By Dr Wong Wee Nam
21 June 2011
Tan Kin Lian was one year my junior in Raffles Institution. However, I did not know him in school.
There are many reasons for this. Firstly we belonged to the baby-boomers and it was unprecedented that each cohort had ten classes and each class had over forty students. Secondly to be recognised and known, you had to be a rugby player. And thirdly, the bus-stops after every school session were filled with students from the Convent of the Holy Infant and so you had no good reason to look at the faces of your own schoolmates.
Thus, it was difficult for any student to recognise all the students in his own class, let alone his own cohort and even more difficult, someone from another cohort.
For these reasons, Tan Kin Lian, like the majority of RI boys, was not famous in school.
Kin Lian played rugby for a short while but not long enough to be famous. He had his own circle of friends in the scouting movement. His hobbies were also very individualistic. He was a self-taught harmonica player, and as a stamp-collector, he was not able to have a mass following.
Stamp-collecting brought him happy memories. Till today he still remembers a primary school teacher Esther Chew, from his Griffiths Primary School, for her kind gesture of giving him a collection of attractive stamps from Greece.
He would naturally be touched by such a small but what he would consider a generous gesture. This was because he came from a poor family.
Kin Lian said, “My father operates a small boat to transport fish from the Riau Islands to Singapore. During most of my childhood, my family stayed in a rented room and had to move residence every few years.”
This poverty was to cut short his schooling days. Though he topped his primary school for most years and won prizes almost every year at Raffles Institution and came in second at the School Certificate examinations, his formal education did not go beyond secondary four.
A classmate, who was with him from Secondary Two to Secondary Four, Dr Wong Sin Hee, recalled, “He did very well at the O-levels. I was surprised he didn’t pursue his Pre University. I realised later that his family was too poor to support him. He had to go out to work and later supported himself by taking night classes and eventually proceeded to the top as one of Singapore’s earliest and top actuarist”.
“He was a very quiet and unassuming fella. Took bus home — Tay Koh Yat Bus. Brilliant, intelligent and very helpful with subjects like Mathematics and Algebra,” Dr Wong added.
How the lack of money can change a person’s destiny! He had to leave school because his father was not working and he needed to support his family. It was such a loss because he was potential scholar material.
Not a person to give up so easily, he took up actuarial studies as a private student, while working full time, and qualified in ten years.
He worked for 12 years in an insurance company, two trading companies and an actuarial consulting firm. After that, he joined NTUC Income and worked for 30 years before retiring.
“He’s a very serious man as far as his work is concerned. Takes great passion and pride in his work. As an insurer he takes his clients’ interests at heart,” said Mr Desmond Chan, a member of the insurance industry.
He is, indeed, a serious man. I only knew Mr Tan Kin Lian in 1996. At that time I was helping NTUC Income as an adviser to start the Managed Healthcare Scheme. It was a very small department but one day Kin Lian decided to invite Dr Patrick Kee, another adviser, and myself for lunch just to get to know us. Throughout the lunch we spoke about the scheme and he hardly made any small talk.
“He is passionate about what he does and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to push through policies that will benefit the people.” This is Dr Patrick Kee’s impression of him.
Kin Lian was certainly apolitical when he was in school.
In fact, he was not politically active until he helped Goh Chok Tong in Marine Parade when he was nearly 30 years old.
“I joined PAP because I helped Goh Chok Tong in his first election in Marine Parade and became his branch secretary for 3 years. After that, I moved up to be chairman of the community centre management committee. I left Marine Parade in 1983 and stopped my activities there,” he said.
Has he ever been approached by the PAP to stand for election?
“I was approached around 1979 to be stand as a PAP candidate. I was not ready at that time as I had to focus on my work and family. I believed at that time that an MP should be full time to do the job well. I was asked again informally about my interest a few years later, but I was not keen. By then, I had become quite unhappy with the direction of PAP policies.
“I like Singapore prior to 1985. The first generation leaders did so much for the people — good jobs, low cost of living, affordable HDB flats, good transport system and a strong sense of pride in being a Singaporeans. Things started to turn bad after that and for (the next) 25 years. I hope that we can now turn the tide and go back to the values that built up Singapore in the early days.”
Mr Tan Kin Lian remained a quiet and reclusive person until the mini-bond issue came out in 2008. He was not affected but he decided to speak out for the people who were affected by holding a series of rallies at the Speaker’s Corner. He was perhaps motivated by the values of honesty, fairness, positive attitude, courage and public service that he holds dearly.
According to him, “I was shocked to learn that this type of products could be sold to unsuspecting investors. I wanted the Government to see if there were wrong doings in the issuing and the marketing of these products,” he said.
Since then, he has openly walked on the path of politics. He writes on his blog and facebook, speaks at political forums and, at the last General Election, even spoke at the rallies organised by the NSP and SDP.
Now he has even thrown his hat into ring to battle for the highest office in the land.
“He is a rather reclusive and enigmatic personality. I was very surprised when he appeared on the political scene with such passion and with so much commitment. We knew him as a very quiet and introverted student. Now he suddenly sprang to life and putting many of us to shame,” commented Dr Wong Sin Hee.
“He is a man of humility, honesty and integrity. He can be trusted. I think he has very strong principles and beliefs. A very practical and pragmatic person with calculated risk of course!” Dr Wong added.