Aaron Tan is one of quite a decent number of faculty members here who are also our alumni. At our recent anniversary gala, Aaron hosted a mini musical game where he sang a number foreign language songs, like Maori,Hindi and Indonesian, and the audience tried to guess the songs' origins. He is an avid Facebooker - follow his daily musings on his page.
Where did you grow up?
This is an interesting question, as I guess my answer would be rather interesting for the readers. I grew up in Geylang, a notorious red-light district. So, as a little boy, I ran around prostitution dens and got to know the sex workers and, occasionally, I would bump into clients who were local celebrities and even my own teacher!
Well, I guess anything more juicy might be inappropriate for this publication so I shall stop here.
What’s your academic background?
At one point of time, I studied at two kindergartens at the same time because I was bored at home. I enjoyed going to school so much that I kept pestering my parents. May I add that it was very rare for kids to even attend kindergarten in those days.
Later, I studied in the GEP school. No, that’s not the Gifted Education Programme which was to be introduced only 13 years later. It’s the Geylang English Primary school, which you may not have heard of because it has long been defunct.
Then, from being the top student in my primary school, I landed in Raffles Institution only to realise that everybody around me was smarter than I. I was intrigued, particularly by my smart school-mates who were writing BASIC programs on the Apple computers.
I chose Computer Science as one of my subjects in my junior college years, and then came to NUS in 1985 to study Computer Science in the then Department of Information Systems and Computer Science (DISCS), which was under the Science Faculty. Four years later, I graduated with a first-class honours degree.
Do you have any interesting stories to share about your time as a student here?
Too many stories to share that they might fill a book. The undergraduate years were the most colourful and memorable years in my life. Like the song goes: “those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end…”
Our batch was small by comparison to today’s class size. There were fewer than 200 of us in our batch, and most fortunately, an equal number of male and female students! This is important because it gave rise to many interesting love stories, as well as triangular and multi-sided relationship, but I shall not digress.
The department was small too, so we were close to our professors and tutors. It was quite common for a lecturer to take us out for lunch treats, or we would visit our tutors at their offices for a chat.
But we were also hot-headed young adults then. I remember we were unhappy with the light workload given to us by one of the lecturers and so we wrote a letter to the head of department to complain about it. Talk about being impetuous! Well, today I would advise students to talk to your lecturer first before shooting a letter to the head of department.
Those were the pre-modular system days where all of us took the same package of modules. We were in the same tutorial group throughout the 3 years – at that time, the general degree took 3 years, with an additional year for honours degree – so the bonding was very strong. Such strong bonding became history when the modular system was introduced, so we lament. At the end of our third year, we organised a campfire at car park 10 for remembrance sake and to thank our professors. I wrote a song called 年轻的歌 (Song of Youth) for my tutorial group, which we sang at the campfire. Lecturers and tutors were also invited and some of them put up their own performance.
During my fourth year in the university, a certain junior college was looking for a relief teacher to cover one of their Computer Science teachers who was due for reservist training. A university classmate of mine recommended me for the job, so I ended up taking a short teaching stint while I was still an undergraduate. And guess who was in my class? Dr. Colin Tan, in his tender years!
What did you want to be when you were younger?
Realising that I wasn’t as smart as my secondary school classmates, coupled with my immense craving for chicken rice – I ate it almost every day, and it was only 80 cents or $1 at that time – I actually thought that I might end up selling chicken rice. Serious! However, I am now into healthy eating, so no more chicken rice for me.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?
Since young, I have been very interested in writing songs and lyrics – mainly in Cantonese and Mandarin – though I had no formal musical training. I wrote quite a number of them, even took part in some competitions and I was lucky enough to grab a few prizes.
I wrote a song last year to honour our nation's 50th National Day, and I have been wishing to make a video out of it. Unfortunately, so far I have little luck in getting people to help out with this personal project. So readers out there, if you are keen, whether in singing, acting, playing the musical instruments, script-writing, directing, video-shooting, choreographing, please contact me!
Recently I posted the lyric “This is C” sung to the tune of “Home” by Kit Chan on Facebook and somebody suggested to make it into a video as well. What a cool idea, but again, I need volunteers!
As a pastime, I enjoy singing and playing the guitar. I learned classical guitars for many years after I graduated. At the end of every semester, I would invite students to join me for some karaoke sessions.
I run regularly too. During the recent summer vacation, I invited students to join me run around the campus. A couple of them and some alumni came and it soon became a weekly running event on every Wednesday evening. We have completed our 24th run at the writing of this article (23 November 2014)!
What are some of the craziest things you have done recently?
Five and a half months ago, as I approached my 50th birthday, I thought of doing something totally wacky and so I enrolled myself into Wing Chun class and I’ve never neglected it. These days, you will find me practising Wing Chun in the gym.
Recently I took part in the Swim-for-Hope event and swam 20 laps. Never a serious swimmer, I swam occasionally and have not attempted more than 4 laps at a go for many years. I wouldn’t call this crazy but just another little thing I wanted to try outside my comfort zone.
The photo above was taken last year. I was pestered by my son Cowen to take him to the ice-skating rink, and that was my first ice-skating experience! A painful experience, but fun nonetheless, and it makes me realise that it is never too late to learn something new.
Do you have any interesting stories to share about your experience as a teacher here?
When I was a tutor, the students were quite active in organising activities such as charity events. I joined them in some of the activities, such as going around the housing estates collecting old newspapers. There were charity concerts as well, where our students showed their varied talents. Karaoke was very popular then, so the students organised a number of karaoke singing competitions, which I was invited as a judge for some of them. It is a pity these days our students don’t organise such events. I also miss the student-staff games (sports games, not computer games) which we used to have.
Do you have any advice for our students?
Don’t just spend all your time on the computer! Get out of the house and sweat under the sun. Healthy body, healthy mind. That’s why in the past, when I trained the IOI students, besides training in the classroom, I also took them out to jog and swim.
Recently I came across this powerful article and would like to share it here, along with a message for all our students:
“Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”