SINGAPORE - In just 50 days, the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) turned a carpark into a fully fledged Covid-19 isolation ward - an achievement that testifies to how resilient and innovative the country's healthcare system has been over the past year, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (March 29).

The pandemic has shone the spotlight on the importance of resilience and robustness in the healthcare system, he added, noting that Singapore must learn from the current crisis and strengthen its capabilities to better prepare for future pandemics.

These could include the so-called Disease X, about which much may be unknown. "We must learn from Covid-19 to better prepare for Disease X," he said.

Speaking at SGH's 200th anniversary celebrations, which were streamed online, Mr Heng also commended staff members for their dedication and commitment, saying: "I am glad that you also faced the uncertainties with courage, and adapted and innovated as the situation evolved."

Set up in 1821 - two years after the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore - the hospital started out in a wooden shed. It served only Europeans, and would be relocated and rebuilt five times over the next 60 years.

It eventually moved to its permanent site in the Outram area in the 1880s, and was gradually expanded to include facilities for men, women and children of all races and social backgrounds.

During the Japanese Occupation, SGH was turned into the main surgical hospital for Japanese forces in South-east Asia. A newly independent Singapore later pumped resources into the hospital, redesigning the building and adding new medical specialities until the hospital became the world-class facility it is today.

But Singapore's healthcare transformation efforts are not yet complete, Mr Heng said.

He noted that the country is shifting its focus from providing healthcare to actively promoting a healthy lifestyle. It is also pushing for greater integration in healthcare, strengthening collaboration among all institutions - from polyclinics to hospitals.

Lastly, it continues to pursue healthcare innovation. "Much of the improvements to health outcomes and cost efficiency in past decades are due to our investments in science and technology," the minister said.

He also reiterated the Government's pledge that all Singaporeans will have access to "affordable, appropriate and quality healthcare" when it is needed.

This is a core tenet of the country's social compact, which must be upheld as the population ages, he said.

The minister called on Singaporeans to place a heavier emphasis on staying active and healthy, adding that everyone has a part to play in providing quality and affordable healthcare in a sustainable way.

"As a society, we must also take greater collective responsibility, whether it is through social risk pooling, such as MediShield Life and CareShield Life, or through the taxes that we each contribute, so that we can build a fairer and more equitable society for all," he said.

A total of 800 people tuned in to the online celebration, at which SGH chief executive Kenneth Kwek also spoke on the history of the hospital and its defining values.

"These (values) are: purpose, passion, courage and grit," Professor Kwek said, highlighting the contributions of hospital staff in taking the institution forward. "Our people have grit; the tenacity to hang on and keep going, even when the going is tough... Each time, we pick up the pieces and learn to be better."


(From left) DPM Heng Swee Keat, his wife Mrs Heng, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and SGH CEO Kenneth Kwek after planting a longan tree as part of SGH's 200th anniversary celebrations. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR


The hospital has some 240 staff with more than 40 years of experience each. One of these is principal enrolled nurse Zaiton Mohd Tahir, who has spent nearly 50 years helping expectant mothers usher babies into the world.

The 68-year-old, whose brother, niece and sister also trained as nurses, sees the hospital as a second home.

Under the SGH flag, she has gone on overseas medical missions to places such as Pakistan, and undertaken skills upgrading courses that have given her more autonomy to make decisions.

Her advice to rookie nurses is straightforward: "Be focused and be good in whatever you do. Keep abreast with the knowledge... Push yourselves to the next professional advancement."