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Great Men That Influenced my Life

December 28, 2008

We grow and we are inspired by people around us by what they do.  It’s part of growing up to idolize popular figures, for instance, kids, nowadays may idolize Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, and then go on with other characters that are usually what they want to be or aspire to be when they grow up.  But some may be inspired by their own father or mother or pastor or teacher.  I’ll like to list the people who influenced and inspired me, small and great.


My brother

It’s natural that a younger one follows his slightly older brother/sister like his shadow.  My brother is only 363 days older than me and like most siblings, we fight.  The younger one learn from the older one everything from use of the chopsticks to reading to math.  My brother did not influence me in math.  Although he inspired me to, run the first marathon and join the school swimming competition one-year after learning how to swim, he never influenced me to do math.  In fact, he’s so bad in math, he has to ask me what is 7×7 or 6×7 when he needed it.  He has many years of full-time pre-school but I only have those PAP kindergarten.  But I quickly outsmart him.  Eventually he did not even have a minimum 2 ‘A’s and 2 ‘O’s.  But that was a blessing in disguise.  For that, he only has to serve the military for 2 years instead of the usual two and a half years.  And he has a far more intellectual life than most NUS graduates I know.

My Primary School Form Teacher

This is usually the person who will teach you for many years in Primary School.  He started as my form teacher for primary 3 and then continue on until the end of PSLE.  "Wah lao, this is even longer than your corporal or platoon leader in the Army", I always thought to myself.  No wonder everyone remembers their primary school form teachers.  Some of my friends have the same form teacher for SIX years!  By Mr Lee was a muscular man who also teaches us math, English and PE.  His skills in badminton is probably the most spectacular.  And in this primary class, we have Gurmit Singh (singer, actor, comedian) and Abdul Hamid Khan (held No. 1 title in badminton for a long time, 1992 Barcelona Olympics, 1989/ 1991 /1993 SEA Games).  When I met him in school reunion before I went to Toronto for my Graduate School, he wowed at my plans for studies.  Somebody you admire actually wowed at what you want to do is a sense of achievement, at least when you were just in the 20s.

My ACJC Physics Lecturer Mr Lenn


Mr. Lenn is better known as a swim coach (Singapore Swim coach of the year 1985 of David Lim, Oon Jin Teik/Gee, Ang Peng Siong — featured in Singapedia) than an uncanny teacher.  By most students’ comment, he taught extremely badly and failed most of us on the first test/lab including me.  Yes, I failed my first Physics test because I don’t even understand his questions.  Then I almost failed my first lab because it contained only ONE line and we were only given some strings, a known weight a one-meter rod to come up with the gravity constant, g.  His teaching is unique.  Despite some curses under the breadth of other students after this ridiculous test, I failed the test and achieve "awakening".  I went home to think about the lab question for a long, long time and in the end, solved it and thought this guy was a genius.  After getting back my first test paper (I think it was a zero), I gave the questions some thought again and yours truly who just got ‘A1" for "Physical Science" was distraught as how JC Physics could be so different.  I began my journey to gave thoughts to the test questions and the whole Physics subject.  From these deep thoughts, I stopped having any science/math textbooks, or even copied any legible notes in Physics.  I rushed to the ACJC library every end of the day and solved the hardest problem Lenn Wei Leng can give.  I still hated him for a while because he ridiculed my swimming skills so much, I took up running instead.  I’ve never heard anything good about this teacher from all my friends except comments army people made about their Encik like "this guy is a b@&t@rd".  But he made me pushed myself beyond just "best in class" or "Best All Round student of Gan Eng Seng".  He made me compete with myself over what I can do.  He indirectly showed me how to compete with oneself and there’s no need to fear even the best of Hwa Chong students or NJC students (who I eventually met in NUS).  Later in NUS, I learnt that Mr. Lenn actually has a first class Honour degree in Physics which he never mentioned.  I learn to learn without buying books in the sciences in ACJC.

My OC Captain Jimmy something

As my ITB commanding officer, he was also a ranger.  Rangers go through training similar to a Navy SEAL.  And he got his Ranger from America.  He is both kind and capable.  As an army recruit, almost everyone above you treats you badly.  And to make things worse, they’re not even in the same physical shape as you.  I could run a few miles without even breaking a sweat just before my BMT.  But our corporals and platoon leader had to train everyone in this Special Scholar Platoon. The physical is nothing to me at that time but the unwillingness to be led/taught by someone half your intellectual and physical capability was something my arrogant mind could not take.  Until this Captain Jimmy came about.  I don’t know if he’s some kind of scholar, but he is lean, small, bespectacled and graduated from some good universities.  And to see that he can follow us in the running with ease earned my immediate respect.  Even his coaxing of a recruit (who eventually signed SAF-1411) really bring up the gentleness in this rough army ranger.

My other OC Captian Chong

After I was downgraded, I was posted to the Naval Supply Base in this Inventory Management Department.  My commanding officer is neither a ranger nor a physical enthusiast.  Captain Chong left office right on time and I was his Personal Assistant.  He was good looking but it’s his English and his ability to write powerful letters that inspired me.  He had an MBA and kept the whole department running very smoothly even though he never seemed to have to work overtime.  Eventually before I left the Supply Base in Pulau Brani, he became the C.O. of the entire Naval Supply Base.  Even though I get to see Admiral Teo Chee Hean a lot, I never thought highly of him.  "My OC, a small time captain who did his job well in his small IMD taught me what being efficient and organised is.  His the power of the pen over the sword is something I carried with me just before I enter the NUS."

