Wednesday, 8 Feb 2023

Goodbye after 34 years for MP Lily Neo's Tanglin Halt Clinic

SINGAPORE – For the past 34 years, Tanglin Halt Clinic – located at the end of a candy-coloured row of shophouses at 39 Tanglin Halt Road – served as a gathering spot for residents.

Aches, pains and other common ailments were tended to by the doctor there. But other worries, such as family or financial concerns, were also soothed.

Residents traipsed down from the nearby chup lau chu (Hokkien for 10-storey buildings) to share homemade delicacies like ngoh hiang. Those who have moved away returned for a consultation and more.

On Thursday (Jan 24), the lights at the iconic clinic in one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates nestled between Queenstown and Commonwealth flickered off for the last time.

It was already one of the last few outlets still operating ahead of a 2021 deadline to move out before the block gets demolished under the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme. Other stores, such as a barbershop and a provision store, have shut down.

Dr Lily Neo, 65, the well-loved general practitioner and MP of 22 years, will be moving her clinic to the Royal Square Medical Suites at Novena, where it will open from Monday (Jan 28) with a new name: Lily Neo Clinic.

Save for a few goodbye photos and some last-minute packing, her last day at the clinic that has helped her earn her stripes as an MP and speak up with conviction in Parliament on issues such as community health screening and public assistance went by just like any other day.

“It’s too sad to try to do anything special,” Dr Neo told The Straits Times.

“Because many residents came from the kampungs, there is a sense of neighbourliness here. The older folk did not only know each other well but will help each other out with errands and so on. This is the community spirit that would be a pity to lose.”

When plans for the redevelopment of the neighbourhood were first announced in 2014, Dr Neo and fellow shopkeepers along Tanglin Halt Road – named after the KTM trains that used to “halt” in Alexandra Road – were hopeful that they could move with the residents to a new site.

But faced with the prospect of having to bid for space in nearby Dawson, where monthly rent hovers at a market rate of close to $15,000 – much higher than the $3,000 or so she now pays, Dr Neo made the decision last November to move to Novena, where she will share clinic space with her gynaecologist husband Ben Neo.

This will allow her to save on rent and keep her fees at the same rates for her patients in Tanglin Halt, she says.

A consultation and medication, after subsidies from the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas) that will still apply to her new clinic, would cost about $10.

It was a decision that had been made with a heavy heart, said Dr Neo, who, from time to time, digs into her own pocket for her patients’ medicine. Though some of her long-time patients, like retired supermarket packer Ang Hong Eng, 83, said they would continue to travel by public transport just to see Dr Neo at her new clinic, many others who are weaker or have mobility issues would be unable to see her again.

A patient cried when she broke the news to him. Another baked her a cake in the shape of a heart. “She said, this is my heart, I won’t be able to see you again,” recalled Dr Neo.


Dr Neo is the only GP among Singapore’s parliamentarians. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Since entering politics in 1997, Dr Neo – an MP for Jalan Besar GRC – runs the clinic only in the mornings and sees over 20 patients a day. Today she is the only GP among Singapore’s parliamentarians.

With her easy, inviting mannerisms and ability to switch effortlessly between English, Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien and a smattering of Teochew and Cantonese, it is no wonder she is popular with her patients.

“Some doctors will talk to you very haughtily and don’t want to answer if you have extra questions or worries. But Dr Neo is different,” said Madam Ang, who has seen her for the past three decades. “She will always listen to me and assure me if I have some condition I’m worried about, like a pain in my kneecap or my skin condition.”

Another long-time patient, administrative assistant Juveina Sim, said she intends to make the trek to the new Novena clinic if she falls ill.

The 32-year-old has been seeing Dr Neo since she was a baby. She also accompanied her grandparents on visits.

“Dr Neo is very patient and caring. Even if I was just at the clinic for my grandma, she will also give me advice, reminding me that losing weight is good for my health, or offering to prescribe me medicine when I had an acne breakout in my teens,” said Ms Sim, tearing up at the thought of the clinic’s relocation. “Coming here reminds me of my grandparents.”

Dr Neo’s time at the Tanglin Halt Clinic, located in a greying neighbourhood populated with low to lower-middle income families that include some in rental flats, has played a role in her transformation as someone initially dismissed by some as a “tai-tai MP” into one of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) most popular backbenchers today.

She is known to be a “vote-getter”, consistently pulling in well over 70 per cent of the vote share in her Kreta Ayer-Kim Seng ward at the past four general elections, said a party activist. During the last GE in 2015, the PAP team in Jalan Besar GRC scored 67.7 per cent.

Over the course of her five terms in Parliament, Dr Neo raised issues concerning the poor and the elderly, which are shaped by cases she has witnessed in her own clinic.

Seeing patients who had not been able to make a complete recovery from breast cancer due to late diagnoses prompted her to speak up about the high cost of breast cancer screenings for women in 2001, in a clash that led to then Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang coming up with an infamous rebuttal that was later slammed: women needed only to save money spent on one hairdo to pay for breast scans.

It eventually led to a subsidised rate at polyclinics a year later.

She also saw elderly patients who were not getting nutrition as they did not have enough money for protein in their meals, and asked for levels of public assistance to be raised for those in need in 2007.

Over the years, others have also confided in her their fears of not wanting to go to hospitals for treatments as they did not want to burden their children with big bills, or stinted on medicine for chronic conditions because they could not afford the prescribed dose.

Progress has been made on such issues since: public assistance rates are now reviewed regularly, while the introduction and extension of schemes like Chas and MediShield Life in recent years have provided for better coverage of costs in primary care and hospital bills.

“Such personal experiences, and being on the ground to see and feel these things happening, gives you the passion and conviction to bring them up in Parliament,” said Dr Neo.


Dr Neo hopes she can open her new clinic for longer hours, to accommodate the needs of patients who need more time to travel from Tanglin Halt to Novena. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Dr Neo hopes she can open her new clinic for longer hours, to accommodate the needs of patients who need more time to travel from Tanglin Halt to Novena.

But when it comes to her political career, she hints that it may be time for her to step back. After Punggol East MP Charles Chong, who entered politics in 1988, she is the longest-serving backbencher together with Bukit Panjang MP Teo Ho Pin.

Would she retire before the next general election, which is due by April 2021?

The grandmother of five aged between two and seven confesses that she had already thought about doing so two parliamentary terms ago.

“Backbenchers usually stay on for three terms, but this is already my fifth term. As a politician, I’ve overstayed my term.” It is a sentiment that she has already made known to her colleagues in the PAP, she said.

“But I will still like to continue with my medical practice. Medicine has always been my first love, and I took it up since young as I wanted to be more useful in life.”

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