David Tan

David Tan reflects on memories from university, how his career developed after graduating, and what it’s like being our alumni regional ambassador in Singapore.

Alumnus David Tan came from Singapore to study at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington in the 1970s. He began his career as a teacher but moved into public and private sector leadership roles. David is also our alumni regional ambassador for Singapore.

For the past decade, David has led his own medical company, Delphi Bioscience Asia, which aims to improve cervical cancer diagnosis and survival rates among women. In light of the recent pandemic, Delphi Bioscience Asia recently turned its attention to helping with the COVID-19 crisis and has developed a rapid test kit that they are supplying internationally.

What degree did you complete?

A Bachelor of Arts (Honours) majoring in International Politics and Public Administration.

What are some of your favourite memories?

I loved my time in Wellington. I lived at Victoria House initially, and also with Neil Cameron, one of the Law lecturers, where I paid only $12 a week for full board—including laundry! I was also one of the first residents to stay in Everton Hall, which was wonderful.

One of my favourite memories was from when I got married in December 1975 at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, and we held our wedding dinner at the Everton Hall function room. It was a fun night, where everyone who was there knew everybody else. A group of our naughty friends snuck into my flat in Hataitai while we were still at the reception dinner, piling it full of garlic and decorating the entire place with rolls and rolls of toilet paper! We didn’t notice until the next morning—what a ‘scent’ and mess!

How has your degree helped you achieve your goals?

I spent four wonderful years in Wellington, where I was privileged to study with some excellent tutors and immerse myself in a new culture. After my studies, I returned to Singapore to work at the Port of Singapore, but I was very keen to find a job that would allow me to see more of the world.

I soon began a new position at Singapore Airlines, where I worked for around six years, which (luckily) allowed me to travel. I was posted to a very diverse range of countries including Switzerland, Guam, India, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, and Hong Kong. The experiences I had during my degree studies in Wellington were invaluable, because they gave me the confidence to communicate well with people from all sorts of backgrounds.

How did you go from graduating to owning your own company?

Before I came to Wellington, I worked as a teacher for several years at the Raffles Institution because I felt teaching would be a great way to learn about dealing with people—and it certainly was!

After my studies and returning to Singapore, my experiences at the Port and Singapore Airlines, and later at Singapore Technologies (also a Government entity), all played a large influence on my decision to form Delphi Bioscience Asia and develop it into a global company. They gave me the confidence and experience I needed.

It was during my time working with a Russian medical scientist based in Australia on real-time testing for cervical cancer that my interest in the field of cervical cancer began, in terms of developing better ways of collecting samples as well as more accurate testing, to help improve diagnosis and survival rates.

It may surprise you, but in some countries, it’s estimated that over 40 percent of eligible women still don’t have routine cervical smear screenings. Even in New Zealand, 20–30 percent of eligible women either aren’t enrolled with the national screening programme or haven’t had a cervical smear test in the past three years (sources: Cervical Screening in New Zealand A brief statistical review of the first decade and Impact of the National Cervical Screening Programme in New Zealand by age: analysis of cervical cancer trends 1985-2013 in all women and in Māori women).

Delphi Bioscience Asia was set up to address this issue. I work with several leading researchers in the cervical cancer field, notably Professor Dr Chris Meijer, based in the pathology department at the Vrije Universiteit Medical Center in Amsterdam, and Professor Dr Tay Eng Hseon, former medical chairman of the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore.

What have been the highlights of your career?

Working internationally for Singapore Airlines was a fantastic time in my life, but during my career I’ve also come to learn that it’s not just travel or making money that gives you satisfaction.

Setting up Delphi Bioscience Asia has been extremely rewarding. It has taken ten years, and has been a long, trying journey at times, but the new testing device and testing procedures we’ve developed make cervical cancer screening easier and more comfortable for women, as well as more reliable.

We’re now supplying our products in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Viet Nam, and South Africa—and this is something I’m very proud of.

What advice do you have for university students today?

Be streetwise and be socially active in and out of campus. Treat your lecturers and tutors as friends and colleagues, and leverage their academic excellence.

Tell us about your role as the alumni regional ambassador for Singapore

I’ve been a long-time supporter of the University and a representative in Singapore for many years. Now we have a committee, with members tasked to manage a range of activities, such as arranging presentations at schools, fundraising, and social activities for alumni in Singapore. We meet regularly at my office and even have a Facebook page.

Our role as regional ambassadors is important because parents and their children really value hearing about the University directly. I’m a big believer in talking with people face to face.

The quality of the education at the University is world class, but families also want to know what the accommodation is like, what the lecturers and the food will be like. What sort of help will be available to them? Will they make friends easily? Those conversations are really important when families are considering sending their children overseas to study.

I’m very proud to tell families that both my daughters, my son-in-law, niece, and grandniece have all studied here.