A lifelong dedication to public service: In memory of Dr Oon Chiew Seng

Distinguished NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine) alumna Dr Oon Chiew Seng passed away on 31 March at the age of 106.

One of Singapore’s pioneering obstetrics and gynaecology practitioners, Dr Oon has made immense contributions towards research on women's health, anti-ageing science and dementia.

Besides being a trailblazing medical practitioner, Dr Oon was also a respected community leader and philanthropist, exemplifying the spirit of public service and compassion through her life’s work. She was an ardent champion of humanitarian efforts and was committed to serving vulnerable communities.

“Dr Oon Chiew Seng lived an incredible life, rising above adversity to achieve great success. She was an exemplary alumna who embodied the spirit of public service and compassion and inspired the NUS community through her life’s work, especially in ageing and dementia,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

Dr Oon graduated from the King Edward VII Medical College – the predecessor institution of NUS – in 1948. She subsequently took up a Queen's Fellowship for specialist training in obstetrics and gynaecology in the United Kingdom, and in 1955 became one of the first women in Southeast Asia to qualify as a member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

From 1959 to 1991, she led her own private medical practice and served in various key roles, including as President of Singapore’s Obstetrics & Gynaecologists Society for several years, as well as a member of Singapore’s Family and Population Board in 1971.

In her later years, Dr Oon volunteered at a home for the aged sick before establishing Apex Harmony Lodge, Singapore’s first nursing home for dementia residents, in 1999. As Chairman of the Apex Harmony Lodge Management Committee, she studied eldercare homes around the world and pioneered a new care concept for Alzheimer’s patients in Singapore.

Her efforts to raise awareness about dementia and support caregivers inspired a contribution of funds for research on women's health, anti-ageing science and dementia at NUS Medicine, and paved the way for important findings in these fields.

In 2011, Dr Oon established the Oon Chiew Seng Professorship in Medicine, Healthy Ageing and Dementia Research, which was subsequently converted to the Oon Chiew Seng Professorship in Medicine. In the same year, she also made a contribution that enabled the University to start the Oon Chiew Seng Distinguished Visitor Programme, which brings leading academics to NUS.

“A true visionary of her generation, Dr Oon Chiew Seng was a resourceful obstetrician and gynaecologist who continually sought to improve patient treatment, working alongside pioneering practitioners such as Dr Benjamin Sheares in Singapore's nascent years,” said Professor Chong Yap Seng, Dean of NUS Medicine.

“Her tireless devotion to caring for the community and her steadfast drive to create impactful change will continue to be an inspiration to us all.”

In recognition of her manifold contributions to society, Dr Oon was conferred the Public Service Medal in 2000, as well as 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, and was inducted into the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame in 2014.

In 2020, Dr Oon was conferred an Honorary Doctor of Letters by NUS Chancellor and Singapore President Madam Halimah Yacob. The honorary degree is one of the University’s highest forms of recognition for outstanding individuals who have rendered distinguished service and created significant impact in Singapore and beyond.

Delivering the citation for Dr Oon at the conferment ceremony then, Prof Chong read, “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 sideline us. Her life of service to the elderly and underserved 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.”

Dr Oon leaves behind an indelible legacy of passionate dedication to medical education and public service, one that will leave a lasting impact on the community long after her passing.

Read Dr Oon’s speech given at the conferment ceremony for her Honorary Doctor of Letters here.