Sze Hian meets an indomitable 13 year old.

The indomitable spirit of a young girl

Leong Sze Hian

I have written over 1,000 articles and letters over the years, but have never done an interview before.

So, when TOC editor Andrew Loh sent an email 4 hours before the World Book Fair event requesting if anyone on the TOC team could interview a 13-year old girl, I volunteered. As it turned out, it was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had.

You see, this 13-year old girl is Charmaine Tan.

To be a published author

Charmaine is suffering from end stage kidney failure, on top of a congenital eye disease which led to her being visually-impaired today. Despite these impediments, however, she has a voracious appetite for reading, as attested to by her doctor at the National University Hospital, Dr Yap.

Charmaine has one wish – to be a published author. She has written a story titled “Ceryni’s Secret” for the book, Pick Me Up, which is a compilation of stories written by more than 40 people.

Through the effort of the Pick Me Up committee and the Make A Wish Foundation Singapore, her wish was granted, and that is why she and her mother were there at the Suntec Convention Centre (SCC) to launch the book.

As I made my way to the SCC, I was quite excited – I felt like I was going on a first date! The place was filled with people and it was noisy. I made my way through the crowd and finally found Charmaine with her mother in the midst of signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans and supportive members of the public.

“Words are like drawing a picture”

I introduced myself and asked if we could chat for a while. Her voice was very soft. So I had to move closer to hear her better.

Charmaine told me that she loves to write because “words are like drawing a picture, like walking into a movie theatre and making a movie”.

“What do you like to write most?” I asked her.

“Short novels. Sometimes, tragedies, but my favourites are fantasies”, she replied.

Her favourite novels are the Harry Potter series.

She is now writing a story about an LCD projector that can talk. The story is set in the 22nd century, when Singapore has become the greatest nation in the world. The talking projector meets and develops an amazing relationship with a boy.

Singapore [then] has the possibility of [achieving anything] “, she said, revealing her enthusiasm for imagination.

“The reality of Singapore, I don’t really like. Most people don’t believe in fairytales or fantasies. They never see them, never imagine – all the time spent on mechanism, life as a mechanism, same schedule, wake up, work, rat-race, sleep, circle repeats, few think of anything else. (Just think) what imagination can bring!”

Indomitable spirit

She is proud of what she is doing, not because she writes well, but because she can share her thoughts with the public. Charmaine wrote 11,000 words in three days for The Pick Me Up Book project.

“When I’m not reading, I write. Two to three books a week, depends on my health – [when I] feel tired, dizzy, I cannot sit upright”.

What would she change about her life if she could, I asked.

“Nothing, it is perfect, must have sad things, bad experience, especially things that others cannot experience.”

What about this Singapore which seems to be deprived of imagination? If there is one thing that she could change about Singapore, what would it be?

“Peace, simplicity, not just go on and on about business,” she said wistfully.

“My only wish is to look after her”

With her mother beside her, I asked Charmaine to tell me something about her mother.

Her voice became louder, stronger, and her face lit up.

“[She is] the bravest mum one can have, she sacrificed everything (for me). I love her because when I was diagnosed with kidney failure, she cried, but she never gave up, she went all over to find a cure.”

My conversation with her mother was in Mandarin. This is a rough translation.

Mrs Tan said that when Charmaine was two years old, she had an eyesight problem.

“She (Charmaine) did everything she could, and I’m very proud she succeeded”.

At this point, someone came and reminded her that they had to leave for Charmaine’s dialysis treatment.

“My only wish is to look after her,” says her mother. “When I bought her a pokemon (toy), she loved to hold it when she reads or writes. When it broke, she was very sad. Now, she holds ‘sweetie’, a small dog toy.”

Before they had to leave for her dialysis appointment, Mrs Tan said to me, “I am very contented, very happy, everything is great,” echoing what her daughter said earlier.

Mrs Tan is a housewife, and her husband is a lorry driver.


Sometimes I feel rather tired writing on the same issues almost year after year, whenever new statistics on certain issues are available, or from a fresh perspective, but not very much seems to change.

My first foray as a reporter for TOC has strengthened my resolve and encouraged me to keep writing, just as Charmaine kept writing to fulfil her dream of becoming a published author, despite her sickness and disability.

“What will you be doing tomorrow?” I asked Charmaine.

“Read Chicken Soup”, came her reply, referring to the popular book series.


Proceeds from the sales of the book, “Pick Me Up”, will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

To order the book:

Drop an email to: [email protected]

Or visit the Pick Me Up website here.

60% of Pick Me Up book net proceeds will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation® while the other 40% will be used to set up a social enterprise.