Disclaimer: All activities depicted in this article were conducted in compliance with the COVID-19 rules and regulations at that given time.
By 8:45am, a group of more than 15 enthusiastic seniors had already gathered at the foyer outside the Tzu Chi SEEN (Seniors Engagement and Enabling Node) at Nanyang, eagerly anticipating the main activity for the day. It was the morning for “HAPPY” exercise, a basic workout routine meant to help the elderly improve their agility, balance and cardiovascular fitness.
A man clad in light green uniform wearing a microphone soon appeared at the front. He was the SEEN staff in charge of leading the activity for that morning, Mr Takalah Tan Kok Liang. At first glance, Mr Tan appeared to be just like any other ordinary man in his 50s. But those who have heard about him will know that his life story is one that truly fascinates. In the Malay language, his name Takalah means “cannot lose” and it has come to perfectly symbolise his resilience in life.
Back in 1994, Mr Tan was involved in a traffic accident which almost claimed his life, leaving him with severe brain injuries. Other than the impact on his brain, he also suffered various other injuries such as dislocated eyes, misaligned teeth, broken ribs as well as nerve damages. Having lost half of his brain’s capacity, his neurosurgeon at that time gave him a slim chance of survival, less than 1 per cent to be specific.
But observing Mr Tan today as he actively led the seniors through dance and exercise routines, there were very little signs which pointed to the traumatic experience that he went through all those years ago. While his recovery process both mentally and physically was long and arduous, Mr Tan eventually pulled himself together, leading very much a normal life despite his disabilities that remained in the aftermath of the accident. And in the recent four years, he has been working as a therapy assistant in Tzu Chi, continuing to be a valued contributing member of society.
Getting to Know Tzu Chi
For Mr Tan, his affinity with Tzu Chi came about very much by chance. Five years ago, through a few chance meetings, he was able to get acquainted with veteran TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) doctor, Edwin Lim. At that time, Mr Tan was not working and was helping to provide counselling, mental training and physiotherapy routines on his own accord for a Malaysian girl who suffered from traumatic brain injury. On two of the occasions when he visited the girl, he met Dr Lim while strolling along the pavement towards her condominium. Their brief conversations were the starting point to Mr Tan’s eventual clinching of his current employment.
Dr Lim had noticed his uniqueness and was able to tell that he had past injury history. From the short chats, he also saw Mr Tan’s natural ability in initiating conversations and felt that he was a suitable candidate to work with the elderly. Dr Lim soon offered him the opportunity to join the upcoming new team at SEEN, which was not yet open at that time. Upon hearing this, Mr Tan jumped at the chance and subsequently went about taking up a three-month course at HMI Institute to be certified as a full-fledged therapy assistant. A year later, the call came for him to attend an official interview for the role. He passed it comfortably and joined the Tzu Chi team, and as they say, the rest is history.
Given his enthusiasm at taking up the opportunity offered by Tzu Chi without too much hesitation, it was intriguing to find out his main motivation behind.
“I wanted to be of service to the community. At that point of time, I had three degrees but I was not working. With the job, it also gave me the opportunity to have a sustainable income for both my current and future needs,” shared the 52-year-old.
His time in Tzu Chi has been a refreshing one for both parties. With obvious post-trauma deficits such as poor memory retention and blindness in one eye, the road towards adapting to working life in Tzu Chi has not been all that smooth sailing. However, Mr Tan has continued to remain positive and he credits his colleagues as well as the environment at Tzu Chi for being important pillars of support.
He said: “The people in Tzu Chi are very understanding. They are able to see things from my context rather than being judgmental. Overall, the organisation has a very compassionate stance regarding how it handles its matters.
“I know that I’m imperfect and if people were to get upset with me, I will take heed of the feedback and refrain myself from contesting it. For the seniors, they are able to understand what I’m going through as they know what it’s like to have poor memory and physical disabilities.”
The seniors who have interacted and received help from Mr Tan in one way or another have all voiced their support for him. Thus, this is testament to the work that he has done in spite of his existing difficulties.
“He is very encouraging and takes very good care of us seniors. He is also very brave as even after the accident, he is still able to live on. He told us his story to motivate us not to give up on life,” said Mdm Liw Cha Boo, a wheelchair-bound senior who frequently drops by SEEN.
Similar sentiments were shared by another senior, Mdm Chua Lay Wah. For the 67-year-old, Mr Tan was very much like a good friend.
She explained: “He is very kind-hearted. When I don’t know something, he will help me. As I am unable to read, he will also help with the reading of my letters sometimes.”
Mr Tan’s bubbly character has undoubtedly made it easy for him to strike a chord with the seniors, and this was one of his strengths that he had been able to further develop through his work at SEEN.
“We realised that he is naturally stronger in interacting with the seniors. He brings a lot of joy to them and the seniors too enjoy interacting with him,” said Ms Elizabeth Tan, SEEN fitness associate.
SEEN fitness associate, Ms Elizabeth Tan (in green) believes that Mr Tan’s story has inspired many around him. (Photo by Chan May Ching)
However, as Mr Tan alluded to earlier, he has had his fair share of challenges during his time at SEEN. Due to his poor memory, there were times when he would struggle in handling the administrative side of work, needing fellow colleagues to repeat instructions.
“He is quite forgetful. Sometimes when we are busy, it might be hard to find time to explain things to him step by step. Previously, we will revise with him what he is supposed to do for the day before work but now we are trying to focus more on his strengths to help him develop,” explained Ms Tan. “Like for administrative matters, we will take charge so that he can focus more on the work which involves interactions with seniors. Through this, we will be able to tap on each other’s strengths and he won’t feel out of place as well.”
Despite the initial struggles, it is evident that Mr Tan and his working colleagues at SEEN have managed to strike up a good working relationship, one that focuses on bringing the best out of each other. As a man whose life nearly ended at 24, Mr Tan has made the most of his second chance, grabbing every opportunity available to better himself and inspire others. Through his role at Tzu Chi, he has been able to use his past experiences to motivate and positively influence others. And he hopes to continue contributing in the organisation for as long as he can.
He shared: “I want to continue my journey to be a constructive contributor to society. I ask for not much in return; just garnering of peace, calm and joy through interaction with the community for the good of all.”