Making heartfelt changes

09 Jan 2020 6 min read

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Dr Tan Wu Meng
Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Trade and Industry; Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC
Age: 44
Family: Wife and two daughters aged two and eight
Hobbies: Checking out new apps on mobile phone, spending family time by chilling out at home

At some point in our lives, something always happens which makes us realise that life is short.

For Dr Tan Wu Meng, 44, an oncologist who is now Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, it came when he was a medical houseman in his 20s.

And as with many young doctors, he learned life lessons from his patients.

He met a man suffering from stomach cancer which had spread. The patient was terminally ill — and awaiting the birth of his first child.

“His hope was to live to see his son born. He was very sick, but we really wanted to keep him alive for his baby,” recalled Dr Tan, who spent many years looking after cancer patients first in public, then private practice, before he became a full-time politician in May 2018.

Dr Tan recalls with perfect clarity.

“One day, his wife went into labour. The next day, he held the baby. And the following day, he died.”

Post-humously, the medical staff received thank you notes in the mail which the patient had written before he passed on, with photos he had taken with them. “I cried,” said Dr Tan. “I think a lot of us cried.”

The numerous life-and-death moments he has witnessed, caring for cancer patients, have shaped Dr Tan’s life philosophy which explains and directs how he lives his own life.

“You learn very quickly that life is very short and unpredictable. In whatever time you have, you want to do your best to help people. And where possible, no matter how busy you are, make sure the kids get a cuddle or a big hug each day,” said the father of two girls aged two and eight.

Dr Tan celebrates Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, with his residents.

From doctor to MP

As much as he loved his work in medicine, Dr Tan became a full-time politician, where he continues to do his best for his constituents. He first became a grassroots volunteer in 2004 after he was inspired by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s rallying call for young people to help in the community.

After becoming elected Organising Secretary of the Young PAP in 2008 — he was the first person to hold the new role — he rose through the ranks to become an MP in Jurong GRC in 2015.

Before he became an MP, he actively wrote columns on a diverse range of newspapers, on issues like social cohesion and how to build up resilience in society.

“It’s a sense of duty,” said Dr Tan, on why he ultimately left medicine entirely in May to join the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Trade and Industry, ” I do miss spending time with my patients, but you could say that in many ways, looking after the Clementi residents is a bit like looking after patients.”

“ You learn very quickly that life is very short and unpredictable. In whatever time you have, you want to do your best to help people.  ”

Dr Tan at a Hari Raya gathering with his residents in Clementi in July 2019. He meets a couple with a new family member, a baby boy. Two years ago at
a similar gathering, Dr Tan also met the baby boy’s older sister (centre).

One of his proudest moments as a politician stemmed from a cause that is close to his heart.

Throughout his medical career, he had learned about children who were born with very rare diseases, such as Pompe Disease, Gaucher Disease, bile acid synthesis disorder, whose parents had to bear with huge medical bills with no cure in sight.

“There’s a gap in the insurance market, because a commercial private insurer is not going to cover a child for serious illness that the child is born with at Day One,” he pointed out.

“ These disease are different and run the entire gamut, but each one is incredibly rare, which means the drug companies don’t see any economies of scale which would bring the price per unit of medicine down.”

In early 2018, he filed an adjournment motion in Parliament championing children with rare diseases. An adjournment motion gives backbenchers the opportunity to speak for up to 20 minutes on an issue, allowing the MP to share more insights beyond asking a Parliamentary Question.

In his speech then, Dr Tan said: “We do not choose our parents, we do not choose our genes. And so we must ensure that Singaporeans remain a fair and just society — for children born healthy, as well as children born with rare diseases.”

With the support of Health Minister, Mr Gan Kim Yong and Senior Ministers of State, Mr Chee Hong Tat and Mr Edwin Tong, the Ministry of Health set up a Rare Disease Fund which was launched in July 2019.

Unlike other charity funds which run on one-to-one matching donations from the Government, for every private donation of $1 to the Rare Disease Fund, the Government contributes $3, to boost its impact.

“I’m very happy to be one of the many people who helped make it happen, it’s a team effort, ” said Dr Tan.

A PASSION FOR TECH

One of the recent projects Dr Tan most enjoyed was a price-comparison app called Price Kaki with the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), which was launched in September 2019.

It compiles the prices of various essential items – including types of hawker food and goods found in supermarkets – across different shops. Users can, say, locate the supermarket with the cheapest eggs in their vicinity.
It is currently only applicable to shops in the Toa Payoh, Tampines and Jurong West areas, but the app will be launched nationwide in 2020.

One of the recent projects Dr Tan most enjoyed was a price-comparison app called Price Kaki with the Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE), which was launched in September 2019.

It compiles the prices of various essential items – including types of hawker food and goods found in supermarkets – across different shops. Users can, say, locate the supermarket with the cheapest eggs in their vicinity.

It is currently only applicable to shops in the Toa Payoh, Tampines and Jurong West areas, but the app will be launched nationwide in 2020.

“I was very happy to work on this app with CASE, because I’m a bit of a gadget geek. I like tech stuff!” said Dr Tan, who enthusiastically whipped out his mobile phone to demonstrate where the cheapest kaya toast in Toa Payoh could be found.

He is also a fan of science fiction, particularly by American author Isaac Asimov. He draws on science fiction in his parliamentary questions and speeches.

During a parliamentary sitting in 2018, Dr Tan asked if the Government was studying “aspirational principles” like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in regulating new technologies like artificial intelligence.

Said Dr Tan: “These may seem far-fetched questions, but it is useful to imagine many possible futures, so that we are just that little bit more ready when the future arrives.”

ASEAN OPPORTUNITIES

For young Singaporeans, the usual coveted overseas postings are in the US, Europe, and in recent years, China.

But Dr Tan Wu Meng’s advice is: if you’re looking at an overseas posting, think about ASEAN countries too.

He said, “All around us in ASEAN, there’s an amazing economic story that’s unfolding. It has a 650-million strong population, of whom nearly two thirds are under the age of 35. Just imagine the demographic dividend, the urbanisation dividend, the economic growth story in ASEAN.”

Plugging into that wealth of opportunity could be as simple as requesting for, or accepting, an overseas posting to an ASEAN country. “There’s also the spirit of venturing, not being afraid to try something new,” he added. And these personal experiences and business networks add value to one’s workplace, and can help grow career prospects and horizons.

The spirit of adventure is critical given that Singapore has historically thrived because of its global connections. “Small countries don’t have any intrinsic right to exist. We have to be relevant to the world to survive,” pointed out Dr Tan.

Challenges which confront Singapore include trade conflicts, like the current US-Sino trade war which has affected the global economy. Some countries have also shifted toward a more protectionist stance.

Comparing large countries to elephants, he said: “In a world where the elephants may be jostling, you want to make sure you are relevant to these elephants, so that it is less likely that the elephants may accidentally step on you.”

Singapore’s low birth rate may also affect its competitiveness in the long run, if steps are not taken to boost productivity so that the young people of tomorrow can do more.

This comes down to re-designing jobs and deploying technology.

“We can retool our economy to make us less dependent on manpower,” pointed out Dr Tan, who observed there are many lessons to be drawn from the Japanese who are also grappling with an ageing population.

“For example, in the medical industry, if you are a nurse lifting a patient up, a hoist can be used so even a 60-year-old nurse can do the job. As far as possible, we want to make sure that jobs are open to people of all ages,” he said.

This article was first published in the Dec 2019 issue of Petir Magazine.