ABU - ASALKAN BUKAN UMNO

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Friday, January 27, 2012

A maverick educator

Sulaiman Kamal | 2:54 PM | | Best Blogger Tips

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With his laid-back demeanour and long wavy hair - a result of two failed attempts to imitate 1960s American singer Bob Dylan's Afro hairstyle - Mr John Tan is often mistaken for a student at the Orita Sinclair School of Design, New Media and the Arts.

New students have asked him which class he is in only to learn that the 29-year-old is actually the school principal.

Mr Tan has been running the boutique design school housed in a three-storey conservation shophouse in the Kampong Glam neighbourhood for two years.


He said: "I think there are benefits in being a young principal. It gives the school a cool and unorthodox principal, and I guess the students find it easier to talk to me than if I were 55 years old."


His students, who call him by his first name, get glimpses of his offbeat personality in the school, which has vintage furniture in the classrooms and a "super old" turntable in his office.


He said: "I think old things have more character and there is more craft involved in them. I'm like an old man who is trapped in a young man's body. How many people my age actually like Bob Dylan?"


Creating changes


In his younger days, he knew he was quite different from his peers when he worshipped indie music and films over mainstream ones.


But he complied with his parents' preferences and later studied for an economics degree in London in pursuit of a "proper career".


Upon returning to Singapore, he worked as a management consultant for about three years.


In between, he co-founded a yogurt chain, and while he was engaging a design agency to develop the branding for it, his interest in design was piqued.


So when the opportunity to take over Orita Sinclair from its founders came up, he said yes.




He explained: "I bought over the school because I was attracted to the idea of running a boutique design school and growing it organically.



"Education, to me, is a very attractive industry to be in because it is meaningful, scalable and sustainable."


He added: "I like to think of myself as a business person with a designer's sensibilities, so both are not entirely incompatible.


"More fundamentally, I didn't want to work for a pay cheque or be in a corporate job.


"Ultimately, I want to build something, which is hard to do when you are caught in bureaucracy," he said, adding that his parents were supportive of his move.



Moving forward


In 2010, he and two partners pooled their resources to take over the reins of the school. Since then, they have invested more than half a million dollars.


In the first year, he was the lowest paid employee - his annual income plunged to $24,000 from the $80,000 in his previous management consultant role.


But his work has paid off as the school has raised its profile within the design community compared with nine years ago, he said.


The student intake for last year stood at close to 100 students, up from the annual intake of 25 previously. The strength of full-time staff has also grown from one to eight, and the faculty from 10 to 35.


He said: "My ambition is for Orita Sinclair to be recognised as THE design school in Singapore one day and for it to move beyond graphic design to product design and spatial design.


"When I look back on my career, I want to be able to say that what I or the alumni have done have made an improvement on the world.


"I think that's all anyone can ask for. You leave the world a better place than the one you came into."






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