If Sze Ling looks familiar, it’s probably because you saw her on television during this year’s National Day Rally. She was the blind research scientist who famously made Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong tear up with emotion as he described how she had trounced the odds to achieve three degrees in Mathematics, including a PhD.
In fact, months before the rally, Her World had named the 35-year-old our Young Woman Achiever. For several days in June, we visited her home and office in A*Star’s Institute for Infocomm Research, and got her to relate this intimate account of her life. It’s a tale that surprises (she used to dread talking to people), charms (she’s iffy about her sister’s Facebook addiction) and saddens (she shares her struggles with finding a job). Ultimately, it speaks of a woman who didn’t just overcome a disability—she turned it into a strength.
And we’ll admit: We were moved to tears of our own.
IN DR YEO SZE LING’S WORDS …
“For simplicity’s sake, I often tell reporters that I lost my sight at four—roughly when I was diagnosed with glaucoma.
“But the truth is, I don’t remember when the exact turning point was, when I went from seeing to not seeing. The onset of blindness was gradual, punctuated with several unsuccessful eye operations. In my first days of primary school, I was still struggling to read the words on the blackboard at Fairfield Methodist School—I couldn’t, and a month later, my parents transferred me to the Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped. I was placed in the kindergarten class, so throughout my school days, I was a year older than my peers.
“The few things I remember seeing are colours and the letters of the alphabet—at least, when they were written with a thick, black marker. I have no memories of a human face, not even those of my parents.
“These days, I rely on my walking cane and basic light perception. I can sense contrasts in light and dark, such as when someone shines a torch in my eyes.
“But thanks to technology, I can read. Besides braille and audio books, I have a special computer software that can read out e-books to me.
“One of my favourite books is An Anthropologist on Mars by neurologist Oliver Sacks. In it, he writes about the real-life case of Virgil, a man who underwent surgery to regain his sight after 45 years of blindness. Instead of being overjoyed, Virgil was overwhelmed. He struggled to adapt to a new way of ‘seeing’ the world and had problems doing simple things like gauging the distance between steps, or even getting used to his own shadow. He eventually became depressed.
“His story gave me a new perspective: Perhaps regaining my sight wouldn’t be the best thing to happen to me. Perhaps I ought to focus on making use of the gifts I do have.
“I was once asked whether being blind has ever stopped me from living a full life. I suppose it depends on how you define a ‘full life’. I can’t deny that my blindness is a limitation in a world that operates by sight.
“But if a full life means making full use of my talents and learning how to overcome challenges… Well, being blind has helped me do that more than anything else has.
SOLUTIONS EVERYWHERE—IF YOU LOOK
“Back in 2001, after I had graduated top of my faculty with a first class honours, I started searching for a job. I went for interviews, only to have people tell me it was impossible and that there was no way I could do the work. The experience left me discouraged and was one reason why I went back to school to pursue my master’s.
“I was lucky to get a graduate scholarship from A*Star a couple of years later, which funded my doctoral studies and came with a two-year bond. But my job-hunting experience made me reflect on how people tend to look at problems first. Growing up, I was constantly told that finding work would be tough. Some said my best bets were becoming a masseuse, telephone operator or a busker!
“I never considered those options. I suppose that’s one of the first things being blind taught me. I learnt from a young age that I needed to find solutions to challenges. I learnt not to say no and not to give up easily, even when people felt that a task was too difficult for me.
“Back when I was a student, for instance, many believed that the visually handicapped were more suited to the humanities, like history or literature. These subjects didn’t involve equations or formulae, which are hard to translate into braille.
“I disagreed. Even as a child, I knew that I liked Mathematics. Math deals with logic; you don’t need to read a lot of books to ‘get’ it. I found I was able to solve problems simply by thinking them through in my mind.
“Of course, there were challenges. When I attended a mainstream secondary school and junior college, I spent a lot of time tape-recording my classmates and sister reading out chapters in my textbook so I could transcribe my materials into braille. When it came to diagrams and graphs, I got people to etch the figures out with a pen onto a special rubber mat, which created an embossment I could feel.
“There were stressful moments close to my exams, when I still had piles of notes that hadn’t been transcribed. I had to tell myself that it wasn’t how much I read that was important, but how much I understood.
“I suppose it worked. I scored 10 points for my O levels, and 4 As and an A1 for General Paper for my A levels. But I’ll admit: I expected to do better for my O levels!
“Still, people didn’t understand why I wanted to attend university. They felt that getting a degree wouldn’t make much difference to my job prospects. I went ahead anyway and didn’t just study Math—I took up computing modules too, as I felt it would be a good chance to learn a new skill, never mind that I had never touched a computer in my life!
“I think my lecturer was quite stunned when I walked into his office, asking if he would accept me into his computing course. But he agreed and did some research before introducing me to Jaws, the software I use for work today—it transforms my computer into a ‘talking’ one that can read out documents, e-mails and websites. I was able to download lecture notes, surf the web and even read the news online—I used to be clueless about current affairs as I couldn’t read newspapers. I ended up graduating with a minor in computer programming and applications.
“So the thing I’ve learnt is this: There are solutions around us, if only we spend time figuring them out. If we go looking for a problem, we are definitely going to find some—problems are everywhere. Even a sighted person may, for various reasons, struggle in school or in a job, but that shouldn’t stop her from trying. We all have to start somewhere.
