Knowing when to give
PM's sister too harsh calling Singaporeans gullible but she's right about need for rationality. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Oct 31, 2005.

The future of expensive, complicated surgery, including the separation of conjoined twins from poor nations that has gained Singapore wide recognition, is shrouded in uncertainty.

The controversy is over money and the concept of charity.

It has nothing to do with medical capabilities and comes at a time when Singaporeans are already feeling a little fatigued and cynical about contributing.

It has raised questions whether Singaporeans who pour out large sums of money to a sad tale are charitable or gullible, given that medical treatment is complex and normality is often not possible.

Such operations may require follow-through care for years that may tax the generosity of the Singaporean public, a burden that some people feel is unreasonable.

The government has officially made no decision on it, but the sister of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Assoc Prof Lee Wei Ling, has described the high-profile Nepalese twins separation as "a medical mistake".

Speaking as the Director and Senior Consultant of the National Neuroscience Institute, Dr Lee said that while the operation, largely funded by Singaporean contributions, was technically successful, the twins would "never have a normal life".

For it to work, it required long-term treatment that could be continued in Katmandu, she said.

But the mother and grandfather of the girls insisted on coming to Singapore, refusing to let the Nepalese surgeon treat them.

(It was revealed later that S$70,000 of the funds left with the family for this purpose is unaccounted for.)

Dr Lee also wrote of another case in which an Indonesian baby with a grossly swollen head landed here for surgery.

"Public sympathy again produced enough funds for a palliative operation to be done. Last seen at age 21/2 years, the baby was severely disabled, mentally and physically," she said.

These led Lee Kuan Yew's daughter to the point she wanted to make. "I am disappointed with my fellow Singaporeans' gullibility," she said.

According to her, people sometimes react too naively to sob stories. Her appeal is for a more rational response to charity.

"Then there was the saga of the Yishun siblings who had an operation for deep-brain stimulation done in Taiwan at tremendous cost, again paid for by the Singapore public," she said. This could have been done here at a fraction of the cost.

Press reports claimed it was a "miraculous" success, and the siblings were shown walking with assistance.

"Now they are no longer able to walk, not even with assistance," she added.

In recent years, Singaporeans have gained a reputation both at home and abroad for their eagerness to open their wallets to anyone in need.

In the past, the government would frown on the media playing up sad stories that appealed for public funds, saying they would encourage abuse.

But its reluctance probably reflected the psyche of Kuan Yew. The word charity did not sit well with him.

From his early leadership when Singapore was a poor squatter community, he had rejected the idea of receiving aid.

Lee wrote: "I was convinced our people must never have an aid-dependent mentality. If we were to succeed, we had to depend on ourselves.

"I warned our workers on Sept 9, 1967, that the world does not owe us a living. We cannot live by the begging bowl."

What it didn't want, it wouldn't give, too. Singapore then rarely offered aid to countries hit by disasters on the rationale that it was too small to make any significant difference.

The tsunami disaster ended this no-aid era with a bang. The government, armed forces and private charity responded with a substantial package of "rescue and rebuild" help to Aceh and Sri Lanka.

It also sent helicopter and medical teams to Katrina-hit New Orleans and earthquake-ravaged Pakistan.

At home, a whole generation of Singaporeans has been raised on Lee's disdain of welfarism as a means of helping the poor. He felt it would promote laziness and a crutch mentality.

He had repeatedly told his people that "there's no such thing as a free lunch", which spoken often enough was being read to mean that "if you don't get a free lunch, you also don't give a free lunch". It wasn't the best way to promote compassion.

Dr Lee evidently reflects a bit of her father's hard-nosed concept about charity. She blamed the press for its "propensity" to sensationalise stories that helped bring out "the gullibility of Singaporeans".

One involved Huang Na, the eight-year-old girl from China who was kidnapped and murdered here.

The intense press coverage of the tragedy raised public sympathy to a feverish pitch, resulting in an outpouring of donations to the victim's mother.

She declined to reveal the amount of funds collected but it was estimated to have run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. She later returned to China where she used the money to refurbish her house.

Dr Lee asked incredulously, "But what good is that money to Huang Na who has died?"

Her comments about Huang Na struck a chord among many Singaporeans in the wake of the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) scandal. Its CEO and board resigned en masse following public anger over the misuse of donations.

However, not all agree that charity should be an affair of the head based only on rationality and proof of need.

"I would rather live in a country where people are compassionate rather than critical and demanding," said one writer.

(This was published in The Sunday Star on Oct 30, 2005)