Her living room is overflowing with flowers, mostly pink roses, sent by well-wishers and admirers. Leaena Tambyah, 1994’s Woman of the Year, asks us to sit down. But there’s no place to sit because of all the bouquets. So we head towards the dining room.

We are in her house in University Road, a quiet neighbourhood of homeowners who drive Beemers and Benzes. Leaena, 57, drives a white Toyota Starlet, while her husband, John Tambyah, an endocrinologist in private practice, drives a grey Honda Civic. They live in a two-storey semi-D which has a car porch, verandah and a small garden.

The house, first built in the 60s and remodelled in the 80s, has picturesque stained glass windows rescued from her parents’ Leicester Road house built in the 30s. The couch, which seems to have been given new upholstery a few times, doesn’t match the wing-back chair. Neither does the footstool nor the kopitiam table.

There are pictures on the wall as eclectic as the furniture: An Indian print, a sketch of a woman, a psalm from the Bible. There is a watercolour of her parents’ house in Penang painted by her daughter Malini, and a photograph of her parents’ house here, which she took herself.

A woman wearing a blue baju kurung appears and offers us a drink. Leaena introduces her: “This is Sappiah, my housekeeper. Without her, I don’t think I could have managed all these years.” She makes this request: “You must take a picture of Sappiah and me.”

Leaena poses with her arm around Sappiah and teases her to give her best smile. The housekeeper doesn’t look a bit uncomfortable with her display of affection.

Sappiah, 54, and already a grandmother, first came to work for the Tambyah household when she was in her late 20s. Leaena’ son Ananth was three while daughter Malini was two. She has been cleaning and cooking for almost three decades now, in addition to looking after the kids when Leaena worked part-time.

After the pictures were taken, we finally sit at the dining table – the only area without flowers – and I ask her about her work with the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (she never runs out of things to say about her handicapped “children” and how AWWA needs more volunteers), her husband (mention John and she chuckles), and the joy her own kids have brought her (she starts to glow).

She can’t seem to find the words, so she gets up, disappears into another room and emerges with a box, the kind where you keep greeting cards.

“I collect things,” she says.

I ask her about her children and she brings out a box full of childish scribbles and drawings. She picks out a verse.

“Ananth was always writing things. This one was written when he was five,” Leaena says, her face radiant. Next she fishes out a card made by Malini. It shows a church with stick figures of a bride and groom.

“And Malini was always drawing.” A kind of soft warmth fills the room. Motherhood, I think, is what they call it.

Leaena’s daughter, Malini, 28, a former journalist now in London working in desktop publishing, remembers her mum as a voice singing 1950s songs and reading books. She describes her as a warm reassuring presence. There is also this childhood memory:

“I am five or six and my mum 33 or 34. She is putting on a sari and getting ready to go to dinner while I sit on her bed, watching, talking and helping her pack her evening handbag (lipstick, tissues, wallet, keys).

“I watch as she pleats and folds the sari – always a stunning Indian silk – and expertly winds it round, securing it in various different ways. Next she puts on her shoes or sandals and I go round the back to check if the sari has been draped long enough to cover the heels of her shoes. Then she sits at her dressing table, combs her hair and puts on that only bit of makeup she ever uses—lipstick.

“It’s all done in less than 15 minutes. I wonder if anyone else can dress this fast and look this good. I think my mother is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

Leaena’s son, Ananth, 30, a doctor doing post-graduate medical training in Chicago, remembers this incident.

“We heard a lot about her work, but we never realised just how important it was until we went to watch an end-of-term concert at the AWWA Special School. Severely disabled kids were on stage, barely moving and putting on their acts. Their parents rushed to the front snapping photos, while my mother was on hand encouraging the kids. I was so proud of her and her work.”

It is 12 noon and the Her World photographer wants to take Leaena’s picture beside a swimming pool surrounded by her “children”. We’re at the AWWA Special School at 9 Norris Road.

“I cannot ask the kids to enter the pool area and tell them they can’t go swimming. It’s not fair. The picture will have to be taken by the stairs,” she decides. The photographer opens his mouth to argue, but decides against it.

One eight-year-old, the size of a toddler, is getting restless. He has been sitting on Leaena’s lap, waiting for the rest of the kids. With his left hand, he pulls someone’s hair and with his right foot, kicks someone’s shoulder. And then—he starts to cry.

Leaena mollifies the two kids he disturbed, instructs the photographer to aim, and coaxes everyone to look at the camera.

The children look at the sky.

Click.

Leaena has devoted 22 years of her life to helping handicapped children. It all started when she was 16, on a visit to St Andrew’s Orthopaedic Hospital as part of her church youth fellowship.

“I was sitting on a bed, telling a story to a little boy who had polio. When it was time to leave, he put his arms around me and wouldn’t let go. He said, ‘You can’t go. You must stay here and tell me more stories.’ I realised there was so much in this child which could be developed. It was a turning point. I wanted to do something for these children.”

Leaena graduated from university and went on to become a full-time, then part-time, social worker. Volunteer work followed. In 1979 she started a weekly play-group with seven multiply-handicapped children on two mats in a church hall. It became the AWWA Special School which provides physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and hydrotherapy, as well as classes and play for infants and children up to 12 years old.

In 1990, she set up the Teach Me (Therapy and Educational Assistance for Children in Mainstream Education) pilot project. Under this programme, disabled children with normal intellect study in regular schools.

Since both her children were working by then, she devoted 100 per cent of her free time to volunteer work. Her son Ananth was already a doctor at the National University Hospital while Malini was a journalist with The Straits Times group.

