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  • Writer's pictureRaleigh Singapore

#RaleighPassItOn featuring Dr Tan Chi Chiu

For our #RaleighPassItOn series, Dr Tan Chi Chiu shares how he became the first Singaporean to be a Raleigh staff member on expedition in the 80s, and recounts memories of his expedition to Chile and Mongolia.

Who introduced you to Raleigh?

"I read about Operation Raleigh in 1984 when Phua Siew Geck was sent as Singapore's first Venturer. I was quite taken by the idea of a global expedition. Then, I'd just completed my housemanship and was about to drop back into National Service to be converted into a Medical Officer. I followed the exploits of our early Venturers such as Geck, Farid Hamid, Tan Boon Pheng and others, and when I was established as a staff officer in HQ Medical Services of SAF, I was able to think about whether I wanted to go on Raleigh myself.

But at that time, the age limit for Venturers was 18-24 years and I was already 25. I called a number given in the publicity (no emails then!) and reached Bob Powell who was coordinating Raleigh in Singapore. He advised that I was too "old" to be a Venturer, but as a military-trained medical officer, perhaps I could be drafted as Directing Staff or DS. I jumped at the possibility. I was not sent through a Selection Weekend because that was only meant for Venturers, but I faced a formidable interview panel of Bob, Ilsa Sharp and Anthony Cheong. Afterwards, they agreed to recommend me as Singapore's first DS on Operation Raleigh."

Dr Tan was appointed as DS to Chile 5C in the Spring of 1986. He shares some lessons and surprises from his first expedition.

Coping with the weather

"Although proficient in outdoor skills in the tropics, I was not prepared for south Chile in the early spring to be freezing and very wet! I don't think I had all the right clothing and equipment and I was very cold! Many of the Venturers and other DS were very comfortable in the cold, which left me at a disadvantage, needing to acclimate over the first few weeks."

Learning to "lead from behind"

"Culturally, I was not prepared for Venturers to be so independent and forthright. It was refreshing, no doubt, but they hardly needed "directing" from a DS! I had to learn the art of "leading from behind", sort of coaching them through asking questions and getting them to reflect. Respect needed to be earned and the "DS" label cut no ice on its own."

Learning how to ride a horse in 2 hours

"I was made to learn how to ride a horse in just 2 hours! We were introduced to our Chilean horses, told how to control them, practised in a paddock and then we were off for a 2-week exploratory trek across the Andes mountains! On day one, I was thrown by my horse into a river when he stopped to drink and by the end of the day, it felt like I was urinating razor blades!"

Setting up his first rural clinic

"I learned alongside Venturers how to build a wooden bridge across a bog for a village on an island called Maillen off the coast of Puerto Montt and simultaneously ran a makeshift medical clinic for the islanders using medical supplies from the support ship. This was the very first rural community clinic I ever ran. I probably learned as much as, if not more than the Venturers themselves, DS or not."

Dr Tan came home and rejoined the SAF as a regular officer. He began to get active with the Singapore chapter two years later in 1988 after clearing his medical specialist exams.

"I got back with the Raleigh crowd, working with Bob, Ilsa, Anthony and ex-Venturers to rally the alumni to forge an active community in Singapore. We helped Bob with the Selection Weekends. Eventually, I took over organising the Selection Weekends and the public engagement work to encourage more applicants and more sponsors.

At some point, we started an informal, unregistered group we called Raleigh International Singapore, in line with the renaming of Operation Raleigh into Raleigh international. I was made chairman by general consensus rather than through any formal elections since we had no constitution at the time.

I felt that, beyond sending Venturers overseas, we ought to have a mission of our own and as we discussed this, it evolved into two broad strategies: One was to do community service projects in our own region in expeditions that were shorter than the standard 3 months so that more youth could participate. Secondly, we decided to work with the disabled community in Singapore with the aim of raising up disabled Venturers to send on mainstream Raleigh expeditions and engaging these communities in local-regional community service as well. We succeeded in this with the hearing-impaired community and soon we had a number of hearing-impaired Venturers on international expeditions."

In 1992, Dr Tan was roped in to lead a medical expedition to Mongolia.

"I was asked by retired Col John Blashford Snell, the creator of Operation Raleigh, to run a series of medical projects in Outer Mongolia involving health surveys, horse-mounted clinics and BCG vaccinations among the Mongolian tribes. He requested SAF to second me to him and, amazingly, they agreed! I asked for Dr Richard Tan to come with me and that too was allowed. So I became the Medical Director of the Mongolia 1992 expedition we had a very successful 3 months working in the far west of Mongolia, centred on Hovd, at the tri-radiate border of China, Mongolia and Russia.

In mid-1993, I had to leave Singapore to go to the UK to complete my advanced specialist training in Gastroenterology, and so I passed the baton to Lee Yoke Wai, who took Raleigh International Singapore to greater heights. Over the years, the movement we started grew in strength and received much public support. When I returned in 1995, I got back involved and in 1996 Yoke Wai and I created a series of large scale expeditions called Operasi Raleigh Batam, which ran in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Raleigh International Singapore won the Singapore Youth Award in 1998, even though we were still an informal grouping! After that, there were many more overseas projects created, such as Operation Saonum in Laos and, as they say, the rest is history!"

Do you remember whom you introduced Raleigh SIngapore to?

"I was very keen to have good people on Raleigh as Venturers as well as Staff. My intention was to create a large group of highly capable and motivated persons in Raleigh International Singapore to organise and lead our own projects.

I remember sending a number of doctors I knew, Drs Liaw Yoke Leng, Lim Lian Arn, Wong Heng Yu, Chong Kian Tai and others on international expeditions and they in turn helped out through their own 4th Challenge when they came back. We ran Selection Weekends twice a year in some years, there were so many interested candidates. We refined the process to handle the large number of applicants. We held interviews first to reduce the numbers so that the Selection Weekends were manageable.

There are so many memorable names arising from those Selection Weekends that I hesitate to list them because I'm sure to miss out somebody inadvertently and I don't want to do that! These are all my old friends now and I'm very grateful to the current leadership of Raleigh Singapore for helping us keep in touch with one another after so many years."



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