Physicists (Dick Feynman, C.N. Yang, Freeman Dyson etc.)

The list of Physicists that inspired me is very, very long.  In NUS, there was this Hong Kong student who knew so much Physics said he had read the whole of Halliday and Resnick book even before the first year.  And he is attempting to do the problems of Feynman’s book.  "Surely Feyman’s book can’t be all that difficult", I said to myself.  I went to the library and all Feynman’s Physics book were checked out.  So I check out his novel entitled "Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feyman! (Adventures of a curious character)" instead.  Then I began to really admire this Nobel Laureate.  I came to understand that even being well-known as a prankster and a juggler, one can be a great scientist and teacher!  This great scientist has many resemblance with Mr. Lenn of ACJC, except much greater.  It is also through Feynman, that I vowed to become a teacher and to teach differently.  My first trial was in Hwa Chong JC as a relief teacher.  My method actually worked.  Students loved learning and gave me positive feedback like "I learnt in this two weeks more than what I did the whole year!"  I have to add Einstein to the list too ’cause after learning what he came up, one cannot help but marvel at how he theorised Theory of Relativity after years of unsolved mystery from Michel-Morely experiment (to find out what is the speed of the universe’s ether), Mercury’s strange behavior (maybe there’s a planet Vulcan?).  But he’s long dead before I was born.  I listened to Dr. C.N. Yang during his articulate lectures.  And this man’s work inspired me a lot to continue learning Physics even after I declared my major as Mathematics.  He (杨振宁)won the Nobel Prize in "Non conservation" or "non-commuatative algebra" with 李政道.  The basic question is commutativity (which is the basis of conservativeness):  why should 3+4 be the same as 4+3?  Why should the weak interaction be so nice as to be commutative?  Challenging that led him to his Nobel winning paper on non-parity of weak interaction.  (I think I shall not go on beyond this, it’s getting too technical.)

And I read about Dyson, one of the four great physicists, in Feyman’s book, and marvelled at how rebellious he was as a young man (below are some pictures of him).

dyson-old dysn-young

Dyson is born in Britain and never bother doing a PhD (but had many PhD students under him)!  Yet he stands shoulder to shoulder with Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer and all the great physicists in the Manhattan Project.  He never won any Nobel Prize but in my heart he more than deserved that Prize that Feynman and Tomonaga won on "Monochromatic QED" in 1965.

But what really excites me was an encounter with DYson in the year 1998, I flew to St. Peter in Minnesota for an interview and stayed in a Guest House.  There were many rooms in this guest house but that time, only Dr. Dyson and myself were in the house.  So after my hectic interview, I chatted with this old man.  I didn’t knew was Dyson until he told me he actually looked at "homotopy theory" even though his work is mainly in Physics that I suspect he must be the person I read about a lot.  Our talk that night was mainly casual and nothing deep in the Math or Physics.

Mr. O.

I do not know Mr. O nor have I read about him in my life.  But I’ll list out some "similarities" between him and me

  1. His surname and mine start with O.
  2. He is in his late forties.  I am in my "middle" forties.
  3. He has two young daughters, I have one.
  4. He bounced around in the world, I have one leg in Asia and the other in America.
  5. He has to move to D.C. this January, I have to go to D.C. this coming January.
  6. He loves long walks with his wife, I like taking long walks but I haven’t done that since graduate days.
  7. He work out at least 90 minutes a day (6 days a week), I try to do exercise for 30-40 mins a day (5 days a week).
  8. He’s been in Indonesia for a few years, I’ve visited Indonesia numerous times and up to a month sometimes.
  9. His step-sister married a Canadian (parents Malaysian Chinese) Math Professor, my step-sister married a Vietnamese Australian.
  10. He’s got a graduate degree from HLS and I’ve got a graduate degree from U of Rochester.
  11. He was a lecturer in a law school, I am still a lecturer.
  12. He gave up high paying jobs with his HLS degree, I always say I gave up complacency in my hometown.

Although Mr. O. probably gave up billions of dollars in his life decision, he had a book deal recently that gave him at least a million dollars.  My giving up of a job offer by Defence Science Organization probably only mean a difference of S$1,234,567.89 in my lifetime.  A drop in the bucket compared to Mr. O.  But it’s not the money that made Mr. O my inspiration.  Mr. O. tries to lead a simple, routine life.  He exercises, then he reads, then he plays with his children, be with his wife.  In short he is a family man.  He finds meaning in simplicity and his gave up many things to help people.  Most of all, he believed in exercise.  He’s been doing that since he was 22 year-old after he transferred from Occidental College to Columbia University.  He believes in good upbringing and that his daughters will be subjected to normal house chores even though with his wealth and fame, it’s going to be hard to execute that.  He still smokes a little but his exercise were mainly cardiovascular and he never does it for showing off his body.  Hence he never quite have a six-pack.


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