Leaena is Latin for lioness. “My father had a penchant for unusual names,” she explains. Is she anything like her name? “I can be when I need to be.”

She is described by her closest friends as a tireless crusader for the underprivileged and handicapped. For her work, she received two medals from the Government, a public service medal and a public service star. She keeps them and other awards in a drawer.

Childhood friend Dr Irene Kwee says: “She neither seeks glory nor attention for herself. She’s intensely committed, tenacious and consistent to her causes. She is bold enough to speak out on issues which are important.”

It was she who made people aware about the special needs of multiply-handicapped children. Before she started the AWWA Special School, there were only special needs schools for children with one disability, e.g. the School for the Blind. There was no school for children with two or more disabilities, e.g. a child who was spastic and intellectually disabled.

Then in 1990 Leaena started a pilot project called the Teach Me Programme, which helps disabled children with normal mental abilities to study in mainstream schools.

She feels passionately that they shouldn’t be segregated but be given the opportunity to be educated to their fullest. It’s also good for able-bodied youngsters to realise that the disabled are not worthless people.

The Teach Me Programme is run by AWWA. Parents can apply to it to help get their disabled child into a normal childcare centre, preschool, primary or secondary school.

But that’s not the end of it. A mobile therapy team visits the disabled child’s school or home to give him physiotherapy and occupational therapy. It also offers speech therapy and advises the school on how to handle such a child, gives tuition so he can keep up in school, and organises activities like kite-flying.

In spite of significant gains – about 300 kids have been taught at the AWWA Special School and 200 have been helped in normal schools through Teach Me – Leaena believes there’s still a lot to be done.

In a letter published in The Straits Times about two years ago, she asked that the Government include special schools in its Edusave programme, which gives $110 a year to each child for extra-curricular activities until he completes his O-levels or a vocational course.

She wrote of disabled kids: “Their parents only ask that their children be accepted like all other children in regular schools. They know that they are different. Why should they be excluded and their self-esteem be further lowered?”

Another of her hopes: That an endowment fund be set up to benefit disabled children should their parents become incapacitated or die. “Several parents have indicated that they would be willing to contribute on a dollar for dollar basis. Contributions could be channelled through the Central Provident Fund.”

Meanwhile, Leaena urges people to change their attitude towards the disabled—to be less prejudiced, uncaring and ignorant.

“If you see a person being pushed in a wheelchair, please talk to the person in the wheelchair. Don’t talk to the person pushing the wheelchair. The person in the wheelchair is perfectly capable of speaking for himself.”

John Tambyah, a member of the Singapore Medical Council, has declined a request for an interview.

“My husband is publicity-shy,” Leaena says. “I’m the gregarious one.”

They first met in 1953. She was 16; he was 15. Leaena Chelliah was a student in Raffles Girls’ School while John was in Raffles Institution. Both were members of Raffles Players, a drama club, where she was chairman while he was secretary and managed the stage and the lights.

They started off as very good friends. She went to do her pre-U at RI and was its first girl prefect. Romance blossomed long-distance when she went to England to pursue her Bachelor of Social Science degree at the University of Birmingham. He remained in Singapore to study Medicine.

Leaena returned in 1960 and in 1961 worked as an assistant director with the Government’s Department of Social Welfare. She and John married in 1964. When she was four months pregnant, she resigned from her job.

Leaena Tambyah Wedding Sari and Veil

When she gave birth to Ananth, it was the “most fantastic day of my life, better than my wedding day.” John was in the delivery room with her. He was present too when Malini was born.

“My husband is a man ahead of his time. When we found out I was pregnant, he gave me a book about having babies. He took care of the children. He used to bathe them and change their nappies. When we were in Australia – John had to do postgraduate studies for a year – he helped with the housework on weekends.”

He always encouraged Leaena in her work—be it part-time or volunteer work. “He has never told me to stop whatever I was doing and earn some money. He has never begrudged me the time I’ve spent with AWWA and a lot of it has been at his expense.

“I think it is important for women to work. But I also think mothers should give up five years of work and spend them with their children. During that time, they should find something useful to do with their spare time. They could work part-time or do volunteer work.”

Leaena is of a different mould from the three previous winners of the Woman of the Year award. The others were outstanding career women in high-profile jobs: An ambassador to the United Nations; an orthopaedic surgeon and first woman Nominated Member of Parliament; and the former head of the National Library.

In contrast, Leaena chose the traditional path: She gave up her career very early and chose part-time work for the sake of her kids. Then she gave a chunk of her life to volunteer work. She’s not a crusading feminist, she believes in home and hearth first and foremost.

It raises the question of how many success-driven women today, who want car, condo and cash in double-quick time, can identify with her.

She is a controversial choice. But as one judge said in explaining why she was chosen: “In today’s rat race, many people can’t see beyond their own narrow interests. Leaena Tambyah, by reaching outside her immediate world, enriched the lives of those she helped. And when you help other people, you enrich your own life.”

MILESTONES
1961-1964: Assistant Director, Department of Social Welfare
1965-1973: Part-time social worker, Children’s Aid Society and Spastic Children’s Association of Singapore
1974: Helped Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) set up a tuition centre for underprivileged children
1975-1978: Chairman, Family Welfare Services, AWWA
1979: Organised a playgroup which became the AWWA Special School
1984: Public Service Medal
1990: Started the Teach Me pilot project which placed disabled kids in normal schools
1991: Special Volunteer Award by the Community Chest
1994: Public Service Star; Honorary Consultant, AWWA; Chairperson/Supervisor, AWWA Special School; Chairperson, Teach Me Resource Panel