Dr Kwa Soon Bee discussing with his team for the restructuring plans for Singapore General Hospital in 1970s
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.
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).
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.”
Prof Tan Ser Kiat in reference to Dr KwaGCEO of SingHealth (2000 - 2012) & Emeritus Consultant, Dept of Orthopaedic Surgery, SGH
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.