In the 1950s, outpatient clinics for cardiac, endocrine, stroke, respiratory, haematology and surgical needs recorded about 2,400 cases daily. This provided feedback if not some direction for projecting required hospital capacities. As implied, “out” patients could be sufficiently treated with medicines and monitored for progress without having to be admitted to a ward. By the 1960s, these clinics became victims of their own success and the plan was to reorganise their services through decentralisation. What this meant was that outpatients were to visit the government dispensary nearest to their home, while the hospital focused only on emergency cases.
Just five years after gaining independence in 1965, Singapore was actively exploring avenues of economic development to ensure its sustainability. Initiatives were underway to make Singapore a liveable city, and healthcare systems and services had to keep pace with modern advances across the globe.
In 1970, a government committee was appointed to look into the development of SGH. The hospital was to be re-designed to house a number of medical specialities – neurosurgery, cardiothoracic surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, paediatric surgery and nephrology. This was the beginnings of national centres like the National Heart Centre, the National Cancer Centre, the Singapore National Eye Centre, the National Dental Centre and the National Neuroscience Institute on SGH campus. The concurrent development of related specialities in medicine such as radiology, anaesthesiology, laboratory services was also required.
Well-loved and highly respected, Dr Kwa Soon Bee has been credited for bringing in changes to transform the health care landscape
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Official Opening Ceremony of then-new Singapore General Hospital in 1981. From left to right: Dr Kwa Soon Bee, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Andrew Chew & Dr JMJ Supramaniam
The new state-of-the-art complex, built at a cost of S$180 million, was officially opened by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on 12 September 1981. A further $90 million was spent on equipping the hospital with the latest medical devices.
However, the sobering realities of the end of cheap oil, brought on by the second oil shock of October 1979, and its global impact on costs, threw a damper on the opening celebrations. PM Lee dropped a bombshell with his first sentence.
“I open this hospital with mixed feelings”. He praised it as a “handsome well-designed hospital with excellent facilities” but then levelled several criticisms.
His sternest remarks were aimed at costs. The oil shock had rendered the assumptions of SGH’s quality invalid. The design, he said, was “lavish with total air-conditioning”.
“If the administrators, doctors, and architects had understood the Cabinet’s fear of higher and higher oil prices, there would have been wide-scale cuts in the air-conditioning,” he said. “The result is costly and will get costlier every year.”
Characteristically, PM Lee’s concern was to ensure that publicly-funded buildings were appropriately furnished and equipped but without unnecessary frills, to avoid burdening the taxpayer. PM Lee’s comments are still remembered today but the “handsome well-designed” hospital continues to serve as the people’s hospital.
The Japanese occupation forces took over the General Hospital for use by their troops in Southeast Asia.
However, the disruption from the war brought about a paradigm shift in the local medical community. With the expatriate doctors interned by the Japanese during the war, local doctors and staff assumed full responsibility in running the hospitals that continued to serve the locals. They proved themselves capable and became aware of the imperative need to unify the medical service with equal treatment of local and colonial doctors posted from Britain and India.
Just five years after gaining independence, Singapore was actively exploring avenues of economic development to ensure its sustainability. Initiatives were underway to make Singapore a liveable city, and healthcare systems and services had to keep pace with modern advances across the globe.
As the country was gripped by events like Konfrontasi, the Maria Hertogh riots, the Pulau Senang prison riot and the Hock Lee Bus protests, SGH continued to treat their respective victims.
SGH has undergone numerous transformations since its establishment nearly 200 years ago to keep up with the needs of Singaporeans. The iconic Bowyer Block, a National Monument in recognition of its national significance and rich history, is a standing reminder of how far we have come in advancing patient care.
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