A Guiding Light In Zero Visibility - An Interview With Douglas Dylan Yeo
“Hardships do payoff someday, if you don’t give up”
July 10th 2018: Douglas Dylan Yeo stood at the mouth of Tham Luang cave in Thailand’s Khun Nam Nong Non Forest Park along with Navy Seals and other volunteers to bring out 12 boys and their coach who were stranded in the cave. Over a week earlier, the Wild Boars soccer team had ventured deep into the cave when sudden rainfall caused rapid flooding, trapping them almost immediately. The world stood still as global media covered the rescue operation over 18 days, spearheaded by experienced individuals who were prepared to give their lives to save the boys. By the time Douglas arrived, four boys had already been rescued - but the mission was far from over.
Douglas grew up in the rough streets of Singapore where he learnt to fend for himself from a young age. Brought up by an extremely abusive father, he endured numerous beatings and punishments at home while having to brave hoodlums that littered the streets he grew up on. Innately curious, he frequently skipped school and taught himself how to earn money; from selling scraps from the backstreets to later working in kitchens, before joining the Singaporean Air Force after high school. From there, he started a commercial diving company and took on increasingly complex jobs that required stringent training, and all the experience one could gather. Challenging as it was, the hand of fate seemed at play, as he was actually learning the skills and training he would need years later when rescuing the boys in Tham Luang cave.
The story is chronicled in Douglas’s book called Zero Visibility (linked below), a gripping read that features anecdotes about his life leading up to the Tham Luang rescue, and his first-hand experiences of the daring operation. Douglas is a kind and giving individual who has become a friend of the BOLDR team, and he agreed to sit down with us for a chat.
Your book begins with a quote from Buddha. Can you talk about how Buddhist teachings came to change the way you think?
When I was young, we lived in one of the most notorious streets in Singapore called Hokkien Street. It was a bustling, noisy place frequented by gangsters. You’d hear loud Chinese music blaring on the streets, and people shouting to one another from different street corners.
My parents practiced Taoism and Buddhism, and as a kid I followed suit. By going around with my father and grandfather on those streets, visiting temples and soaking in the culture, I picked up on good mannerisms from teachers and monks which was in sharp contrast to people outside the temple walls. This shaped the way I think and interact to this day. The Buddha and his teachings have been a bright spark in my heart every single day of my life.
Meeting and working with many strangers throughout the years, you talked about the ability to see through a person’s intent by the look in their eyes. How did this come about, and have you ever been proven wrong?
This habit started from my school days, or I should say ‘non-schooling’ days (laughs). I was never present in school and would rather spend my day hanging around railroad tracks. Even so, whenever I did go to school, I learnt more about the people rather than academics. From back in those days I have steadily held this belief that a person’s true essence and sincerity is in their eyes. I don’t know about psychology and stuff, but I just observe and listen to the way someone’s eyes give way to what is truly in their heart.
That being said, I try to see the best in people. My Grandad was a bit of a local celebrity, like a Dean Martin type, and I met many people following him around. Being exposed to so many different characters trained me in being non-judgmental.
Writing about your Dad, it sounds like you have forgiven him for all the hardships growing up. How did you come to this mindset, and what helped get you there?
That’s a heavy part of my life indeed. Before I answer, I’d like to say I love my Dad. His advice was never wrong, and if he was still around I would give anything to sit down and play a game of chess with him.
When I was younger, I watched my parents fight like professional boxers one day and sit down and have a cup of tea the next. His beatings injured my mother and she suffers from hearing loss to this day. I don’t know why he was so abusive. My sisters and I got punished very often, sometimes having to stand on cockel shells without wincing or crying or else bear the brunt of a hammer on our heads.
I hated the sight of my father for many years, but as I grew older I began to understand that he did not know any other way of being. He was a rough n’ tough dock worker who chose an inexplicable way to communicate with us. Even into my older years he would constantly smack me on the head, with no response on my end. Then one day he got very sick, tethering on the brink of death. I arranged for him to come home from the hospital at his request, and from then on the hatred that we had for each other seemed to be released in some way.
I was constantly working and driving trucks to support his medical bills, and I tried to spend as much time with him as possible. I even used to smuggle him some contraband when he was sick of his medicines (laughs). I was with him until his last breath, and that moment is beyond explanation. After a long path of trying and slowly getting to understand him, I must say I miss him.
Did you ever get a chance to find out why he beat you and your Mum & siblings so much?
I think it’s just his primal instinct taking form. Humans are just animals, and every animal wants to make his presence known in their own way. The way my Dad brandished himself and ‘declared his territory’ was to beat us down, and then offer advice when he could. I just took it all in my stride. Honestly, after all said and done I felt more pain seeing him take his last breath than I did from his physical beatings.
The ladies of Tanjong Pagar red light district who were your friends; can you talk more about that relationship and what you learnt from them?
That was a place my Grandad frequented. He was a rich, popular man and would go to opium houses and be with those ladies. I would frequently follow him and hang around with the ladies while he did his business. Those working girls have their job to do, but I found they loved children as though they would their own. I was showered with cuddles and kisses from them and we became friends. Each one of them had a maternal instinct which came through from having me around so often. It cultivated a learning that school could not have possibly served, and that was an abundant love and respect for women.
You wrote that your teacher, Ms. Lim Hwee Hua, deserves more credit than was given in your book. Would you like to share more about her?
I still talk to Ms. Lim every day, and she was a VVIP when I gave my talk after returning from rescuing the Thai boys. She spent a lot of time and effort on me when no one else would bother. She was a strict disciplinarian and showed me a lot of tough love, but she shared so much wisdom and talked me into taking my education seriously - even though I had no interest. Her time and effort she invested in me is something I’ll never ever forget. I love her a lot.
In what ways have your three wives and three boys changed you as a person?
