Over the past 33 years, Ms Tan Geok Eng has accumulated a wealth of experience working with colleagues in disciplines as varied as IT, finance (for the Admitting Department), surgery and biomedical ethics. Though these are clearly diverse domains, Ms Tan has tapped on essentially the same capabilities to keep things running smoothly so that the staff at the frontline, the doctors and nurses, can do their job.
What this entails is anticipating and tackling issues that can be as nitty gritty as ensuring that her staff have replenished the paper supply in office printers to mediating and resolving conflicts.
‘We deal with life, so we should not cut corners. Never,’ Ms Tan says at one point in the interview. It is a statement that neatly encapsulates her work ethic.
Her first job at SGH: IT coordinator. The year was 1988. She’d applied for the post after hearing about the impending restructuring of SGH:‘I like challenging tasks, so when the news about the restructuring came out, I decided this was something I would like to be involved in.’
She did well enough in her role as liaison between the medical staff and IT for the then Chief Financial Officer Carl Stanifer to ask if she would be interested in crossing over to Finance to set up the Admitting Department and the Bed Management Unit. Ms Tan says that she accepted the position even though she was aware of the challenges.
One of the problems she had to tackle repeatedly was the bullying of her staff at the A&E by members of the public. She got used to being woken up by phone calls in the middle of the night where she would have to counsel her staff to go and make a police report at a nearby police post.
She says jokingly that she has enough material to write a book of stories about ‘the funny side of SGH’ and breezily, offers a couple of anecdotes. There was once a patient who insisted on changing rooms because she didn’t want a room with the number four. To pacify her, she changed the number of the room she’d been assigned to 3A. With a glint in her eyes, she recounts how that episode ended: ‘I said, “ How’s that?” She said, “ That’s okay.”’
Patients aren’t the only ones making requests based on superstition: ‘I have worked with surgeons who do not want instruments or anything with an eight. I’m not Cantonese, but I know the expression “fa moh”.’ [The expression is inauspicious; in literal translation, it means to become mouldy.]
She also recalls having to write a reply to Parliament on behalf of the medical board. Reflecting on the latter incident, Ms Tan says with a look of amusement on her face: ‘When I got the call, I asked, “Would you like me to reply?” The person at the other end said, “Could you?” I said, “Sure! In less than half an hour?”
That’s the kind of pressure I’m under sometimes.’
Although she narrates these examples with dry, self-deprecating wit, it isn’t hard to imagine that she was anything but earnest, focused and tenacious whilst tending to each one of them.
There is a forthrightness about her manner that may make some people feel ill-at-ease. Ms Tan isn’t apologetic about this aspect of her personality. In fact, she believes that it’s helped her to get things done in her line of work. Her focus is always on the issue, never the person. She provides two examples, both from the time she worked closely with surgeons in the Division of Surgery: ‘I helped develop the Operating Theatre Management (OTM) system which has been in use in SGH for almost 20 years. Before it was implemented, there was a lot of frustration on the ground level because the surgeons’ handwritten notes were often illegible. The OTM meant that surgeons had to enter their notes into a computer.
I worked with a sister in the theatre. I told her: “Sister, if the notes are not entered, the patient doesn’t leave the theatre.” Surgeons are very capable, have very high demands, and are very decisive. I had to be firm when I worked with them.’
During the interview, Ms Tan uses this word ‘firm’ repeatedly to describe her working style. Her ability to stand up for what she believes to be right, even when she is confronted by the most formidable figures on SGH Campus, comes from a simple belief: she wants to do her job well and she doesn’t allow anything to g et in her way. As she put it: ‘In some of my areas of work, when it is necessary to be firm, I have to be firm. When you make a mistake, you need to apologise. I have no qualms about it, I will apologise. And then after that, I will say, “Let’s move on, let’s go for coffee.” I think it is important especially in a healthcare setting to focus squarely on the work, and to n ot get too caught up with emotions.’
