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Interview with Mr. Tatt Si Tan — President, Humanist Society (Singapore)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/04/30

Mr. Tatt Si Tan is the President of the Humanist Society (Singapore). Here we get to know his story a bit.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start with some background. What is your geographic, cultural, linguistic, and religious/ nonreligious upbringing?

Tatt Si Tan: I’m the 2nd Generation born in Singapore, from China (Hainan Island) immigrant grandparents. Chinese cultured and educated, my family’s religion bordered on Taoism to Chinese Folk religion.

At 16-years-old. my comfort in my own backyard was uprooted, heading to Toronto, Canada, for my Grade 13 senior high school, subsequently four years in Edmonton, Canada, for an electrical engineering degree.

I’m next to native in English, fluent in Chinese and its various official and dialect forms, and the regret is still not having picked up the endearing Canadian-French language after all these years.

Jacobsen: How does this impact a personal perspective on life? Were pivotal educational experiences important to intellectual development towards a humanistic one?

Tan: I saw the world outside of tiny Singapore, at a very young age, an age when I was most receptive, a time when critical thinking was given many stimuli from all over. There were a duty and responsibility not to squander this overseas opportunity, and to set a direction for my three younger sisters, all of whom also followed my footsteps to a Canadian education.

There was never pressure of acceptance by the gracious Canadians, and religion wasn’t necessary for real friendship there. Teenage years alone in a foreign land, I had a lot of growing up to do, to take care of myself and help subsequent freshmen.

I feel that my own experience of dealing loneliness in the bitter cold of winter, and drawing on mental strength were really important grafts, the seedling being the morality imparted by various cultures I experienced. Action speaks loudest.

Jacobsen: Why was the Humanist Society (Singapore) founded in the first place? What were the founding principles and guiding objectives? Have those changed over time?

Tan: While I’m not a founding member, HSS was founded at the back of Singapore’s most famous religious-agenda-creeping-into-public-space incident — The AWARE Saga. In short, it was about a Christian church taking over a women’s organization, to stop girls from being informed of the different sexual and gender complexities in the world.

Our continued presence is still important: while the government professes secularity, it being an edict does not help people understand why it is important to have a secular society.

Meanwhile, the Nones continued to be viewed with little or no moral compass, and the perceived infusion of LGBTs into the rungs of non-religious made the latter group even more immoral than before. Humanism needs to stake our moral and open stance, to dispel myths and dogmas.

Jacobsen: In terms of the ways in which humanism is seen in Singapore, as per the general population’s perspective on it, how do they see it? Or is it simply something below the general public’s radar?

Tan: Humanism is still a new concept in Singapore, and most only know a part of it by other names: atheism, agnosticism, freethinkers, critical thinking, etc. There is a positive, life-affirming side of humanism that is only beginning to be appreciated by more, and it took us 10 years to get to this stage.

Jacobsen: Singapore consistently scores the highest or among the highest in the world on metrics of educational outcomes of its young people. Humanism aims for education and knowledge about the natural world.

In a natural way, humanism seems perfectly suited to the educational context and outcomes of Singaporean youth. Do you think this could provide fertile ground for humanism to take hold in Singapore in society more and more into the 2020s?

Tan: Education, is just the acquisition of knowledge. Without internalizing that knowledge and using it flexibly to advance good causes, there is little wisdom in society. While there may be similar dynamics between Singapore and what it takes for humanism to get popularised, we have to understand that religions are tribal; and in Singapore, some religions are social status symbolisms.

Coupled with religions being generally better at organizing social and safety net programs, humanism must step up, not only by using our rather condescending tone of “science rules all” and “compassion because I am more privileged than you,” we must begin to evoke more passion in what we do, and to affect others by doing humanly works of love, opposite the religious invoking (un)conditional supernatural love.

Jacobsen: As the president, what are your tasks and responsibilities? What are the most difficult things or trying things in the job? And what are the most enjoyable and fulfilling, and rewarding, aspects of the position?

Tan: I can only speak for my presidency, which is to challenge paradigms, even from within HSS, because we are too used to conventional ways of working. Through the help of other volunteers like me, HSS has become wider in engagement, steeped in more subjects and issues, and more open with new ideas of bringing our good deeds to the greater society.

Dealing with people, isn’t easy, but can be the most rewarding. It sometimes feels like the end of the world (which is a big deal for those with only one life to live) when we couldn’t agree with each other, but when we step back, to realize we can all do with a little “not being easily offended,” we step right back, and on with the show. I’ve been privileged to work with people who think and work this way.

Jacobsen: Who are other important Singaporean Humanist or humanistic oriented ethical voices?

Tan: There are many who are probably closeted, or feel that pronouncing their non-religion don’t help with their cause or work. Thankfully, we find that even some religious people can wear the humanist moniker, especially when they de-emphasize the supernatural part of their belief system.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved with HSS through membership, donations, access to professional networks or skills, and so on?

Tan:, and our FB page.

Jacobsen: Any recommended authors or speakers from Singapore that take on either a Humanist or a Humanistic lens?

Tan: Top of my head, the two “Humanist of the Year” recipients Ms. Catherine Lim and Mr. Alex Au. Ms. Lim is the most celebrated writer here. Mr. Au is a social worker, blogging on

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Tan: The more successful we get, the more people might feel complacent about the religious dynamics in society. Religion is not our enemy, but we can be in religions’ crosshairs. Our nascent popularity belies a stronger and opposite force that pushes us into dogmatic ways, which is something we must grapple with, and be self-critical of.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Mr. Tan.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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