He comes face to face with fear each day.
In his early years as a public health officer, illegal hawkers would flee when they caught sight of Mr Singh. Some even attacked him with ice picks. But these days, it is Tuberculosis (TB) patients who’ve skipped their hospital visits who shun him when he knocks on their doors. “Many of those I meet – such as TB defaulters or patients who refuse to take their medication – are just too scared to know what to do,” he says. “It’s all about fear. And my job is to help them.”
Tall and sturdy, Mr Singh is an intimidating presence. But when he speaks, his words ring wise and true. He recalls Singapore’s most painful public health crisis – the SARS outbreak that started in February 2003 and which would claim 33 lives by the time it had run its three-month course. When Mr Singh approached those suspected of the virus and advised them to go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, some refused.
“They’d ask me, ‘Mr Singh, are you sending me to my death?’” the 67-year-old recalls. “The perception was that once you got SARS, you were as good as dead. But that wasn’t true at all! So public education is a big part of what we do.”
Was he ever scared that he’d get infected?
“No fear!” he says. “We were briefed by the doctors and were very strict about following procedures. And we knew we had to do our job, you know.”
For Mr Singh, the SARS outbreak was another reminder of the need to uphold high standards of public health. “It showed us that serious challenges to our health can come any time, from any place,” he says. “Sure, Singapore has one of the best public health records in the world, but we must always be prepared, because we’re vulnerable to the world beyond us.”
Mr Singh’s Public Service journey began in 1970 when he joined the Ministry of the Environment. One of his duties was to supervise teams of road cleaners and deal with illegal hawkers, such as coconut and durian sellers who peddled their wares from motorcycles. “They just wanted to earn some money,” he says, “but it was our job to enforce public health standards. Back then, Singapore was the only country in Asia that cleared its refuse daily.”
Then came the 1974 malaria outbreak at Whampoa-Kallang, an occurrence that saw over 60 people stricken by February 1975. As part of the Government’s new malaria control response, Mr Singh helped track symptomatic and asymptomatic malaria cases; took blood samples for malaria surveys; arranged for aerial and residual insecticide spraying; and ensured that high-risk spots were oiled frequently.
These efforts finally bore fruit in 1982 when the World Health Organization declared that Singapore had met the malaria eradication standard. “We’ve been malaria-free ever since,” says Mr Singh proudly.
Another national effort in which Mr Singh took part in was the multi-agency drive of 1977–1987 to clean the Singapore River. Walking along the river, he helped identify numerous sewer leaks and other sources of pollution. “It gives me great satisfaction whenever I think about how our roads, rivers and homes are so clean now, compared to the past,” he says.
But Mr Singh’s most memorable projects have been those that found simple, people-focused solutions to public health challenges. In the 1980s, weekend crowds at Orchard Road often left behind large piles of litter. After studying the crowd’s behaviour, Mr Singh came up with a plan to give out trash bags for free, a practice that helped kick-start proper litter disposal habits in the area.
And when he was in charge of maintaining cleanliness in Little India, Mr Singh often met residents who complained about workers urinating in public spaces. “But they needed proper facilities,” he recalls. “So we decided to install portable toilets at public areas. This made a big difference, and it’s something that we’re still doing today.”
For Mr Singh, there’s an inextricable link between his work as a public officer and his sense of personal well-being. “In my 46 years of service, I’ve taken only 12 days of sick leave,” he explains. “To me, health is happiness, and I want to keep serving.”