Making it All Worthwhile

Winners of the Excellence in Public Service Awards are recognised for having made a real difference in the lives of Singaporeans. - by Sheralyn Tay
Dr Vineta Bhalla (left) was inspired to do more for organ donors after reading about organ transplant recipient Sheralyn Tay (right) and her brother’s experience in the media.

A few words in the media in 2008 got Dr Vineta Bhalla thinking. An organ donor, Mr Alphonsus Tay, had told the press his insurance premiums were raised following his operation, and he was concerned that this might discourage others from becoming donors.

Dr Vineta, who is Director of Hospital Services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), and her team began to ask themselves what could be done to support the altruism of organ donors and ensure their healthcare needs were looked after.

Mr Tay’s donation of a kidney to his sister was Dr Vineta’s “personal and professional inspiration” that led her to push for better donor protection.

Many donors give up going for their regular follow-up after some time due to financial issues and other commitments,

she said. “We need to bring down these barriers for donors and also get the transplant centres to take on the responsibility of caring for them, just like they do for recipients.”

During the extensive review in 2008 and 2009 of the Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA), much thought was given to this need to look after organ donors. MOH sought public views extensively; at times, it even seemed to be saying: ‘I don’t know – what do you think?’

Dr Vineta explained why this was so: “While at some point, MOH might have appeared unsure of its policy stance, it was worth the risk as it was critical to be open to stakeholders’ input and tweaking the policy accordingly.

“Getting feedback that what we did, worked, makes it all worthwhile.”


Finally, in March 2009, HOTA was amended. Among the changes were the inclusion of older organ donors and allowing paired matching of living donors, moves that will widen the pool of donors.

Provisions were also made to allow reimbursement for altruistic living donors and protect them after donation. A donor welfare fund, donor insurance and a donor care registry have also been set up.

Diamonds in the Rough

Ms Tang Hong Hong, 28, deals with “difficult” kids daily – all of them finding their way back from the wrong side of the law.

“My job is two-fold: to ensure they stick to the terms of their probation, and that their basic needs are met,” explained Ms Tang, a Senior Probation Officer at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).

But more than that, she forges friendships with her probationers, offering them the support they need. This was the case with Adam, then 15. When his landlord evicted him and his extended family from their home, Ms Tang immediately went on a search for alternative housing.

“Before we could find a new home, the whole family had moved to the void deck with all their belongings where they stayed for one night. When I saw them there, tired and hungry, it was so heart-wrenching,” she recalled.

She secured a place for his three younger siblings and grandmother at a crisis shelter and arranged for Adam, who was over the shelter’s age limit, to be taken to a home. But a cousin threatened Ms Tang with violence if she “broke up the family”.

Faced with the screaming man, Ms Tang stood her ground.

I was really scared, but I knew I had to be firm. My concern was to ensure Adam and his family could find shelter for the night. I could not let them sleep another night at the void deck.

Today, Adam and his family are settled into a new flat and he still keeps in touch with Ms Tang frequently via SMS.

Ms Tang believes every one of “her boys” has the potential to overcome their circumstances.

When her former probationers update her on their lives, it fills Ms Tang with joy.

“They all say I am like their second mother, but I say ‘No lah, just call me sister instead!’” she said, adding with a smile. “When they tell me they are in NS or Poly, I know I have made a difference, that I have succeeded.”

Taking Stock

As demand for rental housing doubled in recent years and supply declined, the Housing Development Board (HDB) had an urgent situation on their hands.

The team had to think really hard and innovatively on how best to churn out the supply of rental flats in the fastest manner,

recalled Deputy Director (Rental Housing), Mike Chan.

Besides looking for suitable sites to build new rental flats, the team also explored re-using existing facilities.
“Time was of the essence, [so] the team started to look at properties that can be re-adapted, both for interim and for longer-term rental use. In our search for answers, we really have to dig hard to snoop out such properties,” he said.

Turning three- and four-room flats into one- and two-room rental units, Mr Chan and his team increased rental stock within a year, instead of having to spend two years building new apartment blocks.

The team also created interim rental housing in blocks awaiting demolition. Families waiting for rental flats or in need of urgent housing can share the three- or four-room flats. To better tailor to the temporary housing needs of these families, HDB engaged, for the first time, a private entity to manage the tenancy and to perform social roles under the subsidised rental housing framework.

“We are focused on delivering our goals of housing needy Singaporeans, working together as a united team, and embracing innovation when we are confronted with problems and challenges,” said Mr Chan.

The Rental Housing team helped to increase the supply of rental flats to the needy by creatively tapping on existing resources

The writer is an organ transplant recipient and the sister of Mr Tay. She took part, both as a journalist and a transplant patient, in the discussions during the HOTA review. She adds: “I am grateful for the changes and the way in which MOH engaged stakeholders. I had my transplant in 2005 (before the amendments took place) but the issue remains a very personal one for me and my younger brother Alphonsus.”
    Jul 6, 2010
    Sheralyn Tay
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