Adrian Tan needs no introduction. His name is synonymous with his best-selling novel, The Teenage Textbook and its sequel, The Teenage Workbook. The 55 year old Singaporean is also an accomplished litigator, specialising in court disputes concerning technology, intellectual property, real estate and shareholder oppression. But before he was even called to the bar, fame had already knocked on his door. Adrian’s novels are so popular that they have been made into a movie in 1998 and most recently, been adapted into a 13-episode drama comedy of the same name by Mediacorp.
Even though he is now well known in both legal as well as literary circuits, few people know that Adrian came from humble beginnings, giving private tuition and masquerading as aunt agony for various magazines under different pseudonyms, being paid on per column inches basis to support himself through school. This National Day, we celebrate by telling stories of extraordinary Singaporeans, including a special interview with the witty multipotentialite himself.
SGLS: You are an accomplished litigator and acclaimed novelist. Which do you identify with?
Adrian: Lawyers and authors are cut from the same cloth. At the heart of the matter, they are advocates. They speak up for others. They enable others to tell their stories. They examine how relationships form, and how they are sustained, tested or broken.
SGLS: At which stage of your life did you write The Teenage Textbook? Were the characters based on real people?
Adrian: I wrote these two novels when I was studying in university. I was supporting myself through two activities: writing for magazines, and giving private tuition. Private tuition was a disaster, and I alluded to it in The Teenage Textbook. Writing was more successful for me. I wrote articles about relationships, work and money. A publisher approached me at a party. He asked me to write a novel. The only thing I could write a novel about was my life in junior college. Thus, the Teenage Textbook was born.
I wrote about my friends and schoolmates. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. Even today, they are still alive, and if I tell you more, they will all sue me for defamation.
SGLS: In addition to your LL.B., you also have a degree in psychology. Is reading people something that inspired “Dear Adam, help!”?
Adrian: I wrote “Dear Adam, help!” under a pseudonym, Adam Wong. I have always been fascinated by advice columns, primarily because I think the questions asked are usually more informative than the answers. I also have an innate distrust of advice columns, and also of textbooks. All my books are an attempt to subvert the way Singaporeans are taught about life. “The Teenage Textbook” is about how textbooks cannot teach us everything. It depicts a situation where young people turn to a textbook to learn about life. And each time they do so, the textbook provides useless advice. The point really is this: the only thing that teaches you about life, is life itself.
SGLS: Some people say that Singaporeans lack creativity and imagination. As a best-selling author of works of fiction, do you agree?
Adrian: Singaporeans have created a new city out of nothing. We defined ourselves as a unique tiny island nation that could trade with the world, and be friends with everyone. We are good at processing natural resources, although we have none of our own. We have no natural attractions, yet we are a tourism hub, with the best airport in the world. Other cities and countries want to learn from Singapore. That’s because Singapore invented a new way of being a successful country. So, every day that we exist, we prove our creativity.
SGLS: Singapore turns 56 this month. Do you have thoughts to share?
Adrian: It’s time for Singapore, as a country, to collect its CPF. Our nation should relax, enjoy, and think about the next chapter in its life. Singapore is no longer an adolescent with an identity crisis, or a young adult trying to prove itself. We are now mature and confident. We’ve worked hard, and we have done well. Singapore has earned a break, and a chance to enjoy and reflect on being Singapore.
Happy National Day!
Catch Teenage Textbook: The Series on meWatch
Interview by Angela May Tan, Column Editor & Writer
This interview is part of the Stories to Inspire series in commemoration of Singapore’s 56th National Day. Column Editor, Angela May Tan, speaks with inspirational Singaporeans, including those based overseas, to find out how they are coping during this challenging season brought on by the global COVID-19 pandemic and share their thoughts and stories of resilience.