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Helping Indonesia's poor was his calling

OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Dr Ng giving a talk to Indonesian villagers. The trained medical doctor volunteered with several non-governmental organisations.


    Apr 14, 2014

    Helping Indonesia's poor was his calling

    THEY thought that she had gone deaf after falling from a motorcycle.

    The poor family from the slums just outside Surabaya, Indonesia, sought Dr Ng Liang Wei's help for their five-year-old.

    The trained medical doctor was volunteering with several non-governmental organisations at the time.

    He recalls: "I couldn't practise medicine due to a policy forbidding foreign doctors from practising in Indonesia, and I was feeling so helpless.

    "But to make them feel better, I started cleaning out her ears slowly, as I'd noticed a build-up of ear wax."

    Five minutes later, Dr Ng, 39, heard the girl crying.

    He was shocked at first, then he realised that she was crying because she could hear again.

    Instead of insisting that he finish, the girl told him: "Uncle, you have already done so much for me, you must be tired. No need to do my other ear."

    Dr Ng says: "It was so innocent, so simple. I have never forgotten it.

    "She was so much more considerate than I have been in my entire life."

    Both the girl and her father were shedding tears of happiness.

    Experiences like this make him glad he eschewed the usual path that doctors here take.

    When he first left for Indonesia in 2008, he was a partner in a clinic.

    "My colleagues very kindly offered me a chance to return after a year. But I felt that, if I'd kept that option open, it would have distracted me," he says.

    It was hard work too - for the first six months, he would spend four hours every morning learning Bahasa Indonesia, to the point that he had a persistent headache.

    Choosing to put his training to good use to help the poor and underprivileged was his calling, he thought. But, during his four years in Indonesia, he was doing everything except routine medical work.

    He was giving talks, planning budgets, recruiting staff, even becoming a driver at one point.

    "When working with the less privileged, there's no luxury of specialisation," Dr Ng explains.

    He was there with his wife, Madam Tricia Yeo, 40, a social worker.

    While he was there, Dr Ng and his family survived on donations of around $2,000 a month.

    There were awkward moments when they started.

    "Once, this slum had poor water quality, and the locals asked for advice.

    "So we linked them with a bottled water factory nearby, and tried to supply them with bottled water as well as teach them to filter the water. We thought that we were doing them a favour," recounts Dr Ng.

    "However, after a few weeks, the locals came to us to say: 'Your water doesn't taste as nice as our well water'!"

    There were light-hearted moments too. When he was still new to the country, he once tried to compliment a local by calling her a "young lady". He ended up using a word which sounded similar, but meant "cheap woman" instead.

    Dr Ng has been back in Singapore since 2012, working part-time as a locum and doing work with his church. He has not yet decided on plans for the future.

    When asked about doctors who earn big bucks, Dr Ng, dressed in shorts and a polo T-shirt, simply says: "I figured I could probably afford a condominium if I wanted to, but it would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

    "The way I see it, if I don't buy that condominium, I get to keep 15 years of my life which I would have otherwise spent working to repay my loans."

    Dr Ng lives in an HDB flat in Serangoon North.

    "Life for me is simple but not spartan - and I am happy this way," he says.