Speech by Minister for Health, Mr Gan Kim Yong, at Tribute to Healthcare Pioneers, 23 Aug 2014

Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State

Dr Lam Pin Min, Minister of State

A/Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, Parliamentary Secretary

Mrs Tan Ching Yee, Permanent Secretary (Health)

Former Permanent Secretaries of Health, Directors of Medical Services

Pioneers of Healthcare in Singapore,

Distinguished guests

1.              Good morning.

2.              It is my privilege to be here with so many of our healthcare pioneers today. Let me start by saying thank you to our pioneers.

Paying Tribute to our Pioneers

3.              Today, we pay tribute to you, the Pioneer Generation. It is perhaps more poignant when we say it in Chinese, ’建国一代’. Literally, the generation that built the nation. Many of you may be modest and say, “No lah, I did not build any hospitals or do anything special. I was just doing my job.”  To all of you, I would like to say a BIG thank you for a job well done.

4.              We take the opportunity to show our appreciation as we approach Singapore’s 50th birthday.  As we look back over the last 5 decades, no matter how big or small you think your role has been, the progress and achievement we have today is a result of the dedication and hard work from each one of you.

5.              As healthcare professionals of all disciplines, you have helped the sick get well and the healthy stay well. You have welcomed newborns and comforted the departing. As planners, administrators, and support staff, you have developed policies, organised programmes and run our facilities. Each one of you has contributed to Singapore and our healthcare system in your own way, regardless of the number of acronyms behind your name.

6.              When the President of the World Bank recently visited Singapore, he commended our healthcare system. Indeed, Singapore’s healthcare journey is nothing short of remarkable. You can see it in the numbers – in terms of national health expenditure, health outcomes, burden of disease, efficiency rankings, and other performance and quality indicators.

7.              But numbers do not do justice to the sweat, the tears and sometimes the blood that you have shed. They do not capture adequately your pioneering spirit to overcome the challenges of our historical circumstances.

Establishing Priorities

8.              Back then, it was a different Singapore. We did not have the political stability, racial harmony, and economic vitality that we enjoy today. You lived in more uncertain times. And in those uncertain times, the top priority was public health.

9.              We needed clean water, proper sanitation, vaccination against common infectious diseases and proper nutrition. The aim back then was really to provide basic healthcare to the population.

10.          At that time, a particular scourge was infectious diseases. Singapore was rife with tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, and other diseases that we consider preventable today. Some nurses among you may remember having to plead with parents to bring their children in for vaccinations.

11.          Nurses in the kampongs were a familiar sight. Come rain or shine, they were out there in the kampongs, crossing rubber plantations and vegetable farms to reach out to the mothers and children.

12.          Our pioneers did not let anything get in their way. Our former Matron Mrs Tan Phaik In shared with us that the first maternity and child health clinic where she worked did not even have electricity in the beginning! They had no disposable equipment. They had to sharpen needles manually, put them in a big pot and boil them over a kerosene stove to sterilise them.

13.          Those working conditions are a far cry from what we have today. But no matter how hard it was, you did everything within your power to care for Singaporeans to the best of your abilities. It is truly a testament of the resourcefulness and unyielding spirit of our pioneers.

Laying Foundations

14.          Our pioneers laid firm foundations and introduced many programmes that still stand strong today. One example is health education and health services in our schools. Back then, pupils were screened for simple things, like height and weight, to look out for malnutrition. Over the years, lifestyles changed and we started screening for obesity instead!

15.          As Director of the School Health Service, Dr Uma Rajan worked tirelessly with her team to plan screenings in schools and to develop the health education curriculum. Dr Rajan is best known as the pioneer who gave us the Health Booklet. It was a simple way of recording medical history and keeping parents updated and involved in their child’s health. The Health Booklet has been and still is an iconic item for school-going children.

16.          Dr Rajan has said that she felt like “the health of the entire school population of half a million”, was in her hands. Luckily for all of us, she had very skilled hands.

17.          Our pioneers also saw the importance in being well-skilled. They invested heavily in our best resource - our people. Training them to excel in their fields and to care for Singaporeans.

