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Neuroscientist, physician, Paralympian, World Records Holder


Dr William Tan personifies 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. From a kindergarten drop-out, he topped Selegie Primary School and went to Singapore’s Premier School, Raffles Institution on a Ministry of Education Scholarship for his Secondary and Junior College education. The National University of Singapore Alumnus who majored in Life Sciences joined the Civil Service after graduation in 1980. In pursuit of his dream to become a scientist and physician, he ventured abroad for postgraduate studies in 1989. Holder of a First Class Honours in Physiology, this Harvard University’s Fulbright Scholar and Oxford University’s Chevening Scholar has also trained at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in USA.

Previous experience

Sports: Dr Tan is also an accomplished sportsman. An Asian-Pacific Games triple gold medalist, he has also competed in many international games including 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”.

Charity: In 1987, he realized 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 Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Africa, South America, Australia, New Zealand, China, United States and the United Kingdom. He has skydived, water-skied, sailed and even climbed a 14-storey building to raise money. Some of his ultramarathon endeavours included wheelchair pushes across the length of New Zealand, Singapore to Penang, Thailand to Singapore, Boston to New York to Washington DC and Australia’s Larapinta Trail. 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. He also serves in various organizations such as Chairman, Medical Board of Global Flying Hospitals, Chairman of the National Neurological Foundation and the Legacy Foundation.

Recognition: Recently he was presnted with the Commonwealth Points of Light Award from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his long history of charitable achievements.

Marathon: On 6th April 2007, Dr Tan became the first person in the world to accomplish a marathon in a wheelchair in the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 mins despite overwhelming obstacles and extreme conditions of -25 deg C to raise funds for Global Flying Hospitals.

Fastest: On 19th December 2007, Dr Tan became the fastest person in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes and 52 seconds to raise funds for international charities on 7 continents (including the National University of Singapore (NUS)’s Endowed Professorship in Paediatric Oncology). His amazing race took him to Antarctica, Chile, Egypt, Thailand, Japan, Kenya, Italy, England, New Zealand, and USA between November and December 2007.

Recognition: He had also received widespread national and international recognition including the highest youth accolade, the Singapore Youth Award in 1995; Outstanding Young Persons of Singapore Award in 1996; the Outstanding Young Persons of the World Award (Humanitarian/ Voluntary Leadership) given by the Junior Chamber International, USA in 1997; the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Youth Work in 1998; the ASEAN Youth Award and the Public Service Medal in 2000. The TAN TOCK SENG HOSPITAL established in 1996 the Dr William Tan Scholarship in Rehabilitation Medicine (first named scholarship in 151 years history of the Hospital) "to recognise his altruistic efforts in championing the cause of the disabled". In 2003, he was honoured with the Reader's Digest Inspiring Asian Award which “recognize deserving individuals who must be able to demonstrate that they have made a difference or are making a difference and are encouraging others to do so”. For his relentless contributions to his alma mater and the community, he had been awarded the Distinguished Science Alumni Award, the Distinguished Alumni Award both of which by the National University of Singapore (2005); the Nanyang Technological University (2009); the University of Auckland (2014); and the University of Newcastle’s 2015 Alumni Award for Exceptional Community Service. In 2007, he was bestowed the prestigious Special Recognition Award and the Singapore National Day’s Public Service Star Award. In 2008, he was conferred the Singapore Disability Sports Council’s Sportsman of the Year and the FORTIS’ HERO Award. In 2010, he was named the second most trusted person in Singapore after the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Cancer: He is unstoppable. Diagnosed with Stage 4 (end-stage) leukemia in April 2009, he has turned ADVERSITIES into OPPORTUNITIES. His CANCER has become his CAUSE. During 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.

Cycle: On 29 March 2014, together with NUS’ students and Staff, Alumni and NUS Deputy President, Professor Tan Eng Chye, he handcycled for 85 km in the RESILIENCE RUN to celebrate NUS’ Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences, Dentistry and Science’s 85th Anniversary and to raise money for the ENABLE Fund which supports NUS’ physically challenged students.

For four consecutive years since 2014, he handcycled 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, Malaysia and Singapore. His battle against end-stage leukemia 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 onself to scale greater heights in the face of adversity continues to inspire many individuals and corporate leaders.

To celebrate Singapore’s 50th Anniversary of Independence (SG50), he handcycled and ferried children in his chariot carrier for 50 hours continuously at Temasek Junior College to raise $50,000 to support the Straits Times’ School Pocket Fund and an orphanage in Thailand on 28th August 2015.

Singapore: On 3 December 2015, he bravely made his comeback to wheelchair athletics (in 100m, 200m, 400m) after a lapse of 7 years (battling Stage 4 leukemia) to compete for Singapore at the South East Asian Games in Singapore. Photo below showing him (Number 5 on his helmet) giving his best at the age of 58 against counterparts 40 years younger.

