Achieving International Standing
Hotel management and engineering?

Not many in the medical fraternity know this, but they almost lost Dr Wong to hotel management or engineering — these were careers that he was seriously contemplating before a seed was planted in his mind to study medicine instead.

Which was why, when he was invited for an interview for a spot in the Faculty of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, Dr Wong decided to go for broke. That year, there were 299 interviewees, but the fact remains that the majority of the top scorers will be cut after the interview. “In an interview where you are almost certain that you will be kicked out, you have to hold their attention. It did not help that the top A level student of 1979 was in the same room!” recalls an animated Dr Wong. “I remember that the interviewers looked.

Although he fared poorly in his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), he recovered to do “very well” in his A-levels. From a young age, he knew that he was a people person and longed for a job that required lots of interaction with people — “I felt that I wanted to explore hotel management at Cornell University with the Shangri-la Scholarship in 1979.” At the same time, he was toying with the idea of studying engineering as his brother did as an undergraduate at Oxford. Despite doing well in physics, chemistry and mathematics, he was advised by his brother that he was not suitable for engineering. “It was tough to accept that my brother was right!”

Then came the conversation that completely changed Dr Wong’s life. It was with a cousin who happened to be a doctor. When it came to the inevitable question of what Dr Wong wished to do with his life, that person opened up about his own experience with medicine. “He said that medicine is one of those few professions that, when someone comes to you when they need you, they leave you a better person,” Dr Wong recalls. “He said that he really enjoyed his work because he can help people.”

“So I said, ‘Wah! Sounds like hotel management.’ Because, in a sense, you are making people happy.” Although Dr Wong’s response sounded flippant, the cousin’s words turned on a switch in his mind. Between his Pre-U 2 preliminary exams and the actual A-levels, Dr Wong abandoned all thoughts of engineering and hotel management, and decided to focus on medicine.

Acing the interview

“In the late 1970s, it was my impression that the government was encouraging top high school students towards humanities, accountancy, business administration and professions other than medicine to spread Singapore talent across the various industries,” Dr Wong reminisces. “So doing well in 1979 was a real problem, not a blessing, as I was keen on doing medicine!”

Which was why, when he was invited for an interview for a spot in the Faculty of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, Dr Wong decided to go for broke. That year, there were 299 interviewees, but the fact remains that the majority of the top scorers will be cut after the interview. “In an interview where you are almost certain that you will be kicked out, you have to hold their attention. It did not help that the top A level student of 1979 was in the same room!” recalls an animated Dr Wong. “I remember that the interviewers looked completely bored with us. For the most part, the interviews were only six to seven minutes long, and often the same question was asked: ‘Why do you want to study medicine?’ The answer was usually, ‘Do good and save the world’.”

When it came to Dr Wong’s turn, he managed to hold the panel’s attention for a good 40 minutes. “I told lots of interesting stories and kept them entertained throughout. I survived and even got a PSC scholarship to study medicine at the end of the process,” he adds enthusiastically. For more about what Dr Wong and the panellists chatted about, check out the sidebar.

Choosing a speciality

Dr Wong was inspired to take up surgery after meeting two surgeons who were missionaries in Africa during his undergraduate days. Then in 1990, he suffered a urinary stone, “the closest to labour pains any man can experience”, which he took as a sign to specialise in urology. After finishing his residency in urology, Dr Wong decided to train and work overseas.

He was supposed to only spend one year in the US, courtesy of a Ministry of Health sponsorship. But, deciding that he needed more surgical experience, he took no-pay leave for another year of training in the US. Although he had no salary, he felt it was worth the sacrifice because he got to train with a top American urologist, Professor James E. Lingeman, who was famous for his expertise in kidney stones and the prostate.

Dr Wong is not the type to weigh the business potential or the glamour quotient of a medical speciality before taking the plunge. “I had no idea if it was going to be a fulfilling speciality,” he confesses. “But I felt that, since I had the kidney stones, and everything was going that way, and I managed to get in, so I just carried on.”

When it comes to his clinic, “my top priority is to give the patient my best advice based on the latest medical guidelines; what you decide after that is up to you”. The father of three girls, whose wife works with him as a fertility specialist, has an interesting work ethos: “Not everyone who walks into my clinic is my patient; my sole purpose is to encourage and give best direction for him or her to get better, regardless of whether I am the main caregiver.”

Urologist of international standing

Dr Wong, who is 56 this year, is pleased that he has achieved international recognition and standing among his peers. “If you asked me what surprises me, it’s that I reached international standing even though I have been in private practice for 10 years,” he reflects. “I am now more academic than I ever was at SGH.”

How long will he keep up this pace of work?

“To me, it’s about whether I am enjoying what I am doing and whether it has a positive impact on patients and training of regional urologists. If yes, then I will stay on,” he says.

“For now I love what I do, and the practice allows me to spend quality time with my lovely wife and three daughters.”

One thing is for sure: he is not ready to retire. “This is definitely not my last place of call and I look forward to the next chapter of my life with all its fresh challenges.”

TOPIC OF INTERVIEW
“In the high-tension room where everyone comes in and out in six minutes, I was asked a difficult question before I could even sit down on my chair: Why did you go to RI from ACS? To put things in context, during the 1970s, it was unheard of for students to cross from Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) to Raffles Institution (RI) due to fierce rivalry between the two schools. I laughed loudly, then stared them in the eye and said that there are four reasons why I moved from ACS to Raffles Institution (RI) instead of the then brandnew Anglo Chinese Junior College (which is affiliated to ACS). I could hear a pin drop as everyone strained to listen,” reveals Dr Wong.

Reason 1
“ACJC told me I had to study till 4.30pm while RI told me I could go home at 1pm; half a day in school was good enough. Half the interviewers laughed and laughed!”

Reason 2
“ACJC told me I had to go to school on Saturdays. RI told me I didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays. Five-day school was good enough for me. Their jaws dropped, man!”

Reason 3
“Why I wanted to have my Saturdays free was so that I could go back to ACS to continue to be part of the 12th Coy Boys’ Brigade. This started them talking about Boys’ Brigade and asking me how I benefited from the organisation.”

Reason 4
“The last and most important reason was because RI said I didn’t have to do Chinese as a second language but ACJC said I had to take this subject. Half the panel laughed loudly and the other half stared very disapprovingly.”