What keeps me rooted to Singapore

By Lee Wei Ling, for the Sunday Times, 01 Feb 2009

This is an era when international mobility is a privilege that many of our bright young men and women enjoy. The world is their oyster.

They were born and raised in Singapore. Some may have completed their tertiary education here, while others did so overseas. But I have cousins whose children have chosen to exchange their pink Singapore identity cards for United States passports.

If ever there is a major crisis in Singapore, those who would be able to emigrate, be accepted by another country and get jobs there would invariably be people who are wealthy and/or professionals with marketable skills.

The Government knows that talent is mobile and that Singapore must compete with other countries to offer an attractive living environment and vibrant culture so as to retain talented Singaporeans and attract foreign talent here.

I am a paediatric neurologist. I can pass any medical examination that Canada, the US, Australia or New Zealand may impose before accepting me as a high-skilled immigrant or ‘exceptional alien’. Would I take such opportunities?


Perhaps in a moment of madness, when my yearning for hiking outweighs all the other factors that keep me in Singapore and make me want to fight for it if the need should arise.

I have been fortunate in having true friends in Singapore. They and my nuclear family are the main reason I will stay if foreign armies invade or bombs are dropped on Singapore.

In 1975, the year South Vietnam fell, I was a medical student training in paediatrics. Paediatricians are especially kind and decent people, for only such people would be drawn to work mainly with children. Still, there was serious talk of emigration among my paediatrician mentors. One did emigrate with his entire family.

My parents called a family meeting in their bedroom soon after Saigon fell. My father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore’s Prime Minister, told us: ‘Mama and I will stay here to the bitter end. Hsien Loong is already in the SAF and must do his duty. But the three of you need not feel obliged to stay.’

In the end, the Vietnamese communists did not march down Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore thrived, Hsien Yang followed Hsien Loong in accepting both the SAF and President’s Scholarships, and my brothers both served out their bonds.

I myself had accepted a President’s Scholarship in 1973 to study medicine at the University of Singapore. It was a five-year course for which the Public Service Commission paid me approximately $3,000 to $4,000 annually. Most of it went towards my medical school fees. I was bonded for eight years.

Subsequently, I accepted several more scholarships from the Government and have served a total of 16 years of bond. I stayed on in the public sector after completing my bond and am now in my 31st year in service. I have also had the opportunity to live and study overseas for four years. I enjoyed living in North America.

As a nature lover, I appreciated the magic of the seasons. I enjoyed observing spring trying to announce its arrival with crocuses that may subsequently be buried by a late spring snowfall.

Spring in its full-blown splendour of trees, with budding leaves in the most tender hues of green…The daffodils…The cherry blossoms in full bloom along the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts…Running alone at first dawn or twilight, as petals fluttered down on you, was a magical experience.

Then fall with its burst of colours, turning what was an almost uniformly green landscape into a tapestry of yellow, gold, rust, red and green that met your eyes as you jogged. And then winter announcing the end of the year – time to go cross-country skiing or find an indoor track to run.

The changing seasons enhanced the quality of life in a way that only someone who has lived in New England for three years, as I did, can appreciate. But I always returned home. I never doubted that home was anything other than Singapore.

I suffered a serious surgical complication on Jan 9 and am now recuperating in Singapore General Hospital as I write this.

I was in pain earlier this afternoon and, unable to do much, I dozed off. When I woke, my friend Gino was quietly sitting in the next room.

He had brought along with him brand-new running shorts and socks. I had messaged him at noon to ask him to get them for me but did not expect him to do so immediately. Gino is an excellent physiotherapist who helped me through an extremely difficult rehabilitation in 2002. We have been close friends since.

He had recently resigned from the Singapore Sports Council and we discussed the best location for him to set up shop. He gave me a sports massage and we chatted for some time until I felt up to doing my step aerobics.

This morning, one of my cousins dropped by, followed by my doctor-friends from the National Neuroscience Institute.

I am now staring at the skyline that I had stared at from the same window in 2002 and 2003. Then as now I was hospitalised for prolonged periods because of serious surgical accidents, which I later pulled through against great odds.

There are many more tall buildings now than there were in 2002 and 2003. This is a city-state. I am unlikely ever to go hiking again – in Hawaii or Bhutan, Kerala or New Zealand – my one and only real hobby.

What keeps me rooted here are my nuclear family and my friends. We enjoy good times together and help and support one another during bad times. They – rather than Olympic medals or National Day Parades – are the main reason why I feel this place is home and why it is worth fighting for if the need should arise.

The idea of dying does not scare me. But to be willing to stay on and fight for Singapore – that goes beyond simple logic. It is the result of the emotional bond I have with those who are important in my life as well as with those for whom I feel a sense of responsibility.