If there is one sensory faculty people take the most for granted, it would without a doubt be sight.
And arguably, much of Singapore’s establishment, infrastructure and way of life — right down to crucial things like education — assume this to be a given.
Yeo Sze Ling knows this better than anyone.
From age four, she started losing her sight gradually. Now, she can only see differences in light — what she sees are indistinguishable shadows, and perhaps can tell between day and night, outdoors and indoors at most.
Despite this, she went so far beyond her blindness that through sheer grit, she worked all the way up to a PhD in Math, is now a researcher with A*STAR, and her story has moved thousands, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to tears.
Dr Yeo with a braille typewriter
Plays down accomplishments
We met Yeo on one Tuesday afternoon in December, during which she, just like many of us, was clearing leave she had no time to use during the year — close to 30 days of it.
Despite not taking any of the time off to travel, she was nonetheless very busy with year-end gatherings. These include meeting groups like her fellow alumni for the Singapore Youth Award, a national National Youth Council accolade given to young overachieving Singaporeans that she received in 2012.
Instead of talking about the award itself, she sidetracks about bringing us along for the buffet, which she declares is good, throwing in an anecdote about meeting a fellow mathematician, PM Lee, who geeked out over cryptography, which she currently works on, with her.
“Like, I mean, I just mentioned some math terms and he got really excited… I first met him at some A*Star event, and I actually told him, oh mathematics is very important in cryptography — like currently there are some objects which I use in cryptography — so I think on the day of the awards after I told him that, he went to check it out. So funny; I was quite surprised!”
In fact, she met us right after a lunch appointment with two former graduate math students from China, whom she mentored while working on their respective PhDs at the National University of Singapore.
Dr Yeo at her PhD commencement ceremony
In our brief conversation with them, they had nothing but high praise for her and how much they had learned from her. In response, however, she declares with a laugh, “They’re just saying that because you’re here!”
Yeo’s self-effacing, down-to-earth demeanour permeates the entire two hours that we spend with her. She happily met us without even understanding why we wanted to tell her story — not because it was a waste of her time, nor because it’s been told multiple times before in different forms, but simply because she didn’t see it as, well, that big a deal.
“Actually, I mean, it’s also not really the end of the world (to be visually-impaired or to have other special needs. I also don’t know what happened to me when I was young and when I was growing up… things kind of just happened.”
She speaks very matter-of-factly about a publicity blitz she ended up going on when she was mentioned by PM Lee as a glowing example in his 2013 National Day Rally speech — her story reportedly moved him to tears, by the way:
“I had a lot of interviews (back in 2013) right, so I was also asked to do a lot of sharings in different places. Personally actually I don’t really enjoy such publicity but it was a bit difficult to reject… so I didn’t reject (laughs)!
Yeah, so I just took it as an opportunity to share that my story is not really about myself but about people who have helped me along the way and many people who have opened doors for me.”
Dr Yeo using a braille typewriter
A math prodigy
Braille, interestingly, actually isn’t that difficult to learn — Yeo showed us quite matter-of-factly that it’s simply a series of raised dots, one added with each advancing letter.
At age seven, she learned it when her mother eventually gave up trying to find a cure for her blindness, and enrolled her in a school for the visually handicapped. There, she studied for her PSLE and ended up scoring 222, because there were many diagrams in her science paper asking her to identify animals and plants.
She found herself taking a real liking to solving puzzles and math problems in her head, though, and did that in her free time instead of all the outdoor activities or hobbies folks had that ordinarily require eyesight.
Math was a solace for a shy, reserved Yeo, who back when she was growing up found herself being questioned by inquisitive young children or classmates, sometimes quite offensively, about her blindness.
Yeo was also extremely deft with the abacus, and used it throughout primary school to work out sums.
All this, therefore, made her really, really, really good at it.
Dr Yeo Sze Ling celebrating her first birthday with her mother
Transcribing everything into Braille, at higher levels
But one thing was clear: she wasted no time wallowing in self-pity. Yeo painstakingly transcribed her learning material throughout her older schooling years into the language she could “read”.
But at the same time, it was a far more uphill journey than can be dismissed in a sentence — Yeo was the first visually-impaired student in her JC, and then in NUS Science.
During her time at the School for the Visually Handicapped (now renamed to Lighthouse School) and Bedok South Secondary, she had resource teachers who transcribed worksheets, test papers and also read out words written on the board for her to record and later on transcribe into Braille at home.
Yeo did this with the help of a clunky metal typewriter with six keys and a spacebar — it’s heavy and has its own case, and even though she no longer needs it (thanks to dictation software and technology), she still keeps it alongside some of her older Braille books and textbooks.