18.           Prof Chew Chin Hin knows this and has always been passionate about medical education. He recognised very early on, that Singapore could not depend on other countries to raise the standards of our specialised training. As Master of the Academy of Medicine, Prof Chew was instrumental in the development of local postgraduate qualifications. He was a man who demanded excellence and insisted that our qualifications be as robust as those in the UK and Australia.

19.          Even after retirement, Prof Chew continues to serve actively and contribute to the progress of graduate medical studies in Singapore. In fact, he is very proud to share with us that at 83 years old, he is only the second oldest faculty member! I am confident that our new generations of healthcare professionals will be infected by his dedication and will be more than ready for the future.

Building a Future

20.          As we worked hard to develop and improve our healthcare system, new challenges arose with changing demographics and disease patterns.

21.          The Permanent Secretary and Director of Medical Services at that time was Dr Kwa Soon Bee. Unfortunately, Dr Kwa is unable to join us today. Dr Kwa was not only a top physician. He was also a visionary and extremely capable administrator who had shaped many of our key healthcare policies.

22.          Under Dr Kwa’s leadership, our healthcare system saw the restructuring and redevelopment of public hospitals, and the establishment of several new hospitals, polyclinics, and national specialty centres.

23.          Beyond the brick and mortar, he was also passionate about developing healthcare professionals and ensuring that the highest standards in professional and ethical practices were upheld. Dr Kwa devoted much effort in identifying and grooming healthcare leaders and through them, his strong principles and values still guide us in what we do every day.

24.          Here, it is only fitting that I thank the officers in the Ministry, Statutory Boards and Professional Boards who have supported the decision-makers over the years. Every policy decision is as good as its implementation.  You have not only implemented them well, you have also taken pains to communicate the best you can to the various stakeholders to ensure they are well accepted. You have been a pillar of support throughout the years.

25.          Even as we look back at your experiences with admiration and nostalgia, I am happy to know that many pioneers are still actively serving today! For example, we have Mr Ee Cheng Huat in MOH HQ who makes sure that we are prepared to handle national emergencies. He has been involved in the coordination and mobilisation of our teams through many emergencies, such as the SQ006 crash in Taiwan, the tsunami in Thailand, and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. We also have Ms Toh Ching Lian who cared for the sick as a nurse in our hospitals, then collected blood from the healthy in the Singapore Blood Transfusion Services (now known as the Blood Bank). Also re-employed after retirement, she is now working with the Health Sciences Authority. Or Mr Kehar Singh in MOH HQ who joined us as a public health officer in 1970, going out into the field to check for mosquito breeding sites in our fight against dengue and malaria. After retirement, he was re-employed and continues to put his expertise as a communicable disease officer to good use. We are fortunate and proud to have Mr Ee, Ms Toh, and Mr Singh with us in our healthcare journey.

Forging Forward

26.          While we have made much progress over the last 5 decades, there are new challenges. Singapore’s ageing population means that we must continue to evolve the way we deliver healthcare and manage our manpower. With major changes afoot, we must also improve the way we communicate and engage Singaporeans. A more connected world means that we must stand guard against new public health threats, like SARS, MERS-CoV and more recently, Ebola.

27.          Our experience with SARS showed us that we need the same resilience and courage as our pioneers.

28.          I hope the current generation will be inspired by the pioneers’ dedication, resourcefulness and farsightedness, then translate that inspiration into action. The best way we can thank and honour our pioneers is to do justice to their legacy, to work hard for a future that will be better for our children and their children.

29.          As we look forward to celebrating Singapore’s 50th birthday next year, we all take pride in what Singapore has achieved.  At the Pioneer Generation Tribute in February, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that each generation stands on the shoulders of the one before. Thank you for offering your strong and steady shoulders for us to stand on. Just as we stood on yours, we hope to do the same for the next generation.

30.          My colleagues in the Ministry of Health and the entire healthcare family join me in saluting you, for being the pioneers in our healthcare journey, for building a home where Singaporeans of all ages can live long, live well and have peace of mind.

31.          We wish you good health and happiness.

32.          Thank you.

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