Her World Special Award 2010: Dr Oon Chiew Seng

by Her World  /   August 17, 2010

The founder and chairman of Apex Harmony Lodge won the Special Award this year


You’d never think Dr Oon Chiew Seng was 94. The former obstetrician and gynaecologist exudes the energy and joie de vivre of someone much younger throughout the interview with Her World.

Dressed in a brightly coloured cheongsam, the petite silver-haired woman walks with a spring in her step—and without any aids. There’s nothing of the mild-mannered little old lady in her demeanour. Her gaze is sharp, and when she speaks, she is lucid and crisply articulate, breaking into broad smiles often.

Even before retiring at the age of 75 (in 1991), she had already been channelling her energy and drive into eldercare as the chairman of the building fund and member of the medical committee at the Sree Narayana Mission Home for the Aged Sick since 1984. That her focus shifted to the care of dementia sufferers was the result of a specific request. “I wanted to do something useful as I still had a lot of energy. The then-Director of Medical Services of the Ministry of Health told me there was a need for such a home,” she says animatedly.

So she went to Australia on a fact-finding mission on dementia homes and later opened Apex Harmony Lodge in 1999 at the age of 83. Now, almost 12 years later, she remains involved as chairman of the government-subsidised home and makes regular visits to spend time with the residents.

Perhaps being the youngest child in a family of 11 children was a blessing in disguise. She was raised by her stepmother and, later on, by her third brother and his wife. Unlike her three older sisters (the oldest being 26 years her senior), she wasn’t married off by her China-born businessman father as he died when she was only 13. “I had two boyfriends in the past but I was busy with my career and there weren’t opportunities for a lasting relationship,” she says matter-of-factly. Throughout the interview, Dr Oon’s direct honesty stands out. She doesn’t mince her words—at her age, it is clear that Dr Oon knows she has earned the right to speak her mind. Though single, she advises younger women today “not to have regrets later in life if, in pursuit of their independence, they wait till very late to settle down and start a family”.

Another thing that’s striking about her is her humility and down-to-earth nature. She doesn’t realise how different she is from other women her age. In an era when women were defined by their roles as wives and mothers, she stood tall in her unconventional position as a single lady doctor.

The seeds for her trailblazing path were sown early by her family. She had already entered nursing for two years when her fourth brother insisted she pursue medicine instead as it had better career prospects. Even though that meant having to redo the Senior Cambridge examinations and learning Latin, she finally agreed because she respected his opinion. She did well and scored a place in medical college.

That decision changed the course of her life, though the road to getting her qualifications had several bumps. World War II broke out barely six months into her studies and she and some other family members were evacuated to India in January 1941 (she was 24 years old). She continued her studies in Bombay and New Delhi.

After the war, she returned and two years later, in 1948, she received her medical degree from the Medical College of Singapore. That same year, she started work as a houseman at the then-Kandang Kerbau Hospital. She moved into private practice in 1959 (the first specialist to do so) and spent about 40 years as an obstetrician-gynaecologist. Over the years, she served in various governmental committees such as the Obstetrical & Gynaecological Society of Singapore.

At the annual Woman of the Year dinner where she received her award on March 30, Dr Oon spoke about her life philosophy. “People ask me what my key success factors are,” she said, her eyes crinkling up at the corners with her characteristic good humour. At my age, I can only remember three things at a time! For me, the three factors are passion, belief and support.”

Here, she candidly shares her life lessons on everything from her work ethic to her spending habits as well as the woes of ageing.

LESSON ONE: “FOLLOW THROUGH WITH EVERY RESPONSIBILITY YOU TAKE ON”

Dr Oon in the operating theatre at Gleneagles Hospital in the 1950s

In her 40-odd years as a doctor, this was her work ethic. “Otherwise, your reputation will be affected and people won’t trust you,” she says. She was so dedicated to her patients that she took the most gruelling of experiences in her stride, such as staying awake for 48 hours straight to care for very sick patients when necessary.

She vividly remembers doing this when a patient, during an apparently straightforward delivery, started bleeding without clotting. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. Luckily, Dr Oon discovered that the patient’s husband was the head of the Royal Malaysian Navy. “I instructed him to get 40 people to donate blood and managed to give her 27 units of blood,” she says. It saved the woman’s life.

“For years, I never took any leave,” she reveals. “I couldn’t let my patients down. I agreed to look after them and if anything bad happened, their lives would be ruined.”

LESSON TWO: “SPEND SENSIBLY”

Dr Oon in the small operating theatre of her own clinic at Mount Elizabeth Hospital

Though Dr Oon had a stable job all her life, she strongly believed in spending within her means. “I’ve never taken an overdraft from banks,” she says proudly.

Today, other than making small bets in her twice-weekly mahjong games, she leads a frugal life. She favours simple hawker food over swanky restaurant fare. Expensive clothes and jewellery are a waste of money to her, too. “My only extravagance was having a driver,” she says. But she adds, “I don’t hoard money. I’m just not that crazy to spend it all.”

In the 1960s and 70s, her greatest indulgence was keeping racehorses, some of which won prizes. “I kept a stable of six horses for about $1,000 a month. Today, that amount can’t even maintain one horse,” she says. She used to enjoy watching them race and liked how intelligent they were. “I used to bring carrots to feed them,” she recalls fondly.

LESSON THREE: “STAND BY YOUR FRIENDS”

Dr Oon (third from left) with her anaesthetist, Dr Lenard (second from left) and operating theatre staff at Gleneagles Hospital

These days, she spends a fair amount of time with about half a dozen close friends, most of them former patients. They play mahjong and have meals together twice a week. And they look out for her, sometimes driving her around as she stopped driving at the age of 91. “I care for my friends. If they are not well, I visit them. Loyalty in friendship is very important,” she says.

LESSON FOUR: “STAY CLOSE AS A FAMILY”

Dr Oon Chiew Seng as an infant, with her parents

Relationships with family members play a big part in her life too. Although her siblings have passed away, she still makes it a point to organise an annual gathering at The Line at the Shangri-La Hotel for the Oon clan. “About 50 people from Singapore, Malaysia and the UK will come,” she says, adding that the children of her nephews will continue to keep the 10-year-old tradition alive in future.

LESSON FIVE: “BEING INDEPENDENT KEEPS YOU GOING STRONG”

Dr Oon takes the podium at the Academy of Medicine gathering

While she’s thankful for her good genes (“My grandparents died in their 80s and 90s. My father died in his 70s. Life expectancy was very low then.”), she’s convinced her regular walks (she goes on most weekday mornings unless it rains) at the Botanic Gardens have helped keep her lively in her old age. She takes these walks seriously, often preferring to go alone rather than with friends so she can walk at a brisk pace. “I still feel quite energetic. I can walk without a walking stick,” she says. “Anyway, if you don’t use your limbs, you’ll get muscle atrophy.”

While playing mahjong keeps her mind sharp, she bemoans growing old. She admits that she’s getting a little deaf and becoming forgetful. “It’s very troublesome to ask someone to repeat himself or herself. It’s also very awkward when you meet people and you can’t remember who they are,” she says. “I feel disappointed when I forget things.”

Thankfully, Dr Oon, who lives alone in a flat, has a maid to help her with the household chores (from cooking meals to washing clothes). The Indonesian helper also does her grocery shopping weekly.

Her main priority is to stay healthy. “I don’t want to fall sick and become a nuisance. The most important thing for me right now is to remain as independent as long as I possibly can. I’ve been independent all my life. It’s one way I’ve kept going strong.”