© 2011 SPH Magazine Pte. Ltd.

"Do you need a reason to help others?"

 

That response, gently rendered to a journalist who sought to understand the basis of Dr Oon Chiew Seng’s lifelong concern for the aged and disadvantaged, was a neat summary of the beliefs and conviction that have energised the NUS alumna through a long and distinguished career.

 

Trailblazing medical student, pioneering obstetrician and gynaecologist, philanthropist, ardent champion for dementia care – Dr Oon’s abiding compassion for the poor, disadvantaged and needy has led her to take on a variety of roles and responsibilities. It has also culminated in her establishment of a trust dedicated to helping dementia patients as well as her philanthropic support for research into ageing-related illness.

 

Born in 1916 in Penang to a businessman father and housewife, Dr Oon pursued medical studies here and in India during World War II, and returned to work under Professor Benjamin Henry Sheares (who became Singapore’s President) at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. While she has lost count of the number of babies she has delivered, their parents remember the doctor who helped to bring their children into the world. Here and even in New York, she would run into people who wanted to express their gratitude for safely delivering their babies many years ago.

Besides her work in obstetrics and gynaecology, Dr Oon’s other passion lay in caring for the elderly and sick. It led her to serve as Chairman of the Building Fund and Member of the Medical Committee of the Sree Narayana Mission Home for the Aged Sick from 1984 to 2000.


When she retired in 1991, the mah-jong exponent did not sit back. She wanted to do more for the elderly. Learning that Singapore needed a dementia home, she set out to learn about dementia home care in Australia.


Eventually, she managed to procure funding of about $2 million a year for the Apex Harmony Lodge at Pasir Ris, the first purpose-built lodge that cares for dementia patients in Singapore. She relinquished her role as Chairman of the Apex Harmony Lodge Management Committee in 2011, but retains a keen interest in the Lodge’s work.


Her gift that same year to the NUS to inaugurate the Oon Chiew Seng Fellowship in Medicine – later converted to the Oon Chiew Seng Professorship - has greatly enhanced the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s effort to provide quality medical education and undertake translational research in the fields of ageing and dementia. Students, faculty, healthcare professionals and patients will greatly benefit from the talent that the professorship will attract. Professorships established at NUS Medicine act as magnets

for world-class academic talent. Top academics in their turn, will drive the strong, transformative research and education programmes important to informing the thinking and work of policy makers, and the efforts by community service organisations, ultimately helping those with neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and those who seek to help them. The Professorship is also supported by various notable individuals, including Ms Ho Ching, Chief Executive Officer of Temasek Holdings. She is one of the countless babies delivered by Dr Oon.


“My mother always spoke fondly of Dr Oon and her role in getting me safely delivered in Kandang Kerbau Hospital. Having grown up hearing about her and meeting her for the first time when I visited the Apex Harmony Lodge some years ago, I was very impressed that at over 80 years old, she went around the world to study homes for elderly dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, before she started one here in Singapore. The Apex Harmony

Lodge was very thoughtfully designed, and it reflects not just the care, but also the meticulous thinking and drive that Dr Oon has,” shared Ms Ho. Explaining what started her on her lifelong journey of caring for others, Dr Oon said, “When I was young, I saw my late father helping many people in need. They used to come to our house along Scotland Road and he would help them. I witnessed his good deeds and decided that I would like to do the same.”


They say home is where the heart is: a living, breathing space where our most deeply held values and beliefs are formed. Dr Oon’s journey began at home – witnessing transformative experiences that led to an affirmation of her own Believe-In-Giving spirit – and since then, that journey has brought much warmth and comfort to thousands –  helping to transform and improve the quality of life for many. Singapore is a better place because of the humanitarianism of Dr Oon Chiew Seng.