Pioneering social worker and advocate for special needs children
Leaena Tambyah is a committed social worker who has devoted a large part of her life to helping others, especially youngsters with special needs. She started Singapore's first school for children with multiple disabilities in 1979.
“One of the joys in my life is that though our school is at the bottom rung of the ladder of education, we have given an opportunity for education to children who nobody wanted to touch,” she said in a National Archives Oral History interview. For her contributions, she was awarded the Public Service Medal in 1984 and the Public Service Star in 1994.
Born in 1937, Leaena came to Singapore from Penang when her father was appointed headmaster of St Andrew’s School in 1940. Her family’s active community service rubbed off on Leaena. “My father used to be involved with the St Andrew’s Mission Hospital. And my mother, too. I was exposed to this from an early age – to think about people who had a different and tough way of life,” she once said.
She studied at Raffles Girls’ School and graduated from the University of Birmingham with an honours degree in social science. On her return, she worked at the social affairs ministry. She also married her teenage sweetheart John, who had become a doctor. After three years, she resigned when expecting her first child. Putting family first, she became a full-time parent of a son and a daughter, worked part-time as a social worker and gave much time to voluntary service.
Active in voluntary work from the mid-1960s, Leaena retired as senior adviser to the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) in June 2013. She is a life member of AWWA and sits on the AWWA School Management Committee.
In 1979, she started a playgroup for children with multiple disabilities who no school would accept. The Handicapped Children’s Playgroup was awarded the United Nations Community Excellence Award in 1986. The playgroup, which Leaena chaired from 1979 to 1985, has developed into AWWA School, which teaches such children life skills.
Leaena also founded AWWA’s Therapy and Educational Assistance for Children in Mainstream Education (TEACH ME), an integration programme for bright children in special schools who could be in mainstream schools. It includes a mobile therapy clinic for students with physical disabilities whose parents cannot afford to take them to hospitals for therapy. Some of these students are now university graduates holding responsible positions at work.
In 1994, Leaena was named Her World’s Woman of the Year. In 2011, she received the Special Recognition Award at the National Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards for leading others to advocate for children with special needs.
"Stop and look at the person next to you. They might need a little bit of help one way or another. Not all of us have got millions of dollars to give away but we have time and if we manage our time well, we can do something for somebody else in need."