This is a follow on to an article that was published in Singapore’s Sunday Times on 27th September 1997. The update follows the original article reproduced immediately below.
Last Sunday was World Alzheimer Day, a day set aside to mark universal efforts to deal with the debilitating disease. On the same day, representatives of 26 charities were at the Singapore Turf Club in Bukit Timah, to receive their share of a $1 million donation from the club. Among the 26 to receive their cheques from President Ong Teng Cheong was Dr Oon Chiew Seng, who has done much in recent times to raise awareness of the problems posed by the illness in Singapore.
Dr Oon, 81, was there on behalf of the Apex Harmony Lodge, the first home (to be ready in 1999) here to cater to the needs of dementia patients. Alzheimer is a form of dementia, a brain disorder which not only robs the sufferers of their mental faculties, but also imposes a tremendous burden of care on the family.
Dementia leads to a gradual deterioration of memory and intellect and impairs judgement and speech. It is not part of normal ageing. There are about 5,000 dementia patients in Singapore. With a fast greying population, the number is expected to increase to 19,000 by the year 2030.
Dr Oon, a retired gynaecologist, who graduated from KIng Edward VII College of Medicine in 1948, has been the main driving force behind the lodge project.
“It wasn’t an impulsive decision. I had always wanted to play my part but was prevented from doing so because of my demanding and hectic schedules as a doctor,” she explained.
Dr Oon is no stranger to community work. She first came face to face with the stark realities of the poor when she was doing clinical work at Lady Harding Hospital, New Delhi, in 1944. Her medical studies in Singapore were interrupted by World War II which forced her to do some of her studies in India.
“Patients at the antenatal clinics were so anaemic and undernourished that a fellow student and I collected fresh vegetables from the professors’ gardens and pooled our own meagre resources to buy milk for them,” she said.
She felt she had to do something to help the needy. In the mid-1980s she was invited to sit on the medical advisory committee of the Sree Narayana Mission Home for the aged sick. There she realised that Singapore needed more such homes for its ageing population.
When the home launched a fundraising campaign, Dr Oon was persuaded to play a leading role in view of her professional standing and wide circle of influential friends. She accepted the challenge.
To her pleasant surprise, many of the corporations and friends she approached reacted generously, considering that Singapore was emerging from its worst recession since the 1950s. Within a year, she had raised $3 million. She also involved herself in the activities of the Apex Clubs of Singapore. Impressed by their contributions to the community, she accepted their invitation to be patron of their Bukit Timah club.
In 1993, she approached the Ministry of Health to persuade it to build a home for the aged sick, under Apex management. The ministry replied that nine such homes were in the pipeline and they would adequately serve the needs of the target groups. Instead the ministry encouraged her to embark on a dementia home project, which Singapore lacked. Nursing and old age homes have often been unwilling to admit dementia patients as they have been more difficult to manage. The Government was prepared to contribute substantially to the dementia project and bear part of the annual operating costs on an ongoing basis.
As she was not too familiar with the problems of dementia, she asked for more time to consider the ministry’s suggestion. In late 1993, Dr Oon travelled to Australia where she visited 16 dementia homes to gain a better insight into their operations. She came back convinced that Apex could manage such a project. The dementia home would cost $18 million and Apex would have to raise at least $1.8 million before the government would provide the rest and the land.
The Apex Harmony Lodge was registered in 1995, and a committee with Dr Oon as chairman and members drawn from both public and private sectors, was formed to raise funds. The committee has now raised the $1.8 million to qualify for a government grant for the remainder of the approved building and equipment costs. The three-storey home is in Pasir Ris and occupies a 6,400 sq m plot. Its facilities include a day care centre for 50 patients, seven wards for 210 live-in patients and living quarters for foreign staff
Donations to the home, which will be tax-exempt, should be sent to:
The Honorary Treasurer
Apex Harmony Lodge
9, Nathan Rd, Block 9 #23-01, Regency park
Lam Pin Foo
Update 20th April 2021
Latest update on Dr Oon’s later contributions on the research and new approaches for dementia care of elderly with Alzheimer’s disease in Singapore.
