What's In A Smile?

by Victor Chen
Photography by Chino Sardea
Art Direction by V.C Chong
11 Feb 2019

Guestimates vary on the number of muscles required to smile – 43, 17, 26 – but Dr. Ernest Rex Tan knows that a genuine smile comes from a deeper source where confidence, sincerity and happiness, which can be achieved with professional help, lie

Having practiced dentistry for 28 years, with the last 25 as a prosthodontist, Dr. Ernest Rex Tan has seen his fair share of interesting and complex cases in reconstructive and cosmetic dentistry. Dr. Tan is the founder and director of Smile Inc. Dental Surgeons, one of the leading dental practices in Singapore. “The impact of the completed work on the well-being and personality of our patients never ceases to amaze me.” Among his earliest cosmetic dental patients was a man with a “very stern demeanor” as Dr. Tan remembers. This man happened to be the CFO of a global MNC whose professional duties included speaking in public.

He confided to Dr. Tan that the appearance of his teeth – severely discolored, crooked and irregularly shaped – has prevented him from smiling and has given him a dour expression over time. A couple of cosmetic dental works later, Dr. Tan was able to restore his smile. “The most significant change was to his personality,” Dr. Tan observes. “Overnight, he became friendlier, more approachable and in touch with his humorous side. It was a remarkable turnaround.”

Some of us think little of the value of a great smile, believing it to be a natural extension of an attractive face, one that a person has to be born with. However, Dr. Tan has proven time and again that besides being fundamental to a positive self-image and a healthy social interaction, a good smile something that can be improved with appropriate dental care.

One of Dr. Tan’s patients, an introverted 27-year-old female with severely broken teeth and smile, reinforced Dr. Tan’s theory. After her teeth were straightened following two sessions of cosmetic dental work, she returned to the clinic with a full makeover. Although Dr. Tan saw her at the waiting room he didn’t recognize her as the same patient.

She confided to her him that her decision to undergo cosmetic dental work was the best thing she had done for herself. Her previous appearance was affecting her personality and consequently her relationship with friends and colleagues, but her new smile gave her confidence and improved her self esteem. While there are immediate, on-the-surface benefits, a good cosmetic dental work can have a very deep outcome. “These are patients that make me appreciate the privilege of being able to impact their self-esteem, well-being, beauty and health.”

That a beautiful smile comes from a beautiful face is not the only myth about dental health that people still cling to until today. Some are convinced that the way to a great set of teeth is arduous. “Many people believe that the only way to straighten crooked, crowded and misshapen teeth is through dental braces or aligners such as Invisalign.” Dr. Tan is prepared to prove this isn’t the case. “Over the last 22 years, my work at Smile Inc. has employed cosmetic dental techniques to align, straighten and correct such dental conditions in a few visits – without the need for extractions, monthly adjustments and wearing of retainers long term.” Patients are also unburdened of the fear that their teeth will relapsing to its original state after the procedure. “We have transformed and enhanced thousands of smiles this way.”


All In A Day’s Work

Despite numerous unsolicited testimonials, Dr. Tan does not rely on his accreditation and reputation alone; he is on a continuous search for platforms that will enrich his professional knowledge, supplementing what he already knows by constantly reading up on the subject and attending accredited conferences. He also appreciates the value of continuing education programs for dental surgeons.

And there is of course the good old hard work. “Many people have the misconception that good luck and opportunity play a big role in professional success. What they fail to see beyond the image of success are the long hours, sacrifices, perseverance, tenacity, discipline and determination it requires.

“They also fail to see the immense responsibility that comes with it,” he adds, “including making all key decisions, being solely accountable for the profitability and progress of the practice, being responsible for the livelihood of the staff, and the challenges at staying at the forefront of dentistry.”

Today, digitalization has gained inroads into all fields of the profession, Dr. Tan emphasizes, “and it is one that resulted from continuous collaborations with all stakeholders – dentists, engineers, manufacturers, technicians and design houses.”

Dental practice is is a significant part of Dr. Tan’s daily routine. “My days are usually packed through with attending to patients.” As the owner of the practice, he also oversight over other aspects of the business, which requires a 24/7 commitment. Patient appointments can vary from routine dental check-ups to long, complex procedures. Owing to the volume of such cases they have handled over the years, Smile Inc. has established standard operating procedures and protocols that make those complex procedures efficient and manageable.

“Most of my patients have been with me, and have entrusted their dental care to Smile Inc. for many years. As such, I have established valued friendships and trust with many of them.” In many cases, he feels privileged to be their dentist as it means being their friend, confidante, and advisor as well. “They come from all walks of life,” he adds disproving the notion that he only treats the wealthy. 

“As such, going to the clinic isn’t work but a valuable and fulfilling part of my time. I’m always fascinated by the conversations I have with my patients. Nothing beats a one-on-one discussion with the captains of industry, business owners and experts in various fields,” he enthuses. Dr. Tan relates that their conversations run the gamut, from the factors affecting the price of Brent crude, the impact of shale gas and the upcoming OPEC meeting, to the latest developments in software, social media and cloud storage or the current cycle in the memory chip industry. It has also covered current headlines such as mergers and acquisitions activities in pharmaceuticals, insurance, financial services, property cycle, private equity, FMCG, shipping, and even challenges in running an F&B business. “The list goes on,” he concludes.


A Rarely Glimpsed Aspect

A number of people may recognize Dr. Tan from pictures in magazines. He and his wife, Ms. Grace Chong-Tan, are regulars at the charity gala circuit, but he still possesses a hidden aspect.