But in Serangoon JC and NUS, she was on her own. Her toughest times, she says, were her years in NUS.
“I really totally had no idea what a visually impaired person can work as in Singapore, (and) because I was interested in doing math… that makes things even worse — people were asking, ‘what can a blind person do with a degree in math??’ and I also have no answer.”
Being the pioneer visually-impaired student in NUS’s Science faculty, there were no notes or any materials whatsoever in Braille.
So not only did she have to scramble to get notes from classes like everyone else, Yeo needed the additional step of getting a friend to read the notes out loud and record it, so that she could follow up later on and transcribe them into Braille.
She stresses how thankful she is, though, for the help of kind friends who did all that for her, and very supportive lecturers who specially did research into JAWS, a screen-reading software, to teach Yeo how to use it so she could benefit from using a computer.
“It was really quite amazing that I had a lot of nice friends in University; so many of them really helped me in different ways.”
They also administered most of her exams verbally — so the question would be read out to her, she would work it out in her head and tell them the answer on the spot. Crazy, we agree.
“What can a blind person do with a degree in math?”
Being able to do well in school was certainly a preoccupation of Yeo’s, but hanging over her head was the constant question of what she could actually do with her degree — provided she could even get there.
“So that’s why my A*STAR scholarship really came at a time where I didn’t expect it. When I first stepped into NUS I had no idea if I could even graduate, so don’t even talk about doing a PhD!”
The kiasu side of Yeo was, as you might expect, also slightly antsy about the fact that unlike her batchmates, she would not be able to practice or do 10-year series revisions, for instance.
“Of course I will feel very stressed that people around me practice so much and I don’t get to practice. But I think circumstances also taught me that sometimes it’s not really the amount of things you practice, or just, I have to focus on what I have an on my notes.
That’s why when I’m doing my own notes I tried to focus more, so I guess that in a way helped.”
But honestly, Yeo had little to worry about — she went on to graduate top of her entire cohort, clinched the scholarship and completed her PhD in Mathematics. She now does research in cryptography at A*STAR, and is happy as a clam.
“There are other theoretical parts of math that I’m also keen on working on, but I also enjoy the crypto part because it is a direct application of math theory — so it’s really quite cool to see it apply.”
Conquering new challenges
Today, Yeo not only continues to be a living billboard that screams, “If I can do it, you have no excuses”, but also uses her gifts and personal experience navigating Singapore’s higher education system to share with younger peers who struggle.
She gives Math tuition over Skype audio meetings for students in JC, polytechnic and university who are struggling with the transition between Lighthouse, secondary school and the mainstream higher education system.
“I think that’s the most important change (since 2013, when her story became known to the public) — that I get to know many more people: people who write to find me in some ways, and tell me that they also have a kid with special needs or stuff like that. I then see if I can help them in one way or another… So I guess these to me are the more meaningful things.”
Believe it or not, she also shyly admits that she has spent the past year learning to cycle, thanks to a former teacher who was also doing so and encouraged her to try.
“The first few lessons were really, really intimidating because it was quite scary… and I realised that wow, it’s really a leap of faith and I just have to continue cycling.
But I think it’s an interesting challenge… To be able to cycle on my own feels quite liberating, just that it’s still scary!”
Dr Yeo reading a braille book
Singapore can still do more
We asked Yeo if Singapore can be a better place for our visually-impaired citizens to live — she started off making it clear that things are way better now, with schools having more money for equipment and even disability officers to assist students in need.
But she did highlight a few concrete ways our infrastructure can be improved:
– Using audio announcements on buses — these were at one point used on some SMRT buses, but seem to eventually have been phased out completely apart from the sound of the “Bus Stopping” button and closing doors.
– Making sure the traffic light crossing beeps are loud enough to hear — Yeo notes that they used to be loud enough, but often finds they get drowned out by traffic, suspecting too that the volume on the traffic lights was reduced over the years in response to complaints.
– Improving tactile guides at train stations — especially for someone who is unfamiliar, it’s not clear at all where the bumps and lines on the floor lead to.
Time flew by, and we had soon overstayed our welcome in Yeo’s home, where in a cluttered room she shares with her sister — of course, she declares she still knows where everything is — a small whiteboard displays the Braille equivalent of the numbers 1 to 10.
Yeo explains with a laugh, when we ask, that her toddler niece has been interested and learning the alphabet in Braille.
And it’s her niece who reminds Yeo that there is still value in doing interviews like ours, or sharing sessions with groups large or small.
“I just want to bring out this message that, the help and such opportunities that people are willing to give to us — that makes a lot of difference to us, and these are things that I appreciate very much.”
With everything, she is still thankful.