A Father’s Vision, A Daughter’s Mission

NUS Alumna Dr Tham Kah Poh sets up a scholarship to fulfil her late father’s wish

Mr Tham at Excelsior 2For decades, Mr Tham Kai Shui worked hard to perfect his craft, making bespoke suits for a distinguished clientele that included the late President Mr Wee Kim Wee and veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh. 

“Before he passed away, my father had expressed that he wished he had the money to set up an education fund for students from China, so that they could be well educated and enabled to seek a better life for themselves and their families,” Dr Tham Kah Poh revealed.

Setting up the Scholarship to benefit all deserving students is the NUS alumna’s way of honouring her father’s dedication and sacrifice for the family, as well as a celebration of his firm belief in education as a path out of poverty and deprivation. It is also a meaningful memorial for her father as 2020 is the centennial year of his birth.

Indeed, Mr Tham knew what it meant to be poor and in need.

Born in the Guangdong province of China, he lost his father when he was only three years old. By the age of 15, a young Mr Tham had made the difficult and dangerous journey across the South China Sea to Singapore, sharing a boat with coolies. He managed to find a job as a tailor’s apprentice but earned such low wages, he often went hungry for days.

Mr Tham at ExcelsiorIt was with much hard work, perseverance, and support from his church-pastor granduncle that he managed to rise above his circumstances by setting up his own tailor shop. 

With total freedom to design and express his creativity, Mr Tham’s flair and great sense of style started to attract attention, earning him the favour of his growing pool of clients. 

His foresight and resourcefulness further helped him to grow his business. Figuring that he needed to know the English language better to widen his clientele, he took night classes to brush up on his command of it.

A firm believer in the power of education, Mr Tham toiled at his shop to see all his six children through tertiary education, five of whom studied at NUS.

“We knew when we were little, from as young as pre-kindergarten days, how much he and Mum wanted us to do well in school and secure a good career,” said Dr Tham.

There was no need for any scolding, beating, threats or bribes. Dr Tham and her siblings never gave their parents any cause for concern over their academic results.

Remembering her father for his stoicism in the face of life’s ups and downs, Dr Tham shared that his tenacity and sense of identity are guiding principles for her in her own life.

“He went about his commitments with such quiet dedication, foresight, resourcefulness and sense of purpose. All of us, his children, would not be where we are today if not for his firm belief and grasp of what he had to do for us to give us a good head start for life,” she said.Dr Tham and Mr Tham for her Convocation-1

Just as her father had given her the opportunity to reach her full potential, Dr Tham now hopes to help others through the Tham Kai Shui Excelsior Scholarship. 

She knows how much difference an award like this can make to individuals, having graduated in Dental Surgery at NUS under the Public Services Commission (PSC) Merit Bursary. The degree paved the way for a Masters in Business Administration and a successful career with milestone roles, such as the first Chief Executive Officer of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Singapore and the Chief Information Officer of the National Heritage Board.

Speaking from experience, Dr Tham hopes that the Tham Kai Shui Excelsior Scholarship will make a difference in the lives of its recipients. She remarked, “I hope the Scholarship will help fulfil the dreams of its recipients by giving them the opportunity to study at NUS and acquire important knowledge, skills, values, networks and other resources to live a productive and inspiring life. Hopefully, they themselves will pay it forward when they have the opportunity to do so.”