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Dr Kwa Soon Bee: Modernising Singapore’s healthcare

Dr Kwa Soon Bee

Dr Kwa Soon Bee discussing with his team for the restructuring plans for Singapore General Hospital in 1970s

Well-loved and highly respected, Dr Kwa Soon Bee has been credited for bringing in changes to transform the health care landscape

He was inclined towards nature, and had thought of pursuing a career related to agriculture. But his father, a banker, harboured hopes that his children would become doctors.

Of his 10 children, only one did. Still, what that child – his ninth – achieved was way beyond the duty of any doctor.

Dr Kwa Soon Bee, Emeritus Consultant, Department of Haematology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH), studied medicine at the University of Malaya, and later went on a government scholarship to specialise in haematology in the UK. He returned as the first Singapore doctor to be fully trained in clinical and laboratory haematology, and was appointed the Head of the Singapore Blood Transfusion Service in 1963.

Starting at Blood Bank

Dr Kwa Soon Bee (pointing to a blood collection barometer)

Dr Kwa Soon Bee (pointing to a blood collection barometer) said he turned to “all sorts of entrepreneurial campaigns” to encourage reluctant Singaporeans to donate blood to the Blood Bank.

At the time, it was difficult getting Singaporeans and Asians to donate blood, although “it was very clear that Singapore needed blood for medicine to progress,” Dr Kwa said in an interview for the Oral History Centre. To encourage blood collection, Dr Kwa said he “did all sorts of entrepreneurial campaigns”, including publicity, education and incentives. For his efforts in developing the Blood Bank, he was awarded the Public Administration Gold Medal in 1969.

More importantly for Dr Kwa, the years building up the Blood Bank allowed him to hone his administrative skills – these would be crucial when he was charged to transform the public health care sector. In the early 1980s, then Health Minister Howe Yoon Chong was looking to change the way that healthcare was delivered as “he already saw the problems of old age coming up in the year 2030,” said Dr Kwa. Brought into the Ministry, Dr Kwa became instrumental in initiating and shaping a savings scheme for health care (this led to the Medisave, Medishield and Medifund schemes).

Chief Architect of Singapore's Modern Healthcare

He was also behind the restructuring and corporatisation of public hospitals, and the rebuilding and consolidation of government health care facilities, including hospitals and polyclinics.

Dr Kwa played a major role in the development of medical specialisation in Singapore. To honour Dr Kwa when he was made an Honorary Member of the Singapore Medical Association in 1997, former SingHealth Group CEO Professor Tan Ser Kiat said: “This is a fact not known to many. (Dr Kwa) implemented the recommendations of the Committee on Medical Specialisation in the 1970s as well as pushed for the development of sub-specialisation in various hospitals, resulting in the establishment of specialty centres like heart, eye, mental health, dental and cancer.”



Singapore’s healthcare institutions were “ testimony to his farsightedness, vision and skills as administrator, professional and planner… and he systematically and meticulously identified, talent scouted and trained staff for health service while advocating the development of ancillary health professionals like nurses, physiotherapists and radiographers 

Prof Tan Ser Kiat in reference to Dr Kwa
GCEO of SingHealth (2000 - 2012) & Emeritus Consultant, Dept of Orthopaedic Surgery, SGH 


…like the monument to the great British architect Christopher Wren, who built many famous buildings in London after the Great Fire of 1666, for the monument to Dr Kwa, look all around you

 Brigadier- General George Yeo, 1996.

Dr Kwa has had a long association with SGH , starting from the time he began clinical training in 1951 to becoming the hospital’s first chairman in 1989. He has also contributed to the army: in 1967, he was asked by then Defence Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee to persuade doctors to volunteer their services to the People’s Defence Force. He has also served on many public and professional committees and companies, including as Chairman of both Jurong Bird Park and the Singapore Zoological Gardens.

Amid the multitude of responsibilities that he has had to shoulder, Dr Kwa always kept his doors open to his staff, both doctors and nurses alike.

Professor Christopher Cheng, CEO , Sengkang Health, hailed Dr Kwa as a “shining example of a great leader”, in an SGH tribute to Dr Kwa in 1996. He recalled how as a first year medical officer, he called the Ministry of Health one evening and was surprised when Dr Kwa picked up the phone as his secretary had left for the day. “Instead of cutting me off, he was most interested in what I was enquiring. In the end, we had a half-hour conversation about possible training opportunities and future paths. In spite of his many other more pressing concerns, he finds time for each individual,” said Prof Cheng.