Dr Goh Wei Leong in his clinic at HealthServe.

Right in the heart of Geylang on 1, Lorong 23 lies HealthServe, a sanctuary for migrant workers. It is a place where they can seek treatment for illnesses and find comfort in the camaraderie of counterparts from foreign lands.

 

The premises are painted in the soothing colours of white and blue, feature zinc roofs distinctive of old kampong houses in Singapore decades ago and pots of plants line the corridor. The buildings ring a quadrangle, essentially a field with coconut trees on the fringes, and where various activities take place on different days of the week.

 

A room nearest the entrance has the scent of traditional Chinese medicine and is occupied by various migrant workers taking a rest. The room next to it is a classroom for medical students. Other rooms are administrative offices, and more importantly, a clinic.

 

HealthServe was founded by NUS Medicine alumnus Dr Goh Wei Leong (Class of 1985) and businessman Mr Tang Shin Yong in late 2006 to provide medical care for migrant workers in Singapore. These workers, who are largely men aged between 18 to 50 years old, hail from Bangladesh, India and China.

 

“Migration was a big problem but very few people are looking into it. As a doctor, I felt there was a need to serve this community,” Dr Goh said. Singapore has about one million low-wage migrant workers from the developing world, making up about 30 per cent of the workforce. There were many schemes to help the local poor, but not enough for migrant workers, some of whose companies choose not to pay for their medical bills even though they are ill.

 

Dr Goh started a clinic in Geylang Lorong 23 with a small team of six doctors, and ran it on Saturday afternoons, charging $5 per consultation. However, patient turnout was not what they expected and they were discouraged.

“When you are doing service, you must go to the side of those you are serving. We were in our own ivory tower of an NGO (non-governmental organisation), our little clinic. So we realised that we better get to know the community and the patients we want to serve,” recalled Dr Goh.

 

With the help of a social worker in the area, Dr Goh and his team crossed the road to the side of the vulnerable population.

 

“That was a turning point. We crossed the road and we met a community that’s very different form us – migrant workers, sex workers, pimps, gamblers. Our eyes were opened. We started making friends with all the people there, and they started coming over and this clinic started to thrive.”

 

Initially, it was not easy for Dr Goh to strike a conversation with this community. He began talking to a pimp, a man in his 40s who shared that he was working to provide for a mother diagnosed with diabetes and his three children. He once tried a job as a fishmonger, but it just could not pay the bills.

 

“I realised at that point that being a doctor or professional is a privilege, and our dreams are the same as this guy,” Dr Goh said. He still stays in touch with this man, who has left to become a driver. Dr Goh believes that the HealthServe community had a part to play in influencing this man to change his job.

 

“For most of us, we follow clinical guidelines, and we sometimes forget that someone is human. So I think the humanity is often lost in the practice of medicine. How to keep the science and not lose the art? We need to do it in a very relational space. Here at HealthServe, we keep it very relational,” Dr Goh said.

 

“I realised at that point that being a doctor or professional is a privilege, and our dreams are the same as this guy.”

Dr Goh Wei Leong attending to a patient at the HealthServe clinic.

Expansion of HealthServe’s role

 

A couple of years after its inception, HealthServe expanded its services to offer social support and legal advice to migrant workers.

 

“Even teaching them (the migrant workers) how to eat healthy is not so simple. Have they got the means to eat healthy? Is it culturally appropriate? For medical people, we are very simplistic. We learnt all these by trial and error,” Dr Goh said.

 

It all started when a worker from China who came to see Dr Goh told him that he wanted to kill himself. He had hurt his head at work falling two storeys, fell into a coma and upon discharge from the hospital, had a very severe headache. To worsen the situation, he had no one to care for him at his dormitory.

 

A volunteer who works as a forensic psychiatrist referred the Chinese worker to HealthServe and told Dr Goh, “What he needs is people around him, a community, not more Panadols.”

 

“At that point I realised that real medicine is not just giving Panadol or painkillers, but it is actually providing this guy with friends, social, emotional and spiritual support, and also giving him a sense of community significance, with his dignity restored,” Dr Goh added.

 

Shortly after the encounter with this worker, HealthServe added counselling services and food provision. The worker could not take Panadol because he did not have food to eat.

 

Today, the organisation operates three medical and dental centres in Geylang, Mandai and Jurong. It is run by 10 full-time staff, 70 volunteer doctors, 20 dentists, and and 547 active volunteers who are nurses, pharmacists, housewives, students, counsellors and administrative officers. Last year, HealthServe provided 10,618 consultations, helped 601 workers with work injury and salary-related cases, served 26,478 free meals and housed 30 workers in two emergency shelters.

 

Dr Goh does not intend to expand HealthServe beyond its current size.

 

“At the moment, we are thinking how we can promote impactful volunteerism, a culture of sharing and generosity. We want to be the space or a catalyst for more people to experiment with new ideas in engagement with the Ministry of Health, migrant workers, and help bring people at the margins closer together. We don’t want to be for ourselves,” Dr Goh said. “It is easy to serve people, but it is harder to engage and empower.”

 

Dr Goh believes that Singaporeans have become more mature, aware, compassionate and gracious towards migrant workers over the last 10 years. He is confident that many of these acts of kindness are genuine, and not driven by “KPIs”.

“It is going to take time, but we are on the road there. Sometimes doing less may be more. If people can be nice, change their attitudes and be friendlier, be able to accept and give generosity, create common space in arts and music for people to join, and also go down and serve, that would help” Dr Goh said. “You will only bring about real change if you start having a migrant worker as a friend, and not a patient.”


Beyond HealthServe

 

Besides HealthServe, where he now functions as a “standby doctor”, the 57-year-old spends three days a week at his own clinic at Manhattan Medical Centre seeing mainly low-income patients, and another three days meeting people from all walks of life – from ministers, students, businessmen to one-room flatters. He believes it is the best way to get ideas and inspiration. Dr Goh also supports medical student projects, and has a keen interest in global and regional social justice issues such as the plight of the Rohingyas.

 

On weekends, the bachelor spends time with his family and dedicates time for rest and reflection. His is a fulfilled life, he says.

 

`“Through my faith lens, I feel that it gives me a framework with meaning and purpose. That’s why I enjoy living, doctoring, learning and everything in between. I enjoy people too,” he said.

 

The man who founded HealthServe now visits the organisation twice a week for meetings with donors, board members and interns. He intends to exit HealthServe one day so that it can scale to even greater heights. His co-founder Mr Tang, who served as HealthServe’s volunteer executive director for seven years, left the organisation in 2015.

 

“I see myself more promoting the ideas and ethos of HealthServe, as it is already running. I see myself as a champion for the cause and for the people at the fringe, not just HealthServe. My new season is to encourage more of such enterprises in different forms. My dream is to see fresh expressions of work for the poor and marginalised communities in Singapore, and also regionally,” he said.

 

Being named The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year for 2017 helped to raise the public’s awareness of their cause, and increased interest, profile and visibility for their work and brought migrant workers’ issues to the fore.

 

Dr Goh also said there is good leadership in place now, with new board members and younger staff on board the team, and he is confident that HealthServe would continue its role smoothly.

 

“I try not to be around too much, to give the new leaders space to grow. But nevertheless, HealthServe’s aim is still to work ourselves out of a job. The expansion of HealthServe is not necessarily a good thing, it means there are more migrant workers being exploited. I hope that there will be a culture shift, and people will be more compassionate,” he said.

With medical students at HealthServe.