OPENING UP TO PEOPLE
“Growing up, I was a shy kid. I kept to myself and didn’t like interacting with people. In school, I used to dread being called on by my teachers to answer questions—I hated the feeling of everyone looking at me.
“Being blind didn’t help. Because of my walking cane, I tended to attract stares. When I boarded buses, friends would tell me that people were looking. I never took out my braille books to read in public and disliked asking bus drivers for help because I was terrified of drawing attention to myself.
“But while my disability made me self-conscious, it also ironically helped me break out of my shell. After all, I had to interact with people to get about my life. There was the fact that I relied on classmates when transcribing my notes. At bus stops, I would ask people to tell me when my bus was approaching, or for directions, if I wasn’t sure of my way. Some kind ones even walked me all the way home!
“Sometimes, people would approach me on the streets asking why I was blind or commenting that I was ‘a poor thing’. Others were more blunt. One taxi driver who picked me up at NUS said, ‘You cannot see, still can study here meh?’
“I used to get annoyed and give curt replies like ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m just like that’. But after a while, I tried a different approach: When people asked,‘Why can’t you see?’ I would simply share my story.
“What I didn’t expect was how this encouraged complete strangers to open up to me. Sometimes, while walking me home, they would pour out their life stories, their troubles and how they too were ‘very poor things’, spurned by loved ones or ill-treated in their workplace.
“Slowly, I learnt to appreciate people more and to look at their strengths. People are nice, in general. For instance, although I know the route from my home to my workplace well, I often get strangers volunteering to guide me to the escalators or ticketing gantries at MRT stations, which speeds up my journey.
“I’m also not as shy as I once was. Among my group of visually impaired friends, I’m usually the one organising gatherings like potlucks at my house or picnics at East Coast Park—well, I’m also the kaypoh girl who wants to know how everyone is doing. And from being the student who hated being called out in class, I now occasionally teach seminar classes for graduate students at Nanyang Technological University, where I am an assistant adjunct professor. I often ask my students questions and hold discussions to see if they understand the material, because I can’t tell from their expressions or body language.
“One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that I’m still quite private and don’t like to share personal information about myself. I never got the whole blogging thing and I refuse to get a Facebook account. I’m still trying to convince my sister not to post so much on Facebook—I don’t want the world knowing what we’ve been up to!
PAYING IT FORWARD
“The greatest lesson I’ve learnt, because of my disability, is humility. I’m fully aware that my achievements are not of my own effort. People have given me lots of opportunities to do things beyond my imagination, such as getting a degree and securing a job.
“And that’s why I try to give back in my own little way. When it comes to helping the visually handicapped, I’m passionate when it comes to education. I give free Mathematics tuition to blind students and invite them to social gatherings with visually impaired friends who are my age—I think it’s good for them to meet other people who have been through the same experiences as they have.
“From personal experience, I also know how hard it is to get hold of study materials in braille. In fact, the first volunteer project I embarked on in university involved teaching Chinese braille to a secondary school student, Tan Siew Ling, who is now 26. Back then, blind students in Singapore weren’t able to take Chinese as a subject in schools because we didn’t have the ability to write and read in the language. Though I speak Mandarin fluently at home, I never studied it formally.
“So in 1998, I spent one and a half months in Beijing with three other visually impaired volunteers learning Chinese braille. The project was sponsored by the Independent Society of the Blind, and it was my first time on a plane. We were all pretty nervous, but it helped that there were teachers from the Beijing School of the Blind who guided us around. We stayed at a motel near the school and the teachers picked us up every day for lessons.
“When we came back, we had sighted people read Siew Ling’s textbooks out to us so we could transcribe them into Chinese braille. It was a huge effort, involving around 10 volunteers and spanning several years. Eventually, Siew Ling became the first blind person in Singapore to pass the Chinese O and A-level exams in 2003 and 2005 respectively.
“It takes a lot of time, money and manpower to convert a single book into braille, just for the benefit of one or two students. If you look at things from a cost-benefit perspective, it isn’t worth the while. But I hope this isn’t the only way we measure things as a society.
“I suppose the other reason why I give back is that it helps me grow as a person. Through helping others, I have learnt to appreciate the help I received – and continue to receive – even more: the time my classmates spent reading out my schoolbooks to me; the effort my teachers made converting my exam papers into braille; and how my employers were brave enough to take a chance in hiring me.
“We tend to think that we can do things by ourselves, but certainly, in my case, I know I didn’t do it alone. And for that, I am ever grateful.” HW
DR YEO SZE LING IN A NUTSHELL
Born in 1977, Sze Ling is the middle child of three children. Her father is a retired public health inspector, and her mother, a former hawker’s assistant. She completed her O and A levels at Bedok South Secondary School and Serangoon Junior College, and became the first completely blind person to pursue Mathematics up to a PhD level at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Since 2005, she has been a research scientist at A*Star’s Institute for Infocomm Research, writing papers on coding theory and cryptography, the science of encrypting and protecting data. Last year, she won the Singapore Youth Award, the nation’s highest accolade for youth who have excelled in their fields, given back to society and inspired others.