'We need to acknowledge the fact that living with a disability is hard in itself. The people with disabilities out there who don't get recognized... are winning their own battles every single day.'
Jonathan Tiong was just an infant when a neurologist told his parents that their son wouldn't live past the age of two. Born with type two spinal muscular atrophy, a rare genetic condition that causes muscles to become weak and break down, the child was expected to get weaker with time. A little over two decades later, on October 21, 2021—the same day he turned 24 years old—Tiong graduated from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Class of 2021 with a degree in Communications and New Media as valedictorian. However, despite having grappled with an array of challenges—including fatigue and limited accessibility—throughout the years to earn the honor, the inspiring young man told Channel News Asia that he hadn't expected to be crowned valedictorian.
"I think that's a recurring theme... I'm always being caught by surprise about good things. I didn't think I’d be valedictorian for the simple reason that I was not a typical valedictorian. I didn't lead a (co-curricular activity), I wasn't the captain of some sports team, that kind of thing," Tiong said, describing himself as "a very plain and average student" throughout university. "I studied a lot, got good grades, but so did a lot of other people. So I didn't really feel outstanding."
Tiong—who requires a full-time caregiver, a role taken on by his father—revealed that he could only attend classes that did not require him to stretch his day out too long since spending a lengthy period in a wheelchair would make parts of his body in contact with the wheelchair ache. Keeping his balance or turning his head also required much effort. After three years of attending classes in this manner, things turned around when the pandemic hit and remote learning became the norm.
"It takes away a lot of our limitations from the equation. When I'm at home, I don't have to travel anywhere so that takes away the accessibility and the logistics issue," Tiong explained. "I don't have to involve other people who have to bring me physically around, so I'm a lot more independent in that sense." He explained that his college experience could've been a lot easier if those in charge had been more flexible. "A lot of the time we are told by administrators that: 'Oh we can't do this because – rules.'... But a lot of accommodations are actually a mindset thing," he said. "People seem to have this concept that if you want to accommodate the disabled, we need billions of dollars. I don't think that's true."
Tiong, who now holds a prestigious job as an editorial writer at sovereign wealth fund GIC, pointed to how being allowed to work remotely at his present job has not cost his employer anything. "It's a matter of will and decision-making," he said. "I'm fully aware of the dire state of disability employment in Singapore. The reality is most disabled Singaporeans end up jobless or you will be looking for months, if not years. I wasn't looking forward to that."
Despite having achieved a lot in his life, Tiong is pushing for people to change their understanding of what constitutes success. "I think the only reason why I've gotten the attention that I have when I post something online or when the media writes about me... is because I've met the traditional markers of success: Good degree, good job, prestigious company... despite being disabled," he said. "We need to acknowledge the fact that living with a disability is hard in itself. And every day, the people with disabilities out there who don't get recognized, don't get covered, are winning their own battles every single day. If we recalibrate our definition of what it means to succeed, you'll find that everyone out there who is disabled, toiling away, day in day out quietly, no fanfare – I would say they are succeeding too. We all are."