As Chairman and member in the various board Sub-Committees, he has tirelessly reached out to the staff, beneficiaries and the public, to try and improve not only the mental wellbeing of the employees in SAMH but also the life of Singapore citizens at large. He helped start the Mobile Support Team and Bukit Gombak Group Homes Aftercare Service to target care outside SAMH facilities for persons suffering from mental illness and helped initiate the Peer Specialist programme in 2012. This programme allows peers who have recovered from their illness to share on their recovery stories and lead in the care of others suffering from mental illness. It was created with an aim to inspire, motivate and catalyse recovery for others suffering from mental illness. SAMH’s peer specialists have since been featured in many platforms to promote public acceptance and respect for persons with mental illness while improving the lives of person with mental illness and their families. In 2016, he collaborated with the Jardine Matheson Group of companies to successfully start MINDSET Learning Hub to provide customised training programmes, co-curricular activities and job placement for beneficiaries with mental illness.
Before I went to the university, my only inkling of mental illness was Woodbridge Hospital. I chose to do medicine because I was interested in helping people. My grandfather died of a heart attack, so I thought to myself, “ok maybe medicine’s for me so that I can help people who are sick.” Then I met my future wife, who became my girlfriend, and her father was a psychiatrist who worked with children. Through him, I was introduced to this idea of psychiatry as a specialist option in medicine. Subsequently, I also met a famous Christian pastor named John White. He came to Singapore and we interviewed him for the Varsity Christian Fellowship. I was curious and asked him: “Why did you do psychiatry?” And his reply was: “Psychiatry allowed me to practice the art of medicine in a different way and it was a mixture of the interest that I have in medicine, which is the science and then there’s an art to doing it. It was kind of a discipline that combined well the art and science of medicine.” So that was what got me thinking. Eventually I chose to do psychiatry and applied for the traineeship.
My original interest was with the young, because I felt it is where you can make the most impact and change lives, rather than further downstream. As part of the training in psychiatry, I came across people with severe mental illness. That drew me to the point on how they are treated differently. In Singapore, they are not really treated the same as people with disabilities. They are treated far worse. There’s a stigma around them—we sympathise and help people with disabilities, but we try to avoid people with mental illness. Even as a trainee in psychiatry at that time, I realised that even doctors scoffed at what psychiatrists do. And that made me even more curious about what’s this whole concept about stigma and how to deal with it.
I don’t think of contribution as personal in nature. I think of it as a group effort. We have a great team going forward. When I first joined, we were essentially mental health professionals getting together trying to do this work. We’ve evolved. Firstly, one of the things as president that I’m happy to say is that we’ve got a team that is made up of very diverse individuals with different skills and experiences and I think that balance is important. The one thing that I regret not having brought into the board is someone with a lived experience who can sit on the board and give that perspective of having recovered from a mental illness. I think that is important and is something we need to do in the future. We’ve got peers involved in various aspects of the work and even peers specialists working in our organisation but we need someone in the board. So hopefully with a big alumni of recovered peers, that over time, we will have at least one peer on the board that could contribute meaningfully to the community.
Secondly, I’m very happy that there is succession planning. When we are leading an organisation and we get caught up in the day to day running and it doesn’t seem to end. I think it’s very important to have succession. We take turns to lead the organisation and bring in different ideas because every new leader has a fresh perspective.
Finally in terms of clinical and functional outcomes for our beneficiaries, we have made significant gains. We started to develop peer specialists and now it has gone national with NCSS and IMH taking the lead in coming up with a national curriculum. The job placement and job training initiatives are key to improve the lives of people with mental illness and we need to keep pushing. In the old days, we use to have day centres where people go and do some activities. It was helpful but it was just socialising. It’s also important to get people with chronic mental illness to get back into the workforce, either as an independent worker or in many of the cases, some kind of supported employment system. There’s no use in just housing people in residential facilities without giving them something meaningful in life. In their limited life expectancy, I would like to improve their lives in terms of prolonging and improving their quality of life. Give them something to be proud of and we can celebrate alongside them.
I think balance is terribly important. The volunteer work I do on the side is similar to my main work which is also working with people with mental illness. But I see the difference between my volunteer work and my professional work. My actual work is focused on one aspect—the medical piece and how we run the hospital. Hospitals are overwhelmed because they are really downstream. It’s when problems arise that people go to hospitals. I like to see the day where most people are not going to hospital. You only need to go to the hospital if something unexpected happens—there is an acute incident. But for most of the time, they are in the community. So, my volunteer work is to create a community that is accepting and understanding. You see a doctor once or twice a year and for 30 minutes to an hour. You get to see the doctor perhaps five days in a year, and the other 360 days you’re out there in the community. The volunteer work for me is much more important. I have a third aspect to my life which is my personal life and I try to get that balanced as well. I am very blessed to have five children who are all grown up now. My oldest is getting married and my youngest is in Junior College. I try to involve my kids in the activities I do, when they were much younger. None of them are in the medical field. My children have their own interest—they are doing their own thing and contributing in their own way. To me, the key is to teach them to be independent and they’ll find their own happiness in their lives. I have more time now to keep my wife company and develop my interests in gardening and writing.
I would like to see more peers involved in both the running of the organisation and also within the governance structure of SAMH. I would like to see SAMH get the school for life concept. This is our long term strategy—the MINDSET Learning Hub is part of that. It’s a school for life. Some people go to school and they stay there in school, because they just keep learning and it’s an acceptable social activity. If they can contribute in more after the training, there’s some work. If they do it in supported employment, I’d like to see more of that. SAMH can be the leader to showcase a new work force of people with mental illness who have recovered, who are able to contribute actively.
About 75% of our funding is by the government and only 20% by fundraising. But the government cannot fund a lot of things and I think for us as an organisation we should ask ourselves—What are the things that government cannot fund that we can go and do? We must look for those areas where there are gaps and are difficult for government to fund.
We do have a resident population of about 5.5 million of which about a million people are non-citizens or permanent residents. They are workers and may have mental health needs. Do we look after them? Government will not fund those kinds of projects but there might be a need to. If people who come here to work and develop mental illnesses, how do we help them and how do we support them?
Then there is the treatment gap—these are people with mental illnesses that are not willing to come forward, for mainstream treatment in clinics and hospitals. How do we reach them and get help to them? They are probably more willing to go to a non-governmental agency because the stigma will be less. Our role in de-stigmatisation is quite key and should be a national campaign. I would like to see SAMH be a strong advocate for de-stigmatisation in the years to come.