Oon Chiew Seng
Founder of the first nursing home for dementia patients
When Dr Oon Chiew Seng opened her clinic in Armenian Street in 1959, she was the first gynaecologist to go into private practice. She ran her clinic for 32 years, retiring from fulltime clinical work in 1991 when she was 75 years old. It was, however, hardly a case of slowing down. Chiew Seng then launched into a project that resulted in the opening in 1995 of Singapore’s first nursing home for dementia patients.
The youngest in a family of 10 children, Chiew Seng’s career in medicine began in 1937 when she became a nurse. Her elder brother,however, kept pestering her to switch to medicine. A doctor, he told her, had better prospects. And so she redid her Senior Cambridge examinations and studied Latin in order to qualify for the Medical College of Singapore. She was admitted to the College in 1940 but her medical studies were interrupted by the Second World War.
To get away from the war, Chiew Seng’s brother bundled the family onto a troopship bound for Bombay. Once in India, Chiew Seng continued her medical training. She returned to Singapore in 1946 and resumed her studies at the Medical College, getting her Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery in 1948.
She was posted to Kandang Kerbau Hospital as a Houseman, and in 1953 she was awarded a Queen’s Fellowship to train further in England.On her return she rejoined KK Hospital but, not liking the system there, she left to set up her own practice.
When she retired in 1991, she went to see Dr Kwa Soon Bee, the Director of Medical Services, and told him she wanted to build a home for the aged sick. She had already been helping out at the Sree Narayanan Mission Home for the Aged and Sick and was keen to see more such facilities in Singapore. Dr Kwa suggested she instead look into a home for dementia patients.
She visited Australia several times to study the dementia care system there, raised funds and secured some government funding, and in 1995 Apex Harmony Lodge was opened. Chiew Seng was actively involved in its running until 2011. That year, she set up the Oon Chiew Seng Fellowship at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, which will fund research in women’s health and ageing science.
The many accolades she has received include being conferred Honorary Fellow by the Royal College of Obstetrics and; Honorary Fellowship of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore; Distinguished Alumni Service Award by the National University of Singapore; the Public Service Medal and the Public Service Star; Her World Woman of the Year Special Award 2010; Hospital Management Asia (HMA) Lifetime Achievement Award by Ministry of Health 2011; and President's Special Recognition Award , President's Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards 2013.
"In this society, everything is men, men, men. So I come along and say, "Pay more attention to women. I’m a woman." I would like to have more done for women. It’s as simple as that"
Explaining in 2011 why she had provided funds for medical research in women’s health and ageing issues.