While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series The Lives They Live.
When 91-year-old Wong Hee Ong wanted to study medicine more than 70 years ago, she faced a hurdle - the war.
During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, all schools were closed, except for primary schools, she said. "I had finished Standard 7, the equivalent of primary school, in 1941. I had no choice, I had to stop school," she added.
Born into a family of 10 children, young Wong, the fifth child, had to work to support her family during the war.
At 14, she worked as a cashier in a doctor's dispensary. "I earned $25 a month. With that, I could not afford the rations," she said. "So I had to look for another job."
She then learnt typewriting at home and went from one office to another, offering clerical services.
"One day, my sister's friend saw a notice for people to learn the Japanese typewriter," she said. "So I learnt it. And I ended up working in a Japanese firm in the city." She even earned more than a thousand dollars in Japanese invasion money known as banana money.
"But when the British came, they told us straightaway that the notes had no value any more," she said.
Even during the war, she never gave up sights on her studies. "I was desperately trying to catch up on my studies so that I could go to medical college. I learnt Chinese from a tutor and Latin from my sister at home," she said.
After the war ended, she went back to school in 1946, and, a year later, managed to qualify for medical school at 19.
At King Edward VII College of Medicine, Dr Wong was one of the few women who qualified to study medicine.
Her cohort had three women from Singapore and seven from Malaya, including Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, both of whom were in her class.
"Our class had a lot of fun. We played a lot, sometimes we even skipped classes and signed our attendance for one another," she said.
"But we studied really hard. By then, we were all a lot more mature. We went through the war and we had to take on many responsibilities even though we were studying."
After graduating from college, Dr Wong worked as a medical officer for the Government, caring for patients at the general ward of Singapore General Hospital.
Her duties also involved teaching medical students who visited the ward for their practical bedside studies. She would lead students to the patients to teach them how to deduce a diagnosis.
"We talk to the patient, find out their history and figure out what the likely diagnosis is," she said. "Based on that, we administer a more specific test to confirm the diagnosis."
In 1964, she joined the University of Malaya's Faculty of Medicine as an associate professor and eventually worked her way up to become a professor of medicine.
She taught 14 batches of students until she retired from the university in 1978. After that, Dr Wong went into private practice as a consultant and later became chief executive of Gleneagles Kuala Lumpur hospital in 1992.
After her return to Singapore in 2010, Dr Wong wanted to continue contributing to society. She found her niche in a dementia prevention programme called Age Well Every Day, run by the National University of Singapore Mind-Science Centre.
As part of the programme, she trains volunteers to give dementia-related health talks to seniors at various centres in Singapore.
The programme also has music and art therapy, gardening, as well as mindfulness awareness practice and exercise for seniors.
"We know that dementia is linked to hypertension and diabetes. So we must educate the people in the community. I teach the volunteers these concepts in simple language and they share it with the seniors," she said.
"It is also, in a way, a dementia prevention programme for me," she added with a laugh. "It helps me stay mentally and physically active. It gives me something to do when I wake up in the morning," said Dr Wong, who lives alone and is a widow with no children.
Dr Wong encourages other seniors to continue to be active and volunteer into their silver years.
"A lot of people do not know how to contribute to the community, they do not know where to start," she said. "Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose even as you age."
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.