Youth overcomes parents' deaths to become model poly student
Singapore Polytechnic gave out its annual Model Student Awards to 22 students on Monday. TNP meets two recipients who excelled despite family tragedies
When he was 14, he saw his mother's lifeless body hanging by the neck. She suffered from depression and had committed suicide.
Four years later, his father died of pneumonia.
Orphaned at 18, Mr Lim Bo Zhi, who is an only child, did not have any close relatives he could turn to.
Despite this, the 21-year-old computer engineering student will graduate from Singapore Polytechnic with a near-perfect grade point average (GPA) of 3.94 out of 4.0 in May.
He is also one of 22 Model Student Awards recipients.
Mr Lim said: "Both my parents were insomniacs and often fought with each other.
"My mother tried to commit suicide several times using sleeping pills... It just came to a point when she couldn't take it any more."
Mr Lim and his parents used to live in a shophouse in Whampoa, where his father ran a hardware shop.
Poor business forced the family to shut it down and they moved to live with Mr Lim's paternal grandmother in a three-room flat in Aljunied. It was there that Mr Lim's mother, who was then 46, committed suicide.
Mr Lim said: "I was horrified and in disbelief. I thought that I should have gone with my mother."
He also blamed his father for his mother's death.
"I resented my father... I did not talk to him for the next four years.
"I was also not close to my grandmother as she could only speak Hokkien, which I am not fluent in."
Mr Lim, then a St. Joseph's Institution (SJI) student, stopped going to school for the next two years. Instead, he would lock himself in his room and play computer games such as Dota and MapleStory.
"Computer games were the only way I could escape reality and not think about my mother's death," he said.
He eventually returned to school in 2011 after several home visits from SJI teachers and counsellors.
He said: "The teachers and counsellors were very encouraging.
"My friends, whom I play computer games with online, also encouraged me to go back to school. When they were unable to play with me because they had exams, it made me think that they had their whole life planned out but I didn't."
Despite his initial worries, Mr Lim was glad that his classmates accepted him and did not probe his family background.
But he was not doing well in his studies.
"I barely met the promotional criteria for Secondary 4. I was struggling in every subject except mathematics," he said.
Six months before the O levels, SJI full-time counsellor Christina Tang-Lien, 50, arranged for Mr Lim to stay in a hostel in Catholic Junior College (CJC), an affiliated school of SJI.
Mr Lim said: "I could study better without the distraction of computer games. As the hostel housed many scholars, the environment also motivated me to study."
It was during this time that his relationship with his father improved.
Mr Lim, who is still living in the hostel, said: "I realised that I did miss him. We would talk over the phone once a week."
In 2013, he scored 9 points for his L1R4 (a combined score for English and four relevant subjects) in the O levels. His father was very happy with his results, he said.
But tragedy struck again.
A few days after leaving the hostel to move home, his dad, who was then 53 and had been in poor health for a long time, died of pneumonia.
Mr Lim said: "I couldn't wake him up in the morning. I called Ms Christina immediately.
"I was speechless. But I was also glad that he did not have to suffer anymore."
In April 2013, he started school at Singapore Polytechnic, which he called "a new beginning".
In his first year, he was part of the poly's peer-tutoring programme, where he coached weaker students taking the same course.
In his second year, Mr Lim organised an overseas community trip with schoolmates, where they built toilets and taught English to village children.
That year, he also volunteered for 10 months at a family care centre, giving tuition to primary school pupils once a week.
He credits his achievements today to Ms Tang-Lien, whom he regards as family.
Mr Lim said: "She taught me that whatever happened in the past is already in the past. I knew that I had to work hard, not just to secure my future but also to do Ms Christina proud."
Now a senior counsellor at SJI, Ms Tang-Lien said she had a shock when she first met Mr Lim at his home towards the end of 2010. This was when he would hole himself up in his room.
She said: "When Bo Zhi walked out to meet me, I was shaken to the core.
"He was emaciated, pale and expressionless. He had the body of a 10-year-old boy. He feared being in public and kept imagining that people were staring at him."
On subsequent visits, Mr Lim's father would not open the door for her, she said. It was only a few months later that Mr Lim reached out to her.
Ms Tang-Lien convinced him to return to school.
She said: "I pointed to the rubbish piled up in his home and asked him point blank if that was what he wanted for the rest of his life.
"I think that was the turning point for him."
Mr Lim was later found to be shortsighted at about 500 degrees. He was also so skinny that clothes in the children's department could not fit him, said Ms Tang-Lien.
"When he called me for help on the day his father had died, I thought that if this boy can survive these tragedies in his life, he can survive everything else that comes his way," she said.
Mr Lim hopes to get a scholarship to pursue a degree in computer science.
When asked what he thinks his parents would say of his achievements if they were still alive, he said: "They don't normally expect much of me but I think they would be proud to see where I am today.
"They would ask me to keep up the good work."
When he called me for help on the day his father had died, I thought that if this boy can survive these tragedies in his life, he can survive everything else that comes his way.
- Ms Christina Tang-Lien on Mr Lim Bo Zhi
She taught me that whatever happened in the past is already in the past.
- Mr Lim Bo Zhi, on Ms Christina Tang-Lien
Many people told me I was too young... But the more we performed to sell-out crowds, the more they believed in us.
- Mr Vishnucharan Naidu