At the age of 31, Dr Tam Wai Jia has already lived the equivalent of several lifetimes: As a doctor, a humanitarian philanthropist, an author and a painter.
As a child, she wanted to paint and write for a living. Her father, however, suggested that she become a doctor so that she could help people. That convinced Dr Tam enough to enroll in 2006 at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, from which she graduated in 2011 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS).
Her interest in philanthropy started earlier, though. As a student at Victoria Junior College in 2004, she was given an opportunity to lead a team of students to a Cambodian children’s home on a Youth Expedition Project (YEP). There, she met two teenagers who set her on her life’s journey of helping others. One was a fellow 18-year-old girl who wanted to become a doctor, but was unable to continue her studies because she had to take the place of her sick mother on the farm.
“My attempts to coordinate a sponsorship for her failed at the time, and I thought of the many children like her who might never have their dreams realised. That experience made me determined to help women and children reach their dreams through education and empowerment.”
PAINTING A BETTER FUTURE FOR THOSE IN NEED
The other Cambodian teen was a 15-year-old boy who made her a kite from a trash bag as a present. Dr Tam cried when she saw it, knowing that he did not have the same means that she had to pursue his dreams.
“That moment, and the beautiful landscapes in Cambodia (as well as Nepal later on) inspired my first book Kitesong, a lyrical but powerful picture book about a little girl chasing her kite. Kitesong raised funds for a children’s home in Nepal a year later.”
Going to Nepal to help out at that children’s home was a natural continuation of her desire to help after completing her A Levels and the YEP. The six-week trip kick-started her lifetime humanitarian mission. To date, Dr Tam has organised more than 20 trips to countries as far-flung as Mozambique and Uganda, providing medical relief and volunteering support.
It is the children she meets on her overseas missions who inspire her stories. Dr Tam is currently working on her fifth book, titled Home. Besides using her books to raise funds for underprivileged women and children, she also started a non-profit organisation named Kitesong Global that aims to “empower people to catalyse change for community transformation” through “art and narrative, philanthropy, advocacy and education”.
PUBLIC HEALTH: A CLEAR CHOICE
Dr Tam, who became a medical officer in public healthcare upon graduating from NUS, became interested in public health after seeing many patients with preventable conditions.
She decided to pursue a degree that would enable her to “help the masses and community at large”.
“Marrying my husband, a survivor of liver cancer, also changed my worldview,” added Dr Tam. “It made me cherish the time we have on earth. I realised I wanted to spend my time being committed to a cause that would help as many people as possible. So public health became the clear choice.”
In 2017, she was accepted into the Masters of Public Health (MPH) programme at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States. The financing of her degree was initially a concern until a friend suggested she apply for the Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) Scholarship.
Recipients of the LKY bond-free scholarship can pursue postgraduate studies overseas or locally to develop their potential as leaders in their respective fields.
Though Dr Tam felt her chances were low – she had her interview soon after giving birth to her daughter – she was awarded the scholarship, worth S$60,000. The remainder of her degree was paid for by two other scholarships: The Fulbright Scholarship and the Lee and Maxwell Howard Fund MPH Scholarship Award.
Dr Tam, who graduated this year, cited the financial support of the LKY Scholarship as a strong motivating factor while she was studying for her MPH.
“I am grateful that they [the interview committee] put their trust in me, because it is such a tremendous privilege. It was a huge motivation and support to me and my family, not only financially, but emotionally. It gave me the drive and fervor to not only do well in my studies, but be outstanding, because I felt I was representing Singapore on an international platform.”
HELPING OTHERS WITH THE AID OF SCHOLARSHIPS
As a Lee Kuan Yew Scholar, Dr Tam is expected to contribute actively towards the betterment of Singapore. For her, the contribution is made on an intensely personal level.
“Over the years, I’ve been given the privilege of speaking to young people about community service, leadership, philanthropy and our responsibility of being a global citizen,” she said.
“When I return, I look forward to continue sharing at schools and various platforms to raise awareness about various global issues and about being brave to pursue our dreams, to catalyse change and inspire civic engagement, so that we can grow a generation of emotionally resilient and socially conscious global change-makers.”
Dr Tam is currently in talks with school principals, teachers and social workers to develop community leadership and therapy programmes in Singapore.
She intends to use her public health degree to continue helping Singapore’s ageing population through her passion for geriatric research and developing curricula to teach healthcare professionals. She also wants to continue helping to make healthcare more accessible to vulnerable populations, such as migrant workers.
Said Dr Tam: “The LKY Scholarship continues to open up opportunities for me to develop connections around the world to further my mission of helping others. It has given me the confidence and drive to pursue my dreams to make a difference to Singapore and the world.”
Applications for the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship are open till Dec 28, 2018. Singapore citizens with an outstanding track record of leadership and service, as well as academic and professional achievements, are invited to apply online via the Lee Kuan Yew Scholarship application portal.