Talking Points

Turning Setbacks into Comebacks

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. Hence the saying that “attitude determines the altitude”. For example, in the 2009 Paris Marathon, the bleeding from my nose seemed endless. On my return to Singapore, I could not believe the diagnosis that I have Stage 4 (terminal) leukemia and I have only 9 to 12 months left to live. Turning 7 years in remission next month, I looked back with gratitude for the second chance at life. Many patients with the same terminal cancer have passed on. What differentiated me from others? I was just as devastated. But I decided at the outset that I will turn this setback into a comeback. Having such a purpose drove me on during chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant. The toxicities from the treatment was punishing even for a Paralympian. 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.

The Power of Impossibility Thinking

Some push the boundaries, some are bound by boundaries, some disappear from boundaries. The underlying difference between those in the first category and the rest is that they dare to dream bigger than they used to dream. They see no limits to what they can accomplish except for the limits they place on themselves. The word “impossible” becomes “I M Possible”. The collective potential energy from such optimistic mindset is transformed into phenomenal kinetic energy to shake and move the industry. On the Spirit of Tasmania cruise in 2004, I was so inspired by Shackleton’s Antarctica expedition that I wanted to undertake a marathon in Antarctica. The organiser from Boston thought I was mad because no one has ever attempted it in a wheelchair. I replied Thom and his Team that indeed I was merely MAD (Making A Difference). Finally convinced by my boundless mindset, Thom relented and gave me the opportunity in 2005. Though it took three years to accomplish after two failed attempts, I became the first person in the world to finish the Antarctica marathon in a wheelchair. The habit of thinking “I'M Possible” begets more breakthroughs when I became the first to accomplish the North Pole marathon as well.

Turning Adversity into Advantages

No one seems to be spared from challenges, adversities, setbacks, obstacles, defeats, downfalls or whatever form it may take. The saying goes that “uncertainty is certain”. To some, it become an excuse to retreat from progress. To others, they accept the status quo. Yet some chose to transform difficult circumstances into opportunities. With such purposeful mindset, they navigate through hardships, disruption, uncertainty and many significant challenges. They transform the latter into a platform to elevate themselves to greater heights. 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. I was denied opportunities even with kindergarten admission. 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).

Risking it all: Real risk management at the edge

It's no exaggeration to say that for many companies, survival is the strategic imperative. Some face dire economic conditions in their key markets. Others have moved aggressively abroad and are battling with unfamiliar risks. Others still are in sectors undergoing revolutionary change that may replace their entire product line. To survive in these circumstances, companies and their treasuries need some of the skills and mind set of those who have truly faced life and death decisions. What happens to all your risk management training when the chips really are down? This is a case of personal survival and an attempt to beat extreme odds that carries with it messages about goal setting, risk management, about teamwork, hope, and the art of the possible. This unique struggle can impart lessons to be used in your day to day life.
William's presentation was excellent... very inspiring, and he did a great job in linking it to Teradata's business. He was very well prepared. Teradata

On behalf of everyone at PCA who participated in the Cebu Leaders conference please accept our sincere thank you for an outstanding key note address. I have to tell you I was curious as to how your life experiences could be related to issues faced by our top agency leaders but you connected the two extremely well. I am sure everyone who attended saw the linkage between the challenges you have faced and how they could use your story to their benefit as they strive to 'sustain their success'. Your message was moving, inspirational and certainly informative. I extend my personal congratulations to you on your perseverance, successes and contributions made to the lives of others and I wish you all the best in future races.

Prudential Corporation Asia

I want to tell you that it was really an honour to have you among us. It was indeed a precious moment for our staff to meet you and to hear of you inspiring life stories. We are amazed by your resilience, determination and positive mind set which resulted in the many unbelievable achievements and world records you have created. We all wonder how you can achieve so much with you life. Your efforts spent in tailoring your speech to match our "Pilot Your Way" theme have shown us your usual professionalism and high standards you set for yourself. Your devotion to helping the underprivileged is another aspect we admire and look up to. You are a role model for our managers to emulate. I hope we can have you once again as speaker in our future staff event. I wish you all the best in your future endeavours. I am sure next time when we meet, you will have more life enriching experiences to share with us.


Just a quick note of thanks on your involvement in our International Conference in Singapore. You have certainly entertained, inspired and informed our people at a high level judging from the feedback received. I sincerely hope you enjoyed being part of our event. Thanks once again for being part of what is being heralded as our finest conference ever.

LJ Hooker

To the person, we walked away awed by your achievements, and the unquenchable fire of motivation, perseverance, and personal discipline that burns inside you. Rarely have we had the privilege to hear first hand an inspiring story like yours. I myself am humbled by what more I can be doing, given that we both have the same hours and days of the week, and you have accomplished so much. Thank you for sharing your story! In addition to the story and message, I wanted to commend you on the authentic way that you shared your story with the large audience. It was clear, inspiring, and humble. There was a story for everyone. You organised the talk to hit on the key event themes that we talked, without taking away from the story. I especially appreciated you weaving in the key event link words to personalise your talk.

Procter & Gamble, Asia Home, Power, & Professional
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