Distinguished NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) alumna Dr Oon Chiew Seng was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters by NUS Chancellor and Singapore President Madam Halimah Yacob on 12 Jan.
At a conferment ceremony held at the University Cultural Centre, Dr Oon was recognised for her accomplishments as one of Singapore’s first obstetrics and gynaecology practitioners; and her contributions towards research on women’s health, anti-ageing science and dementia at NUS Medicine, which deepened understanding and led to important findings in these fields.
NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye said, “Over the course of a long and remarkable life and career, Dr Oon Chiew Seng has taken on many diverse and challenging roles – a pioneering medical practitioner, a social activist, a community leader and a philanthropist. In each of these roles, she brought her trademark forthrightness, determination, and generous spirit of compassion.”
A centenarian at 104 years old, Dr Oon embodies the spirit of public service and community advocate through her life’s work. Born the youngest of 10 children in Penang, Malaysia, Dr Oon graduated from NUS’ predecessor institution King Edward VII College of Medicine in 1948. In 1953, she was awarded a Queen’s Fellowship for specialist training in obstetrics and gynaecology in the United Kingdom. She became one of the first women in Southeast Asia to qualify as a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; and led her own private medical practice from 1959 to 1991.
“Dr Oon is a shining example to us in so many ways – her spirit and vigour at the age of 104 is testament that age alone should not side-line us. Her life of service to the elderly and under-served communities in Singapore, show us how one person with conviction can make a difference; and the entrepreneurial spirit and success in her medical career make the case that gender is no barrier to achievement. Through her life and work, Dr Oon exemplifies the best values and character of NUS Medicine,” said NUS Medicine Dean Professor Chong Yap Seng in his delivery of the citation for Dr Oon, as Public Orator.
Among the attendees was NUS Senior Vice President (Health Innovation & Translation) Professor John Wong, who said that the conferment honoured Dr Oon’s contributions and was a celebration of her life achievements. “My parents and Dr Oon were medical school classmates – she was well-known as the nurse who became a doctor, and a great example for other women leaders during that time. Years later, when I myself became a medical student, she was the last examiner before I qualified as a doctor,” Prof Wong said, adding that he had in fact been delivered by Dr Oon.
Associate Professor Chui Wai Keung from NUS Science’s Department of Pharmacy was also delivered by Dr Oon, in the 1960s. “This particular ceremony holds special meaning for me – having reconnected me with Dr Oon after all these years,” shared Assoc Prof Chui, who was Esquire Bedell for the conferment ceremony.
During Dr Oon’s expansive career, she also served in various key roles – President of Singapore’s Obstetrics & Gynaecologists Society for several years, as well as a member of Singapore’s Family and Population Board in 1971.
Dr Oon also volunteered at a home for the aged sick before establishing Apex Harmony Lodge, Singapore’s first nursing home for dementia residents in 1999. After studying elder care homes around the world, she pioneered a new care concept for Alzheimer’s patients in Singapore, before relinquishing her role as Chairman of the Apex Harmony Lodge Management Committee in 2012.
An Honorary Fellow of the Asia and Oceania Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Dr Oon is the second of only three Singaporeans to receive an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology – which was in recognition of her dedication to nurturing generations of obstetricians and gynaecologists in Singapore and around the region. She was conferred the Public Service Medal in 2000; and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ministry of Health in 2011. In 2013, she received the prestigious Public Service Star and the President’s Special Recognition Award for Volunteerism and Philanthropy; before being inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
In Dr Oon Chiew Seng’s acceptance speech delivered by her nephew, Dr Oon Chong Hau, she expressed appreciation for the recognition. “I am delighted to receive this distinction in acknowledgement of my life’s work, and my contributions to society and nation building for the last 75 years.”
Dr Oon added, “We are in the midst of challenging times and great uncertainty in the coming months and years. But I am assured we will persevere and overcome challenges at the personal and national levels – through grit, career resilience, moral integrity and clarity of purpose.”
In his speech, NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye commended Dr Oon’s passionate dedication to medical education and generosity in giving back, which continue to leave a lasting impact on the community.
In 2011, Dr Oon established the Oon Chiew Seng Fellowship in Medicine, which was subsequently converted to the Oon Chiew Seng Professorship in Medicine. In the same year, Dr Oon also made a contribution that enabled the University to start the Oon Chiew Seng Distinguished Visitor Programme, which brought leading academics to NUS. This included Professor John O’Keefe, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine a year after his visit to NUS as the Oon Distinguished Visitor.
“I am deeply inspired by Dr Oon’s illustrious career as a medical professional,” said Assistant Professor Tsai Shih Yin from NUS Medicine’s Department of Physiology, an Oon Chiew Seng Fellow from 2017 to 2019.