Learning never stops for 92-year-old tech geek

Dec 16, 2016 05.00PM |

by Wan Ting Koh

SAY hi to Mr Sim Say Hai, one of Singapore’s most tech-savvy uncle.

He has an iPad Mini, a 27-inch Lenovo desktop computer, an iPhone 6s Plus and an Apple Watch, all of which he uses seamlessly. Not impressed yet? Consider this: This uncle is 92 years old.

His age has been no barrier to his love of learning and tinkering with new technology. While others of his generation might shy away from gadgets, Mr Sim embraces them for their perceived convenience to his life. Plus, learning how to use them has become second nature for the retiree, who only got to learn how to use the computer after he retired at age 58.

Mr Sim using his iPad Mini, which he brings to his church meetings on Fridays and reads his meeting minutes from.

TMG visited Mr Sim at his Serangoon Road home one morning after first meeting him at an Honour film screening earlier this year. Mr Sim had attended the event as a guest of honour as a star in one of the featured films. The film, produced by his granddaughter, was an homage to Mr Sim, who was a pioneer in Singapore’s then budding telecoms industry. The year was 1948 when Mr Sim started working in what is now known as Singtel. Back then, it was called The Telecommunications Department of Singapore.

While Mr Sim did not attend university, the English-educated man managed to land a telegraph operator job in the Telecoms Department where he sent and received telegraphic messages. His true calling, however, lay in mechanics of the equipment – something which captivated him.

“I was interested in it, so on my own I started learning about electrical things. In school, I was interested in science – chemistry and physics,” said Mr Sim.

So he bought his own textbooks and studied. He sat for external qualifying exams on topics to do with telegraph, radio and engineering and passed all of them. He impressed the station engineer-in-charge who converted Mr Sim to a junior technical officer overseeing Very High Frequency (VHF) telecommunication signals. From there, he worked his way to the top.

“Towards the end, without any university paper, I was promoted to position of engineer,” he recalled.

His journey with the telecommunications industry may have ended when Mr Sim retired at 58, but his learning did not. Between the 1980s and the 1990s when the computer industry started booming, Mr Sim decided to pick up computer skills on his own.

When asked why he didn’t simply sit back and enjoy his golden age, the grandfather of nine, who stays with a grandson, said he had occasion to type some letters and send emails. He would be “very happy” if he could learn it, he said.

He described using an old secondhand computer given by his daughter and learning how to type from a typing tutor software. Eventually, he acquired Microsoft programmes such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel.

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Technology was not his only interest. During his retirement, Mr Sim also dabbled in photography – the fruits of his hobby were all kept neatly categorised in folders according to date in his Lenovo desktop. Most were family photos which he had taken with the digital camera.

It did not stop there for Mr Sim, who went on to learn Photoshop five to 10 years ago in order to edit the pictures. “I bought [a digital camera] and found that I can take pictures, [if] I can print and enlarge, it will look so nice,” said Mr Sim.

He went to the library to borrow a book for Photoshop and photocopied sections of it. He would refer to these notes when he encountered something he didn’t know how to do. From there, he learnt how to insert, delete, brighten, sharpen, paste or change the colour of an image.

Nowadays, Mr Sim’s use of Photoshop is confined to creating birthday invitations which he sends to family and friends through email ahead of his birthday on August 3. For last year’s invitation, Mr Sim took a selfie, printed out the photograph, traced his features on tracing paper, then scanned the sketched image back into his computer. From there, he superimposed the scanned image in his birthday invitation along with the details and Clipart.

Mr Sim did his own birthday invitation, replete with decorations, text and a sketched portrait of his face.

When asked if he will continue making personalised invitations, he immediately said: “I will.” “I enjoy this kind of thing. I felt satisfaction,” said Mr Sim, adding that he considered it a success, going by the favourable feedback from friends and family members who said it was “very humorous”.

“Those days, I only wanted to learn small things. But it becomes more and more. I became more involved. I wanted to learn how to send and receive, I wanted to learn how to type apart from the typewriter,” he said. “When you need certain things, you will try and satisfy it.”

These days, Mr Sim uses his various gadgets to check and read emails, the Bible, surf the internet and watch DVDs.


Wise words

Mr Sim answers a call on his Apple Watch.

Mr Sim’s learning journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. He’s had his share of challenges, one of which is age. “It is easy to learn. But when you don’t do it every day, then you forget. At this age, I cannot remember a lot of things, I forget more than I learn,” he said.

“The connection inside is broken,” he added, pointing at his head.

But he is adamant that others younger than him should not stop learning, even though some from his generation might be averse to learning new technology.

“If you are 70 years old, you should learn. At that age your brain is still working well,” he said.

His advice to others trying to get started? Introduce them to simple functions, such as sending emails or chatting through WhatsApp.

“You can remember one or two things enough what. Remember how to contact and learn how to increase contacts. Very soon you will want to know how to do all sorts of things. But you must get them to do simple things,” he said.

“Once they find that it is not difficult, they will do more.”


This article is part of a series on SkillsFuture, in collaboration with MOE and SSG. Read the other pieces here:

  1. Poly vs Private degrees: It’s not the money that matters
  2. Private degrees: data needs to tell a fuller skills story 
  3. 5 new jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago
  4. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: Keys to success
  5. 5 skills employers want you to have in tomorrow’s job market
  6. Don’t underestimate ‘soft skills’ in your career
  7. 50 Faces: What is success to you?
  8. Got an F in school? There are still ‘100 ways’ to be successful
  9. SMACK IN THE MIDDLE: More skills, more agile, more resilient
  10. 50 Faces: The big gig economy


Featured image by Najeer Yusof.

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