"I am a very calm and sedate driver despite my interest in the technological and aesthetic advances in performance cars,” he says. “A first and longstanding favorite is a 22-year-old Porsche 911 C2S. The last of the air-cooled models in a series of thoroughbreds, it has been driven during many important milestones in the last 22 years,” he elaborates with ample knowledge of the model.

He also enjoys in different sports, particularly racquet games like squash, but qualifies that it is on “a recreational basis”. Occasionally he jogs, swims and skis.

“I value time and activities with my family foremost, and I’ve always been blessed with the option to do what I want, when I want it. I have no ‘bucket list’ to speak of, but what I wish for is for more hours in a day and more time with my family – time that allows me the option to do the extraordinary or just nothing,” he continues. “Although truth be told, I feel something is amiss if I am not in the office and interacting and treating patients for more than two weeks.”

Although Dr. Tan remembers an incident that he felt was the best use of time – skiing the best runs in Niseko in the morning and then having delectable Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong by night time – he is equally content with much simpler pleasures. “I am happy with an evening swim in the pool, improvising a pop tune on the old grand, a midnight supper drive for bak chor mee and soya bean dessert with my family.”


From Vacation to Investment

A few years ago, Dr. Tan and his wife made news with the purchase of a hotel while on vacation in Niseko, Japan with their son. It seemed like an impulse buy, one that wealthy individuals are wont to do. However, Dr. Tan explains that it was “an immediate but informed decision based on my local knowledge of the market and geography of Niseko. As with such decisions, I sought the concurrence of my wife which helped cement my decision.”

Dr. Tan claims he doesn’t believe in impulse buys based on a whim, but adds that he makes quick decisions “if I have sufficient data and market or domain knowledge; therefore, when a rare and valuable opportunity comes along, I am ready to act.” 

He proves this by pointing out that in 1996, he and his wife chanced upon a new technology that could whiten teeth in one hour. “Prior to that, one had to wear chemical filled trays for weeks, and endure sensitive and sore gums to attain a minor improvement in whiteness.” (Today, it has been replaced by chairside teeth whitening, which is common in every dental clinic.)

“We decided to go on a side trip during our honeymoon to check out this technology, which at that time was an obvious ‘killer application’. There I was in Salt Lake City after testing the machine and witnessing the amazing breakthrough results on several patients I had worked on. I decided to purchase the very first laser teeth whitening machine.

“I sensed a breakthrough moment and negotiated, as a condition of my good faith in the new technology, for Britesmile (then ILT) to grant me the sole distributorship for the laser teeth whitening technology in Asia, excluding Japan, for 10 years.” The company agreed and thus began a series of events that made chairside teeth whitening a widespread procedure in most dental clinics today. “It also catapulted Smile Inc. into the limelight and in a league of its own where it became a frontrunner and market leader in teeth whitening and cosmetic and reconstructive dentistry in Singapore.”

Dr. Tan asserts that “serendipity, local knowledge, decisiveness, business acumen to recognize the value of ownership and its vast potential” were among the factors that gave rise to his decision to buy J-Sekka Suites.

Dr. Tan and his wife originally headed out to Hokkaido to find a winter sport for their son who was allergic to heat. They found the place to be so much fun that they returned year after year, exploring different ski slopes in Hokkaido, until they discovered and fell for Niseko. “It was (and still is) turning more an exciting hot pot of experiences,” Dr. Tan says of the experience, “from the beautiful ski slopes to the vibrant night scene, from the food vans on the streets to Michelin-starred-like restaurants.”

After going to Niseko several times, they decided to look for a suitable property to acquire where they could stay whenever they visited. “We bought an apartment at AYA, but in the process we were offered the boutique J-Sekka Suites Hotel mixed development across the street.” The latter consists of nine apartment suites, each with living and dining rooms, and separate kitchenettes. They come in different sizes that range from studios to two-bedroom suites, double-storied or three-storied penthouse apartments, all the way to units that could cater to different group sizes.

In addition, J-Sekka Suites Hotel has seven commercial units with different international restaurants, including Italian and Japanese, as well as a famous whisky bar and the first Japanese traditional massage house in the area. “It was the earliest luxury hotel to be built at Niseko by renowned architect Makoto Nakayama,” Dr. Tan says. The original structure had 26 rooms; following its refurbishment in 2010, the spaces were reconfigured resulting in nine luxuriously spacious suites. “It is the only hotel development in Niseko with comprehensive F&B offerings and in room dining – definitely a great thing for guests who find it too cold to step outside the building in sub-zero temperatures.”

The development is situated at an advantageous position on the main commercial street in the heart of Niseko – on prime land that ballasts its vast potential. Alongside the location factor, the property is freehold and its plot ratio can be optimized, explains Dr. Tan. He also anticipates the upcycle of Niseko, which is currently 30 per cent into the cycle, as well as the upcoming Tokyo Olympics to boost the property’s capacity for growth. “And of course there is the consistently voluminous, high quality powder snow,” he adds. “It continues to receive increasing numbers of visitors and investors from international markets such as Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and China. Established players are venturing in and uplifting the status and price points in Niseko as an investment resort destination. The shifting of the center of activity, as well as the ‘welcome center’ next door, gives us a myriad of options that will both benefit J-Sekka Suites and the community.”

Dr. Tan is positive about investing in Niseko, but offers this advice: Anyone who wishes to buy a property in Niseko would be well-advised to consider the location, the proximity to ski lifts and the accessibility to amenities.