Dr Oon Chiew Seng, one of Singapore’s first obstetricians and gynaecologists and co-founder of Apex Harmony Lodge, Singapore’s first nursing home for dementia residents, died on 31 March.
She was 106.
The youngest in a family of 10 children, Dr Oon’s career in medicine started in 1937 when she became a nurse at the age of 21. She was working at the Penang General Hospital during a typhoid epidemic. Her elder brother, who wanted her to switch to medicine, told her that there would be better prospects as a doctor.
World War Two drove her to Medical School in New Delhi
Dr Oon sat for her Senior Cambridge examinations again and studied Latin to qualify for the Medical College of Singapore. She was admitted in 1940 but her medical studies were interrupted by the Second World War.
The family escaped on a troopship bound for Bombay. Dr Oon continued her medical training at the Lady Harding Medical College for Women in New Delhi.
“There I began my three-year attendance requiring an arduous and lonely three-day train ride to New Delhi, and one annual journey home to Bombay to see my family,” she wrote in a speech delivered by her nephew Dr Oon Chong Hau at the conferment ceremony for her Honorary Doctor of Letters in January 2020. She was 104 then.
She returned to Singapore in 1946 and resumed her studies at the King Edward Medical College, getting her Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery in 1948.
She was posted to Kandang Kerbau Hospital (KKH) as a houseman, and in 1953, she was awarded a Queen’s Fellowship to train further in Britain. In 1955, she became one of the first women in Southeast Asia to qualify as a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
On her return, she rejoined KKH but soon left to set up her own practice, making her the first gynaecologist to go into private practice. In 1959, Dr Oon opened her clinic in Armenian Street and ran it for 32 years.
Then there was no support from other specialists, no private hospital to admit deliveries. “I had to set up my own antenatal facilities. My anaesthetist back-up came from a British army doctor who had to promptly return to camp after each delivery. It was a harrowing time as I had to manage any complications arising alone. From a solo practice for many years, I later formed an O&G partnership at the new Mount Elizabeth Hospital in 1978,” she wrote in the 2020 .speech
Dr Oon retired from fulltime clinical work in 1991 when she was 75 years old.
Continues to contribute to medicine and healthcare even after retiring
Even after retiring in 1991, Dr Oon did not slow down. Instead, she went to see then Director of Medical Services Kwa Soon Bee and told him she wanted to build a home for the aged sick. She was already helping 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 looked 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 co-founded Apex Harmony Lodge in Pasir Ris. Dr Oon was actively involved in its running until 2012 when she set up the Oon Chiew Seng Fellowship at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, which funds research in women’s health and ageing science.
Among the numerous accolades Dr Oon has received in her lifetime for her clinical and humanitarian work are the Public Service Medal in 2000, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ministry of Health in 2011, and the Public Service Star in 2013. She was inducted in the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014 given an an honorary degree from the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2021 for her lifelong dedication to medical education and public service.
Dr Oon herself said in a previous interview, “People have asked me whether I have arrived and am satisfied with my achievements. I asked them, ‘Arrive where?’ Life is not a race. To me, there is no finishing line. It is a journey which I will complete in my own time and at my own pace.”
Dr Oon leaves behind many nephews and nieces, grand and great-grand nephews and nieces.