It is a revealing comment. For someone like Ms Tan who is clearly passionate about her work, this point about not getting entangled in emotions at the workplace underscores her professionalism. When she talks about the motto, ‘Patients. At The Heart of All We Do’, she says that these are not merely words for her.
At one point in the interview she offers this insight: ‘I’ve always found that in the legal and medical sectors, we are in the thick of the most emotional issues. You can’t avoid it especially when dealing with medical questions. There’s a lot of human touch that has to go in.’
Ms Tan speaks about an incident that made a big impression on her:‘A chairperson in the Division of Surgery said to me, “You are not a trouble-maker. You are a trouble-shooter.” I said, “Wow, thank you!” You see, I’m very vocal. I have my own opinions. I know there are people who have said this about me: “You want to work with her? Can you handle her?”’
Her voice is level as she goes on: ‘I tend to see things differently from others and I have to say that SGH has treated me very well. I appreciate the support I’ve been given, including the sponsorship of my postgraduate studies. But I also have to say, my philosophy in life has never been to look for recognition. I think that if you go through life wishing for recognition in everything you do, then I’m sorry, I think there’re going to be lots of hard knocks. You’re setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment, She is a firm believer in the value of character over paper qualifications.
When she recruits people, she’s on the lookout for those with the right attitude rather than a string of A’s. She is a living example herself, choosing to discontinue her doctorate studies a few years ago: ‘I couldn’t stomach the academic setting. After I junked the PhD, I paid back the money [that SGH had sponsored for that degree] and I felt so relieved. Afterwards, I also thought about what I had gained: I improved my reasoning and writing skills.’
These skills are, of course, relevant to her work at the Hospital. She’s been able to apply what she’d learnt to practical applications of ethics knowledge in support of the Clinical Ethics Committee. In her current position as head of the Office of Biomedical Ethics, the knowledge and skills from working on her PhD are being applied daily.
Learning and applying what one has learnt to devise solutions to real-life problems is what she finds fulfilling about her work. Her sense of purpose doesn’t come from acquiring another degree; it comes from seeing what she has learnt being put into action and making a difference in someone else’s life.
When asked about mentors, Ms Tan chuckles loudly. She says that she’s never had a mentor. Instead, she’s had the good fortune to learn from her colleagues: ‘If you’re willing to learn, in SGH you will find yourself learning a lot. And it’s free!’
She laughs before she adds cheerfully: ‘It’s the environment. SGH offers a lot of things because of the kind of people it attracts. I think that the people here tend to be more Type A .’
She remembers the time she visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, US. It is one of the world’s top healthcare institutions. She compares the pride that SGH staff have in the Hospital to that of the staff at Mayo: ‘In Minnesota, in the middle of nowhere, what do they have? IBM and Mayo. When we talked to the cleaner, or to the bus driver, they spoke with so much pride about their work and their association with those organisations. I see that too in SGH.
Even the younger ones, after they have gone through the system, you still hear them say: “This place is not bad.” There must be something there, right?’
The subject of mentoring the younger generation comes up again close to the end of her interview. She is hopeful that the Hospital will find ways to preserve its tradition of collegiality, to make it possible for the junior doctors to benefit from the wisdom and experience of those who are established and retired. Those who have contributed much to their field and are excellent role models, not only in their skills but also in their integrity, should not be forgotten as the Hospital expands exponentially and the community isn’t as close-knit as before.
Being mindful of the big picture and human nature whilst getting the job done to the best of one’s ability—this is how the maverick, grounded and no-nonsense working style of Ms Tan can be understood.
Tan Geok Eng joined SGH in 1988. She is one of few remaining pioneers of the SGH restructuring exercise. She has worked in the IT Department, Admitting Department, Division of Surgery, Medical Board, and is now in charge of the Office of Biomedical Ethics. She holds two Master’s degrees— MA in Bioethics from Case Western Reserve University (US), and MSc in Analysis, Design and Management of Information Systems from the London School of Economics (UK). She works closely with the Clinical Ethics Committee on practical applications of ethics. She is a part-time tutor at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine. She is also a volunteer with the Singapore Children’s Society.
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