‘1926 was the seventh version. And we are going to be the ninth version. I don’t think I will exist by then,’ Professor Lee Seng Teik says with a straight face. His voice is equally deadpan. Only his eyes betray him with their glint of wry humour.
Prof Lee is a walking compendium of SGH history and trivia. In the middle of a conversation thread about the setting-up of the Burns Unit, a milestone for Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery (PRAS) in Singapore, he detours for a minute or so into the story of how SGH Campus came to have three National Monuments before returning to the first thread and neatly tying it up.
Prof Lee’s connection with SGH goes beyond the professional and the vocational.
He recounts facts, recollections and observations about the institution and other associated bodies like the Academy of Medicine Singapore with relish, like someone who is talking about a beloved relative or friend.2021 is Prof Lee’s 46th year at SGH. He started at SGH in 1975 after he returned from his overseas studies and training, was interviewed by Mr Andrew Chew, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health at Palmer Road where the ministry was based back then, and was promptly offered a job on the spot. A year later, Prof Lee was promoted to Consultant.
His familiarity with the history of the institution is not only due to his having spent the bulk of his working life here. He states simply, more than once during the interview:‘The history of this Campus is the history of Singapore. My interest in the Campus lies beyond Plastic Surgery; it extends to the buildings, education, research, infrastructure. We had nothing. What must be done? We will build ourselves. How it was done is similar to how Singapore has developed.’
Prof Lee was the founding director of SGH Museum when it first opened its doors in 2005. He wrote to Mr Howe Yoon Chong, Minister for Health from 1982 to 1985, to champion the conservation of the oldest buildings at SGH. Tan Teck Guan Building and the College of Medicine Building (COMB) were conserved as a result. In 2005, President S. R. Nathan inaugurated the SGH Museum, which occupies part of Bowyer Block. Later on, in 2009, the clock tower at Bowyer Block was also conserved.
All three are now National Monuments.
‘This is not just institutional memory. It has to do with the whole national memory of Singapore,’ Prof Lee says emphatically. ‘If you ask the older generation, they all know the si cheng lao [clock tower in Hokkien]. How can you shift the footprint?’
He says that he is happy to see how the recent large-scale transformation of the Campus has been accompanied by a revamp of SGH Museum. The Hospital’s focus on being ready for the future hasn’t meant a dilution of its recognition of the past. The commemoration of SGH’s Bicentenaryis significant to Prof Lee for this reason. In 2018, he was invited to make a toast at the formal dinner for the Hospital’s anniversary that year. At that time, he was already thinking ahead to 2021.
In his toast to ‘the old lady,’ he spoke about the importance of the coming milestone. What does it mean to reach the 200th year? The National Monuments are concrete architectural reminders of this journey, and it isn’t an overstatement in any way to say that this has been an incredible journey given the odds that were stacked against it in so many ways.
‘When I look back, I say, I can’t believe how much happened in this short space of time!’ Prof Lee exclaims at one point. ‘You have no idea what it was like in the 1970s. We didn’t have anything. To continue the kind of work I had been trained in at Mount Vernon Hospital in the UK, I needed an operating microscope. But we didn’t have one.
So I went to Emeritus Professor Kanasugarantham, the professor of Anatomy and he allowed me to use the dissecting microscope that’s used in animal experiments. In the seventies, I had to operate on rats to maintain my skill in microvascular surgery. Without practice, you lose the skill. The success of microvascular surgery depends on the skill in joining very, very tiny blood vessels. It’s pivotal to the history of Plastic Surgery.’
In 2006, Prof Lee received the Singapore International Foundation Award from President S.R. Nathan in recognition of his contributions to volunteer humanitarian missions to ASEAN countries and China.
Prof Lee’s specialty was a department that came into being just three years before he joined it. For this interview, he has brought along a copy of the document that led to the 1970 White Paper on medical specialisation at SGH:‘Professor Yahya Cohen was the master of the Academy of Medicine. The Academy exists for the specialists, just as the College of General Practitioners is for the GPs. The Academy pushed for specialisation by sending a memorandum to the minister at that time. Plastic Surgery was one of the designated specialties.’
In 1972, the Department of PRAS started at Norris Block. Prof Lee adds that Norris Block is ‘a building that no longer exists’ before he carries on to describe the circumstances that led to the next milestone for Plastic Surgery: the expansion of the Burns Unit.
