Dr William Tan is the personification of both passion and compassion. He contracted polio at the age of two and is paralysed from the waist down. Notwithstanding his disability, he has shown outstanding strength in overcoming adversities. Upon graduation from the National University of Singapore and joining the Civil Service, he ventured abroad for postgraduate studies, with dreams of becoming a scientist and medical doctor. He graduated from Harvard University with a First Class Honours in Physiology, and trained at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.
Tan is also an accomplished sportsman. An Asian-Pacific Games triple gold medalist, he has also competed in the 1988 Seoul Paralympics, the World Games as well as the Commonwealth Games. He holds six endurance marathon world records including the “Fastest time to complete Three marathons in Three Consecutive Days in Three countries”. However, upon realising that, “winning medals, trophies or prize money should not be an end to itself. It should be a means to further goodness and to help people.” Since then, he has devoted to championing as well as fundraising for needy causes in worldwide. He has skydived, water-skied, sailed and even climbed a 14-storey building to raise money. He has helped raised more than $18 million on a voluntary basis for charities locally and internationally, over the last 22 years. Some of his humanitarian efforts include Polioplus for the worldwide eradication of polio and Operation Smile.
In 2007, Tan became the first person in the world to accomplish a marathon in a wheelchair in the North Pole inn 21 hours and 10 mins despite overwhelming obstacles and extreme conditions of –25 deg C to raise funds for Global Flying Hospitals. The very same year, he became the fastest person in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days to raise funds for international charities on 7 continents.
In 2009, Tan was diagnosed with Stage 4 (end-stage) leukemia. True to his fighting spirit, he turned this adversity into opportunity. Throughout his 6 months of toxic chemotherapy followed by bone marrow transplant, he championed for needy cancer patients who cannot afford the high cost of cancer treatment in Singapore. On 26 September 2010, he achieved his best time ever in para-cycling at the Berlin Marathon. One year after his bone marrow transplant, he accomplished two full marathons back to back with finishing times better than his pre-leukemia days.
In 2014 and 2015, he hand-cycled from London to Paris over a distance of 500 km in four days to raise funds for lymphoma and leukemia research in USA, UK, New Zealand and Singapore. His battle against end-stage leukemia however, has been his longest and most painful race. It has transformed him into a more compassionate physician and invigorated him to dedicate his new lease of life to doing more for humanity. His journey of resilience and reinventing oneself to scale greater heights in the face of adversity continues to inspire many individuals and corporate leaders.
No one seems to be spared from challenges, adversities, setbacks, obstacles, defeats, downfalls or whatever form it may take. Growing up with poliomyelitis which paralyzed me from the waist down at the age of two, I crawled everywhere as my parents could not afford the leg braces, crutches or wheelchair. I was regarded by many as one without any hope. My parents taught me what it means to have self-belief, to win with less and to maximise my potential with what I have ie good arms and brain. Repeated rejections by medical school admission boards invigorated me to work harder and never to give up no matter how long it takes. I was finally accepted into medical school after 21 years. I became the first and only person on wheelchair who is a physician in Singapore (just as rare an achievement elsewhere).
Some push the boundaries, some are bound by boundaries, some disappear from boundaries. They see no limits to what they can accomplish except for the limits they place on themselves. The word “impossible” becomes “I M Possible”. To survive in these circumstances, companies need some of the skills and mind set of those who have truly faced life and death decisions. My unique struggle, personal survival and success to beat extreme odds reaffirms the messages about goal setting, risk management, about teamwork, hope, and the art of the possible.
For individuals and organisations, the ideal destiny for any undertaking is a good finish like in a marathon race. In the context of many uncontrollable factors, the reality is very different. For some, a setback kills the dreams, for others, the setback is transformed into a comeback. I chose to believe that “tough times never last but tough people do”. My focus was on finding solutions rather than on problems. I harnessed the support of family and friends. I survived the treatment and returned to sports and to medical practice looking after other cancer patients.
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“I want to emphasise how valuable was the elucidation, motivation, and take-out value your core messages have contributed to the lives of all who had the wonderful opportunity to hear and see you. Yours is an extraordinary message. You are an extraordinary person. I am very privileged to have met you and I can only hope that I have the chance to work with you again.”
Errol, Fujitsu Summit
“It was breath-taking to hear your extraordinary story and inspirational presentation at our annual event. The value you shared would not only help guide people through uncertain changes but also give us strength to confront surrounding world and our own soul. Your personal story will always remind me to cherish life and reflect upon myself in good and tough times.”
David Wang, Sanofi China
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