Doing what’s right without fear or favour

Source: The Straits Times, 30 July 2008

I WAS born and bred in Singapore. This is my home, to which I am tied by family and friends. Yet many Singaporeans find me eccentric, though most are too polite to verbalise it. I only realised how eccentric I am when one friend pointed out to me why I could not use my own yardstick to judge others.

I dislike intensely the elitist attitude of some in our upper socio-economic class. I have been accused of reverse snobbery because I tend to avoid the wealthy who flaunt their wealth ostentatiously or do not help the less fortunate members of our society.

I treat all people I meet as equals, be it a truck driver friend or a patient and friend who belongs to the richest family in Singapore.

I appraise people not by their usefulness to me but by their character. I favour those with integrity, compassion and courage. I feel too many among us place inordinate emphasis on academic performance, job status, appearance and presentation.

I am a doctor and director of the smallest public sector hospital in Singapore, the National Neuroscience Institute (NNI). I have 300 staff, of whom 100 are doctors. I emphasise to my doctors that they must do their best for every patient regardless of paying status. I also appraise my doctors on how well they care for our patients, not by how much money they bring in for NNI.

My doctors know I have friends who are likely to come in as subsidised patients. I warn them that if I find them not treating any subsidised patient well, their appraisal – and hence bonus and annual salary increments – would be negatively affected. My doctors know I will do as I say.

I remind them that the purpose of our existence and the measure of our success is how well we care for all our patients – and that this is the morally correct way to behave and should be the reason why we are doctors. In NNI, almost all patients are given the best possible treatment regardless of their paying status.

My preference for egalitarianism extends to how I interact with my staff. I am director because the organisation needs a reporting structure. But my staff are encouraged to speak out when they disagree with me. This tends to be a rarity in several institutions in Singapore. The fear that one’s career path may be negatively affected is what prevents many people from speaking out.

This reflects poorly on leadership. In many organisations, superiors do not like to be contradicted by those who work under them. Intellectual arrogance is a deplorable attitude.

‘Listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story,’ the Desiderata tells us. It is advice we should all heed – especially leaders, especially doctors.

I speak out when I see something wrong that no one appears to be trying to correct. Not infrequently, I try to right the wrong. In doing so, I have stepped on the sensitive toes of quite a few members of the establishment. As a result, I have been labelled ‘anti-establishment’. Less kind comments include: ‘She dares to do so because she has a godfather’.

I am indifferent to these untrue criticisms; I report to my conscience; and I would not be able to face myself if I knew that there was a wrong that I could have righted but failed to do so.

I have no protective godfather. My father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, would not interfere with any disciplinary measures that might be meted out to me.

And I am not anti-establishment. I am proud of what Singapore has achieved. But I am not a mouthpiece of the government. I am capable of independent thought and I can view problems or issues from a perspective that others may have overlooked.

A few months ago, I gave a talk on medical ethics to students of our Graduate Medical School. They sent me a thank-you card with a message written by each student. One wrote: ‘You are a maverick, yet you are certainly not anti-establishment. You obey the moral law.’ Another wrote: ‘Thank you for sharing your perspective with us and being the voice that not many dare to take.’

It would be better for Singapore’s medical fraternity if the young can feel this way about all of us in positions of authority.

After the Sars epidemic in 2003, the Government began to transform Singapore into a vibrant city with arts and cultural festivals, and soon, integrated resorts and night F1. But can we claim to be a civilised first world country if we do not treat all members of our society with equal care and dignity?

There are other first world countries where the disparity between the different socio- economic classes is much more extreme and social snobbery is even worse than in Singapore. But that is no excuse for Singaporeans not to try harder to treat each other with dignity and care.

After all, both the Bible and Confucius tell us not to treat others in a way that we ourselves would not want to be treated. That is a moral precept that many societies accept in theory, but do not carry out in practice.

I wish Singapore could be an exception in this as it has been in many other areas where we have surprised others with our success.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight heads of research and tertiary institutions.

PRACTISE WHAT WE PREACH

There are other first world countries where the disparity between the different socio-economic classes is much more extreme and social snobbery is even worse than in Singapore. But that is no excuse for Singaporeans not to try harder to treat each other with dignity and care. After all, both the Bible and Confucius tell us not to treat others in a way that we ourselves would not want to be treated. That is a moral precept that many societies accept in theory, but do not carry out in practice.

Posted in Lee Wei Ling Articles

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