When he first joined SGH, the Burns Unit was a single-storey annexe at Norris Block with 40 beds. It was ‘a hut,’ he says, repeating this description a few times. But after the Spyros disaster, the government decided to revamp the Burns Unit at SGH. In October 1978, an explosion on board the Greek tanker,
S.T. Spyros at Jurong Shipyard killed 76 and caused 69 persons to sustain severe injuries. Prof Lee says that when he first heard that his department was going to get two wards with 38 beds each for the new Burns Unit, he was filled with utter disbelief.
‘I had never heard of a 76-bedded Burns Unit before but, no, no, no, we will take the space,’ his voice brimming with pride now: ‘It is the only one in the world where there is a s kin culture facility. That means you can grow the skin in the lab within the unit.’
His time at SGH spans close to half a century. What remarkable years these have been! Prof Lee’s biography is a long list of his contributions, amongst them his involvement in stem cell research and his humanitarian trips to less privileged countries to perform cleft surgeries.
Yet he is eager to remind this writer at the very start of the interview, that long before the start of his career in 1975, there was an extraordinary group of people working at the Hospital: the first generation of locally-trained doctors and surgeons.
An article about Prof Lee’s participation in an overseas humanitarian mission. Goh Meh Meh is in the photo with Prof Lee. Source: The Straits Times (15 September 1992), Singapore Press Holdings.
‘They were luminaries,’ Prof Lee says in a reverential tone.
‘President Sheares, Professor Monteiro…’ His voice trails off. ‘Today, the term for them would be heroes.’ Dr Benjamin Henry Sheares was Singapore’s second President and an eminent clinician in Obstetrics & Gynaecology. He was one of SGH’s pioneer Consultants, as was Professor Ernest Monteiro, the first Asian to hold the Chair of Clinical Medicine at the University of Malaya. Both men were respected as researchers and educators.
During Prof Lee’s headship at SGH Museum, he made sure that there were displays and a publication about the luminaries’ contributions.
The luminaries embody the qualities that continue to define SGH today: purpose, passion, courage and grit. Prof Lee is mindful of how this culture, like the historical buildings on campus, shouldn’t be taken for granted. He illustrates this through a story about a name:
‘There is a meeting called the Combined Surgical Meeting. Very nice name—nice because every word is meaningful, especially the word “combined”.’
He shares that he and Emeritus Professor Robert Pho (whom he calls Bob) were just starting their careers when there was fierce rivalry between the University and the Government camps at the Hospital. They had their own separate annual meetings, the former organised by the Academy of Medicine, and the latter by the Singapore Surgical Society.
When a formal dinner for the 14th anniversary of the Academy of Medicine was held at the Hollandaise Club, Prof Lee and ‘Bob, my comrade-in-arms’, as he puts it, invited the surgeons from both camps. Prof Yeoh Ghim Seng and Prof Yahya Cohen sat down to dinner together.
‘It had never happened before,’ says Prof Lee. As a result, the Singapore Surgical Society was merged with the Academy, and from then on, the meeting was always called ‘Combined’.
At one point during this interview, Prof Lee pauses and asks matter-of-factly: ‘Gao liao buay?’ [Hokkien for ‘Have you had enough?’] In 2002, he had been interviewed by the National Archives of Singapore, as part of a special project on Singapore’s medical history. His interview came up to 11 reels in total. This piece of writing is based on this writer’s one meeting with Prof Lee. Throughout, what comes across is not only the wealth of knowledge and experience in the man. Beyond this surface impression, there lies a beautiful mind holding every detail carefully in place, powered by love for Medicine, SGH and Singapore.
ABOUT LEE SENG TEIKProfessor Lee Seng Teik is currently the Emeritus Consultant in the Department of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery.He has wide-ranging interests in education, research and his sub-specialty interest is in cleft and craniofacial surgery. He has 138 publications in peer-reviewed journals and has written 17 editorials and eight chapters in books. He is the recipient of 48 research grants and numerous national, regional and international awards and lectureships. In his spare time, Prof Lee has been actively engaged in humanitarian missions to Southeast Asian countries and China. In 2006, he was given the prestigious Singapore International Foundation award in recognition of his humanitarian activities by then President S.R. Nathan. In 2012, he was given the status of ‘Honorary Citizen’ of Cheng Mai County in Hainan province, China.
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