The three women in my life gave me priceless life learnings. Through them I came to know pleasure, pain, joy, and agony. We created three beautiful boys whom I love with all my heart. I had gone through a very rough down-in-the-dumps period during the years of my firstborn, and I had no idea what I was doing. I drank heavily and took drugs to cope with the pain, but no amount of alcohol or drugs would help. Eventually I learnt to surrender fully to life and deal with my responsibilities.
My boys each have different mothers, but i'm glad to say I’ve worked out a way for all of us to live harmoniously.
Any advice for people who are currently facing very dark days?
Through our struggles, life will show you a way to face your inner demons. I was in the darkness and wallowed for a long time. Eventually, I realised no one was coming to help me. It’s up to every individual to bring themselves from darkness into the light. One step at a time, I moved forward and gave it what I had till I made it through. Daily effort (however small) will bring guidance and solutions.
How did Lord Ganesha become your spiritual guide?
It stemmed from my childhood days scurrying around the streets. There is a temple I frequented called the Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar Temple, a place that I still visit every day to pay respects first thing every morning. I had become friendly with many of the devotees who would welcome me and other kids with open arms. They gave me fruit, garlands, and other ritualistic offerings.
I used to observe how the devotees would hold their ears and repeatedly squat and stand up in front of Ganesha, as though they were being punished in school. It puzzled me at the time. But years later, I had a calling of sorts. I went to Sri Mariamman Temple and very instinctively decided to take part in a devotional ‘roll’ on the floor, as a sacred offering. Something clicked there. One of the temple shepherds called Gopal came up to me and offered his guidance. During my ‘roll’, time and form seemed to transmute into a frenzied trance. I felt like I was rolling on the ground across countries.
Around the same time, I had an incident with the little statue of Ganesha that my current wife brought home from India. I had no idea it was in my house, but one night it just called me. I went looking for it frantically all over the house until I found it in the store room. It is very inexplicable, but these incidents were the beginning of the guiding light I found in Lord Ganesha, my Father.
In the air force, you stood for 2-hours in the sun because senior officers did not return your salute. What was going through your mind at the time?
For me it was all about respect. The military is a place where they grilled me into obedience, and I identified very strongly with giving respect to my peers and superiors. It is something I impart to my children as well. Being a school dropout, I never took my privilege of being an enlisted army man for granted.
I was tasked to be the mechanic of a $300 million fighter plane, and that made me feel wealthy and responsible. I was also immensely humbled by the presence of high ranking officers around me. They were a sight to behold, especially the American-trained Singaporean Marines. By deciding to learn without any entitlement, I would clean toilets, make my bed, or assemble a gun with the same conviction.
These experiences charged me up with a kind of zeal, that's why when the pilots walked past me and didn’t return my salute, I stood there in the sun and waited until one of them came back to return the salutation. They ended up apologizing after all (laughs).
Is your friend Siva Raj one of, if not the biggest influence on your life? How so?
He was my Weapons Specialist leader in the armed forces. He is a short man with a huge commanding presence, and he made a strong impression on me as a young recruit. I was very protective of my squad so they became like my family. He definitely is one of the biggest positive influences in my life because he took me under his wing and became my spiritual guide. I’ve been so lucky - 30 odd years later he is still my best friend.
What does husbandry entail? Could you share some anecdotes during your time in TNT Bisso Salvage?
In the diving industry, husbandry involves maintaining and troubleshooting problems for ships, often underwater eg. patching up damage or polishing propellers. It is the toughest business for divers as we have to battle currents and low visibility while racing against the clock, because ships only have limited docking time. We had to work quickly and efficiently often without rest. It’s good training for professional divers though.
After 5 years I went into underwater salvage missions in TNT and that’s when things got really intense. Salvage missions require a great deal of precision when operating heavy machinery. I was trained by two Filipino supervisors Roberto & Jack, and they schooled me in every little detail; from tying a rope the right way to welding underwater. I had to humble myself to basically start from scratch, just like in the military, and I absorbed as much training as I could.
I traveled all around the world to do my salvage jobs and it prepared me well for my life today as a 3-star diving instructor.
Can you describe your experience on the first night of going into Tham Luang?
The feeling was one of unity, that volunteers from many countries and myself had a singular purpose to get those boys out safely. It was like a calling. There were 5 elements that summed up the experience: 1. Respect for others, 2. Balancing time with challenges of nature, 3. Applying specific skills, 4. Radical acceptance (absolutely no complaining), and 5. The feeling that it was my responsibility to be there. I had to prepare myself if it was to be a one-way trip, and that kind of experience becomes like a rebirth.
What mistakes of yours do you want your children to never repeat?
(Laughs) I’ve made lots of mistakes in my life due to lack of guidance, but I had to mend them myself and that’s why I'm here. I think I have to let them make their own mistakes. One thing I do say, however, is to make a nice family with just one woman. (laughs)
How do you define success?
To me, a successful person has drive, belief, and honesty with others and themselves. The ability to wake up with a smile and move on with your day, despite any circumstance, is what success looks like to me.
What do you respect most in another person? And the opposite?
I think the best characteristic someone can have is to be non-judgmental. Everyone needs time and patience to grow, so it’s not right to judge someone based on just one or two meetings. If you really take some time to emulate someone’s unique way of seeing the world, you will see them in a new light.
If you were going to leave this world and had one key life lesson to share, what would it be?
Be very aware of how precious your time is. Time is a divine gift. Learn to manage your time well and you'll be smiling on the inside.
Douglas currently works as a dive coach at his school Sunfish Dive Adventure and runs a store selling second-hand items in Singapore’s Beach Road Army Market. He has also set up Sun Kitchen, a community kitchen which aims to feed 3800 people who are in need.
Connect with Douglas on Facebook and tell him we sent you!