Since the publication of the above article in Singapore’s Sunday Times in 1997, much has happened in Dr Oon’s continuing relentless effort to promote the study & research into the worldwide developments of dementia care for the elderly which will benefit the increasing elderly population with Alzheimer’s decease in Singapore.
She has been a substantial supporter of Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in Singapore and has endowed millions of dollars for researches into the elderly care mentioned above including establishing a professorship to cater to the growing needs of Singapore.
In recognition of Dr Oon’s pioneering effort in this regard, the Singapore Government conferred upon her the Public Service Star Award in 2013 which she received from the then Singapore President Dr Tony Tan who was also the Chancellor Of National University of Singapore (NUS). In 2019, she also received the NUS Medicine Alumnus of the Year Award from the then Education Minister Mr Ong Ye Kung. She is among the first batch of inductees of Women’s Hall of Fame in Singapore.
Dr Oon celebrated her 100th birthday in 2017 with a lunch attended by four generation of the Oons from Singapore, Malaysia & overseas. My wife, who is her niece, and three other members of my family were among those present on this memorable & auspicious occasion.
Dr Oon is most grateful to her elder brother Oon Khye Hong, my wife’s father, for encouraging her to become a doctor and with his urging she decided to become one. She was then a nurse in the 1930s. Through sheer hard work and perseverance, she became the first woman gynaecologist in private practice in Singapore, after many years in government service, and rose to become its most eminent & successful one in this very demanding but well-paying medical specialty. Her fame and well-deserved high standing in the medical fraternity and among her numerous patients, both rich & poor, must have inspired many younger female medical students to follow in her footsteps and some became successful practitioners too.
The crowning glory of this 104-year pioneer gynaecologist was the conferment on 12 of January this year of an honorary Doctor of Letters by NUS in recognition of her lifelong dedication to medical education & public services.
In her thank you speech, after receiving this high honour from President Halimah Yacob who was also the Chancellor of the University, which was delivered on her behalf by her nephew, Dr Oon Chong Hau, the full details of which was reported on the front page of The Straits Times, the contents of which can be accessed on NUS’ website.
Dr Oon was quoted as saying, “People have asked me whether I have arrived and am satisfied with my achievements. I asked them: Arrive where? Life is not a race. To me, there is no finishing line. It is a journey which I will complete in my own time and at my own pace”.
On a lighter note, after her retirement at age 75, she enjoyed playing mahjong regularly with old friends and taking daily morning walks with a good friend at the Botanic Gardens in order to maintain her mental agility and physical fitness in old age. She also enjoyed regular travels to different parts of the world which her busy medical practice did not allow her to do so.
On a personal note, all my three male children were safely delivered by her decades ago at the Gleneagles Hospital, which has since expanded almost beyond recognition.
Dr Oon is well-known as a straight and no nonsense talker to all those who know her. To her patients, regardless of their social standing in the community, she would do her utmost to ensure that their offsprings would be delivered as safely as her medical skills and experience could ensure it. Among those she brought into this world not a few have later become public figures or prominent personalities in their respective fields of endeavours.
My one and only encounter with her straight talking style was when our first child was soon to be born. As an expectant father I was understandably nervous & excited and was walking up & down near the hospital lift. To my great surprise, Dr Oon emerged from the labour ward and told me abruptly that I should stop loitering there and should go back to my office immediately. She would telephone me after my new-born child had been safely delivered. I left the hospital immediately.
Dr Oon has always been referred to affectionately by doctors, nurses, other healthcare staff, former patients who know her as “Mama Oon” long after she had retired from decades long medical practice.
I would take this opportunity to wish her continuing good health & happiness in the years ahead.
Lam Pin Foo