Travelling the world and releasing her newest single Fly, Jean Tan appears to be living a great life on the surface. By 2015, the singer-songwriter had performed live at both the National Stadium and Gardens by the Bay for the 28th Southeast Asian Games. By 2017, she had released her third record, Hideaway.

But success did not bloom overnight for Jean. Quite the opposite, her story is one of resilience and choosing to pick herself up in her darkest moments.

“I was thrust into the world broken,” she started her interview saying. Born with a cleft lip and palate, Jean’s life was set up from the beginning to be different from others. 

I grimaced as Jean recounted what her mum told her about her early operations, which she underwent at three months and one year old.

“My mum said that when I was wheeled out of the operating theatre, that my whole tiny body was twisted in agony, blood was smeared across my face, and I was hoarse from crying.”

She went for more operations at nine, 16 and 17 years old, before going for her sixth and final operation at 18 years old. Despite the trauma of having to go under the knife from a young age, Jean still managed to joke about how the first thing she did after sitting for her O-Levels was queuing up at the hospital, to donate two litres of blood to herself for surgery.

At 16, Jean underwent a 12-hour long operation to correct a Class 3 malocclusion, or jaw misalignment. By then, her lower jaw had grown out so much that she was not able to speak or eat properly.

“Unlike others, I couldn’t get that clean semi-circle when you bite into an apple or a sandwich,” she shared, “I’m still amazed every time I’m able to do that today.”

“To grow up thinking that girls had to be beautiful, and I was not, was incredibly crushing.”

While her peers went out to celebrate the end of exams, that December, Jean had her jaws held shut for a month and was confined to a month of drinking liquids through a syringe and communicating only through writing.

Jean faced both social and physical challenges during her growing years.

She recalls a group of teenage boys pointing at her and laughing when she was in a fast-food restaurant. A younger cousin had also called her a monster.

“One time, a girl pointed at me while I was walking under a void deck. She shouted that I was very ugly and that I’d never get married,” Jean continued. 

“How a child comes to define himself or herself is often a product of other people’s reactions to him or her,” she said. “I had incredibly low self-esteem because I came to learn that I wasn’t beautiful.”

“To grow up thinking that girls had to be beautiful, and I was not, was incredibly crushing.”


She found respite during her university days overseas, growing more confident in a community where she felt she belonged. This is when she started writing her own music. But after years of struggling and climbing out of her dark valleys, things began to go down once again. 

At the age of 24, Jean was diagnosed with an autoimmune kidney disease.

“I thought I was done with the hospital. I had just started work, released an album, and my whole life was before me. When the disease struck, all my dreams for the future came crashing.”

For the next seven years, she would be on steroids and other immunosuppressants, only to face relapse after relapse. Her kidneys continued to malfunction, leading to frequent bouts of bloating. At her worst, she gained over 20kg from swelling and was throwing up five or six times a day because her stomach and other internal organs were also bloated.

“It was really like being thrown into the furnace. Everything I defined my self-worth with was taken away in the prime of my 20s; my ministry, my social life, my wardrobe – I couldn’t fit into anything I’d owned  – my relationship and work opportunities,” she shared. 

“At least, with my surgeries, I knew there was a definite endpoint. This, however, was prolonged and indefinite. There was no way to be sure that things would turn out for the better, and one possibility was that I could have kidney failure by the time I was 40 or 50.” 

Where most people only see victory in a butterfly breaking out of its shell, Jean proves that victory lies in the strength to wait and rest in the transformative period taking place inside the cocoon.

She had to learn to be real with herself and her emotions through the process, while choosing to look up in her situation regardless of how hopeless it seemed.

Resilience is not abstract. It’s really down to the gritty everyday choices you make.

Jean remembers playing the piano, tears streaming down her face, as she surrendered her pain with the song Here I Am to Worship. To her, that’s what defying darkness looked like. 

She said: “You can be in the thick of situations that can blind you, but do you allow yourself to sink into the deep or do you get back up and press on? Resilience is not abstract. It’s really down to the gritty everyday choices you make.

“You can’t change the past, or the unfortunate events that come your way. But you have power over every choice you make for the future. And even when it doesn’t feel like it, there are possibilities ahead most of the time.”

Her greatest breakthrough finally came in 2018, seven years since the diagnosis. Around that time, her doctor had recommended a different drug for her illness. Though uncertain after rounds of medication and all kinds of alternative treatments, Jean decided to try again and has been free from relapse ever since.


It has been a welcome respite after the long-drawn battles, but Jean’s latest song, Fly, is an accurate reflection of the tension she still lives in. Knowing that relapse is still very much possible, every day is a choice to spread her wings and fly despite it all, to make the most of her life.

The song itself strikes you immediately as more upbeat, with Jean’s soothing vocals against a light folk guitar and piano instrumentals. But if you listen closely, you would notice it does not portray complete freedom, she explained.

“We may not have the answers we want. But there is an assurance that someone out there is always on our side…”

“The vibe of the song isn’t entirely freeing or soaring… it’s a bit tentative. Like a butterfly that has just come out of its shell, taking tentative and wavering steps towards its future. A song that elicits a sense of being unsure and hopeful at the same time.

“The moment I wanted to capture was a moment of promise and hope for people who feel they’ve been trapped, and have been waiting for a long time to live well and be free again.

To my surprise, Jean revealed that the song was written in 2015, around three years into the kidney disease, saying how “it was written even before these things came to be”. 

Fly specifically was written when I was stuck in the house trying to recover from my illness. When I could do nothing at all, I put on some music and just started dancing. At that moment, I tasted freedom and felt moved to write a song visualising me being free from this imprisonment of sorts.”

She continued: “Someone once told me that to hope, imagination is key. Instead of imagining yourself in hospital clothes, you have to imagine yourself doing something you would do if you were well. So, I imagined myself travelling, hiking and skiing – the things I used to do and wished I could do again. Then I wrote Fly as a declaration of that hope.” 

It’s a song for others who are in a long season of feeling stuck in some way – in sickness, abuse or some other dire situation – and they’ve just been hungry for their answer to come.

“We may not have the answers we want. But there is an assurance that someone out there is always on our side, and that more will always be given to us than whatever we thought we lost out. I’ve been fortunate to have tasted that many times over my lifetime.”

“This song is a capturing of the ‘more’ and the simplicity of our belief in it.”

As the lyrics in her song go: Fly, go on dare defy.

Jean’s new single, Fly, is available on all major digital streaming platforms via Leeway.

  1. Growing up, what have people said about you?
  2. How do you define yourself today?
  3. What does hope look like in your situation?
  4. What choices can you make today to live resiliently?