Dr William Tan has experienced many hardships in life. From being stricken with polio at the young age of two, causing paralysis from the waist down, to fighting yet another battle later in life with stage 4 leukaemia, life has not been too kind to him. Nonetheless, against all odds, he has pulled through and become a successful doctor, neuroscientist, paralympian and educator.
An alumnus of Raffles Institution, Dr Tan’s most recent feat includes completing 7 marathons in 7 days across 7 continents (including Antarctica!). In light of this success, Raffles Publications has teamed up with Y56 Raffles Press to speak to Dr Tan about his successes and find out what he has gained from his unusual life.
Here, dear readers, are 7 invaluable quotes from Dr Tan himself:
1. “His arms are not paralysed, his brain is not paralysed!”
Being paralysed from the waist down at just two years old is a situation that would seem a hopeless one, a disaster that would leave one’s future devoid of potential. Indeed, some parents might have given up on their child but Dr Tan’s parents did not. They saw Dr Tan’s sharp mind and cultivated in him the desire for hard work as he grew, encouraging him to fulfil his true potential. They refused to let his mind and his hands atrophy, and their effort and love paid off.
In primary school, Dr Tan showed even greater promise and in his mind he had a singular ambition: to become a doctor. He wrote about it in a composition for English class, and his teacher found this a most interesting aspiration given his condition. His teacher advised him to go to Raffles Institution to fulfil that dream, but warned him that he would need to work hard to make the cut. Yet he was not deterred, and he studied hard through his remaining years in primary school to do the best he could. He did not disappoint.
2. “It all boils down to having that dream.”
When training for the 1988 Seoul Paralympic games, Dr Tan didn’t have an easy time. Unlike most athletes, he did not get into the sport from a young age, and Paralympic sports did not get the same attention and respect from the public as it does today.
The training he underwent was just as gruelling as any able-bodied Olympian, but the fact that he was not able-bodied seemed to lower his value in the eyes of those around him. Nonetheless he worked hard, and did not waver in the face of adversities. With his perseverance, he managed to excel as a wheelchair athlete in the national team.
3. “I don’t let excuses get in my way.”
Dr Tan realised soon enough that he was a fair bit older than other athletes his age. While it might not seem much, for a sport as fatiguing on the muscles as wheelchair racing, every factor, even age, contributes a vast difference in speed.
But from his disability, Dr Tan had learnt to cope with the many struggles that come with his disability. He did not allow his resolve to crumble at this stage, and sought to do his best even though he was older and not quite as strong as his fellow athletes. To him, It was not about just winning, but about trying and doing his best.
4. “What legacy do I leave behind?”
In 2009, Dr Tan was diagnosed with Stage 4 Leukaemia. With even the best treatments, some patients only have a 10% survival rate. At first, Dr Tan felt it was better to lie down and let nature take its course as the chances of survival were so miniscule that pushing through seemed like an unnecessarily bothersome thing to do. However, when he asked himself, “What legacy do I leave behind?”, he did not find an answer that satisfied him.
Dr Tan went to his oncologist and agreed to begin chemotherapy, so that he would live long enough to plant a seed of a legacy for future generations. And he discovered to his delight that his life was not limited to just a few months more, but he could continue living many more fulfilling years.
5. “I want to be an example to inspire the young.”
Dr Tan has been a part of Mindchamps Enrichment Academy since 2016, one of the many ways in which he hopes to leave an impact on the future of Singapore. He wishes to use his life story to illustrate to children how they can succeed with a champion’s mindset, and possess resilience, adaptability and a desire to strive for a legacy.
Dr Tan also hopes to use his recent multi-continental marathon to show his appreciation to those who came before him and those who come after, and to remind us of how much Paralympians have achieved for this nation: he has been racing for 50 years, and it is the 50th Anniversary of the Singapore Disability Sports Council this year.
6. “[Raffles Institution] recognises diversity, recognises potential.”
This year is also RI200, the bicentennial year of Dr Tan’s alma mater, and he has also dedicated this multi-continental race to its commemoration.
His heartfelt gratitude and respect for the school comes from the fact that no matter our backgrounds, economic status or whether we are able-bodied or not, we are able to enter the school on our own merits. So long as a child has potential, the school admits them and nurtures them. Therein lies the source of the diversity within Raffles Institution, which has helped it develop future thinkers, leaders and pioneers with a civic-conscious mind.
7. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do… we all have that indomitable spirit. All of us.”
Finally, Dr Tan shared some invaluable advice that will perhaps inspire those who find themselves struggling with adversities in their own lives. Whether it is a Weighted Assessment, the Final Exams, CCA or deciding our paths in life, remember that all struggles do not last.
But we will last, if we have the right mindset.
Resilience is vital to surviving in this ever-changing world, and Dr Tan is proof that we can all make it in life. So long as we tap on that indomitable spirit that we possess, we can and will push through our tough times.