books with whatever time he had, balancing his studies with rugby practice up to thrice a week. “I wanted to make my parents proud,” he told TODAY.

“If I dozed off while studying, I’d jerk up and there will be moments that I’ll feel very scared that all hope is lost, (and I asked myself) why are you not giving your best?” Mr Tan recalled.


Along the way, he had had to deal with naysayers. After he expressed hope in joining the Express stream, some friends had asked why he was studying so hard. “I just ignored them. I didn’t want to distract myself,” he said.

He was also subject to taunts from students in the Express stream. One pointed to the letter “E” on the door of the school’s library and said derogatorily: “‘E’ is for elephant.”

Unfazed by the digs flung at him, Mr Tan earned a spot in Normal (Academic) in Secondary Three, and began to draw increasing recognition from his peers and teachers.

Mrs Belinda Charles, then the school’s principal, had held him up during an assembly session as an example to inspire others, even as some Express students were regressing into Normal (Academic).

“She pointed me out (as someone) who came from Normal (Technical) to Normal (Academic), and who will be very likely to go to Express,” Mr Tan said. He moved to the Express stream the following year, and to St Andrew’s Junior College two years later.

Mr Tan, whose family speaks Mandarin at home, said he was disadvantaged because of his poor command of English. His parents, realising the importance of spoken English, decided to put him through tuition in phonics “very late”, at age 12, with a former schoolteacher who lived nearby.

“It’s the cornerstone of all learning. Everything is taught and expressed in English, even exam questions… If your command of English is not good, you’ll definitely be at a disadvantage.”

But since his secondary school days, his friends had chipped in to help him improve his proficiency in the language, such as editing his compositions from time to time. A rugby teammate gave him books written by his mother, a children’s book author. Teachers would gift him with books, too.

Now a third-year student in industrial systems engineering and management at the National University of Singapore, Mr Tan is still in touch with his former schoolteacher, Mr Ng, with whom he has had a close bond because they are both vegetarians.

Mr Ng’s loan of S$13,000 to Mr Tan two years ago had gone towards the down payment on a S$400,000 five-room flat he purchased with his siblings, under a scheme for nuclear families. He moved there last year.

A bulk of the flat’s cost is being paid for through a bank loan. His brother takes care of the monthly repayment through his Central Provident Fund contributions.

“(Mr Ng’s) a very steady teacher who admires my attitude. He told me to ‘just pay whenever you’re ready’”.

Speaking to TODAY, Mr Ng said Mr Tan had approached him for help and he has no doubt that the young man would repay him in future.

“I am waiting for him to earn money, so that he will return (the sum) to me, which I bet he will,” he added, with a chuckle.

This was just one of many instances in which Mr Ng had lent his student a helping hand over the years.

Mr Ng gave away his bicycle which lay unused after he bought a car, when Mr Tan needed one to commute to school in Secondary Three.

“Seeing young people growing up gives me that motivation to go on. I like to see young people moving in the right direction, and developing empathy and compassion for society,” Mr Ng said.


Mr Tan returned to St Andrew’s Secondary for a teaching stint in 2015 while waiting for university to start, and found that he could explain and illustrate mathematical concepts well, lifting his students’ grades significantly.

So, in June, he used his own savings to set up an education centre, Knowledge Bank, at Peace Centre on Sophia Road. It offers tuition at affordable rates in a range of subjects from the primary to junior college levels.

Mr Tan is also looking to teach life skills, such as public speaking, and introduce new subjects like programming. He is also rolling out a mentorship programme pairing students aged 9 to 18 from lower socio-economic backgrounds with undergraduates and professionals who faced similar difficulties.

“It’s not just about academic results. There are a lot of things, such as personality, character and social learning, that take place only when (the students) can actually see certain forms and certain behaviours,” he said.

Mr Tan’s hope is to work in a programming or system-optimisation role with a technology company after he graduates in 2020.

Ultimately, Mr Tan said mental strength was the key to his success. “You’ve got to keep telling yourself that you can do it. The thoughts that you harbour in your mind and the words you utter can have a very big impact on the outcome.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY LIN JIAMEI

For this week's Big Read, TODAY sat down with several youths who had a disadvantaged start in life to find out about the challenges they confronted as well as the opportunities that came their way. Read their profiles here:

Make the best of what you have, says young Singaporean from lower-income family

As a young child growing up in a three-room flat in Toa Payoh, Mr Eric Lee was aware that finances were tight for his family of five. His father, a blue-collar worker in a fibreglass company, was the sole breadwinner, and his homemaker mother occasionally took on babysitting jobs to help supplement the family’s income. Read more here.

Mr Eric Lee grew up in a family of five in a three-room flat in Toa Payoh. Despite living frugally, Mr Lee said that he had a “fair start” in life, and that his parents made sure they gave him and his two siblings whatever they could afford “with everything they had”. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY
25-year-old pursued part-time degree with her own savings to ease burden on father

After finishing her polytechnic diploma in biomedical science in 2013, Ms R Abirami took a leap of faith, electing to pursue her undergraduate studies part-time as she did not want to further burden her father’s finances. Read more here.

Ms R Abirami (seen here with her parents) is from a low-income family of six. Her father, a technician, was the family’s sole breadwinner until she joined the workforce five years ago. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY
Mum’s words spur undergraduate to overcome family’s financial difficulties

For Mr Mohammad Helmi, 24, the financial hardships he had weathered during his younger days turned him into a resilient young man raring to create a better life for himself and his family. Read more here.

Mohammad Helmi is from a low-income family and is the oldest child. The final-year business undergraduate at SMU scored a coveted six-month internship with Apple last year. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

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