This article was first published in Singapore’s leading national English daily The Straits Times on June 26,1999, under the title “Senior citizens still going strong”. It features also Dr Oon Chiew Seng, who founded the first dementia home in Singapore, the Apex Harmony Lodge, in 1995.
Listening to the vivacious and spontaneous Tsao Foundation President and Chief Executive, Dr Mary Ann Tsao, recalling the life story and visions of her remarkable grandmother is like taking a practical lesson in philosophy and social responsibilities towards the community.
Mrs Tsao Ng, the founder of this foundation, was born in 1904 into a scholarly family in China’s Anhui Province. However, as was common during that era for women, she had only three years of classical education by a learned private tutor. But, endowed with a fine intellect and an innate business acumen, she would have become a force to be reckoned with if she had been born a man instead. Imbued with a strong sense of social justice, she is generous and tactful to those needing assistance.
Mrs Tsao Ng’s five children and fifteen grandchildren are all well established in Hong kong and elsewhere. Her eldest son, Frank Tsao, Dr May Ann Tsao’s father, is at the helm of the family’s shipping and other enterprises. He is also the Chairman of Suntec City Development, which is a prominent shopping, exhibition and office complex in the Republic’s newly developed Marina Square area.
When Mrs Tsao Ng’s husband died in 1990, she was already 86 years of age. An urgent thought ran through her mind: it was time she left a useful public legacy as a mark of good citizenship, which would encourage her family to emulate her example. Dr Tsao recalled “I am very close to her and she has helped shape my character and influenced me to become a doctor. So we had long discussions on how best to translate her visions into realties.
“We examined the various forms of public service. Finally, she decided that the project must concern the aged as she had seen their sufferings in China and Hong Kong. She convinced me to give up my thriving practice as a pediatrician in New York to devote myself to this venture.”
Several factors made Mrs Tsao Ng put the charitable foundation in Singapore. The family has been doing business here for many years. She knows Singapore well, having lived here in the 1950s, and has great admiration for the Government for transforming it into what it is today.
And with its rapidly greying population and strategic location, it is an ideal place to realise her ambition and reach out to the region too. Both Dr Tsao and her father are also permanent residents of Singapore.
She came to live here in 1992 and worked so feverishly that she launched the foundation in 1994. It is endowed entirely by her grandmother. Its annual budget can reach $2 million, with growing operating deficits made good by family members, mainly Mr Frank Tsao.
The foundation has a three-pronged programme of care for the elderly: community health services, education and collaboration.
Its three clinics provide home care, clinical consultations and acupuncture treatment. It also offers assistance to individuals and organisations wishing to develop community health projects. Conducting training sessions and talks on medical topics for older folks, caregivers, professionals, volunteers and the public is another important aspect of its work.
Dr Tsao visits her grandmother in Hong Kong once a month to brief her on the foundation’s works and to seek her advice. She is very frail now and has been bed-ridden for some time. Said Dr Tsao, “Here I am looking after the elderly of Singapore when my own grandmother and mother require medical attention and physical help themselves, and I am not even there to comfort them”
Post article update on Tsao Foundation
Five years after founding the foundation, Mrs Tsao Ng was honoured by the United Nations in 1999 in celebrating the first UN Year of the Older Person for her dedicated service to the elderly people. She was then 94 years old. She passed away in 2001 at the age of 96 knowing that the Tsao Foundation, under the capable leadership of her granddaughter Dr Tsao, has realised her ambition to provide quality healthcare to older people in Singapore. Indeed, the charitable foundation and its Hua Mei community-based health and social services have already earned a well-deserved reputation for its elderly care services and supporting activities, and for distinguished standards of innovation, practice and collaboration in aged care. It later expanded to include the various forms of TCM healthcare to its range of medical services as there was a growing demand for it.
The contributions of the Tsao Foundation was recognised by the Singapore Government which awarded Dr Tsao the prestigious state honour of Public Service Star, Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (BBM), for her valuable public service to the community.
Update on Dr Oon Chiew Seng
(For details of her charitable work, please see my posting of August 25, 2011.)
Dr Oon not only founded the Apex Harmony Lodge for dementia patients, she also ran it as its Honorary Director, with a healthcare team comprising a matron, nursing staff, helpers and volunteers, for many years until she was well into her 90s when she relinquished the management of it. She also was one of its principal benefactors and fund-raisers. To mark the occasion of her retirement there, the board of directors named the lodge’s spacious events hall after her to honour her invaluable contributions.
Dr Oon recently celebrated her 100th birthday with a lunch organised by three generations of her Oon family members. She is still hale and hardy and her steady and graceful gait will be the envy of those much younger than she is! I wish her many more years of healthy and happy life in the years ahead.
Lam Pin Foo