Dr Amar Singh speaks up for children

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HIS name is often in the news as this paediatrician does not shy away from controversial issues. He is dedicated to children’s health and wants the public to be armed with all the facts.

Datuk Dr Amar Singh is the Head of Paediatric Department at Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun Ipoh, Head of the Clinical Research Centre Perak and advisor at the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC).

He takes time out from his busy schedule to answer some questions from Thots n Tots.

How long have you been a paediatrician?

I have been working as a doctor since 1983, and as a paediatrician since 1988.

Where did you study?

I did my basic medical degree, MBBS, at the University of Malaya and graduated in 1983. I then did my UK Paediatric Postgraduate (took UK exams) and completed my Membership of the Royal Colleges of Physicians of the United Kingdom (MRCP UK) in 1988.

I went on to do a subspeciality training in Community Paediatrics and obtained that with a distinction from University of London in 1992 (it was a one-year course in London).

I also received a Certificate in Theology (second class honours) from Moore Theological College, Australia, in 1998. I studied for four years as an external student.

I was also awarded the Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Glasgow in 2000.

Why did you decide to become a paediatrician?

I had wanted to do this when I was training as a medical student as I saw the potential of working with children and their needs; this attracted me. I also met some good paediatricians when I started working, and they inspired me. So, I pursued paediatrics and, in particular, Community Paediatrics.

What are some perks of being a paediatrician?

Meeting many wonderful children and families is a great perk. Few jobs can offer you the privilege of meeting children when they are most in need. I am constantly awed by the courage of children and parents. They inspire me, even as I try to help them; I receive much from the children/families I support.

What is your outlook when it comes to children’s health?

I believe that children and their health are worth investing in. They are young and usually do not cause their health problems or illnesses (adults often are ill as a result of their lifestyle). Children are vulnerable and need our support and protection.

Many people consider children as or speak of them as “our future”. I consider children as our “present treasure”; to be appreciated today and loved.

You are very outspoken for a paediatrician and you don’t shy away from the “controversial” topics such as vaccinations and autism. Does this get you into trouble with your “bosses”?

Ha, ha … Yes this is a problem in our country; we are not open to different views and criticism and my “outspokenness” often seems to rub people the wrong way. However many, including my “bosses”, who have gotten to know me, have become aware that I have no personal agenda; I only want what is best for the children and I want to improve our health services.

Do you find that being outspoken helps in your job? How has it affected patients’ perception of you?

I believe we need to be advocates for children as their voice is limited and often not heard. So, voicing their needs and making their concerns heard is necessary. I am not outspoken just to speak, but for truth and reality to be heard and acted on. I have found that my persistence has enabled many national and regional services for children to be developed. I often receive positive feedback from parents, older children and colleagues. The only problem is that, as a result, they ask me to be even more outspoken and champion many other issues!

What is the most common health issue you see daily?

A very wide range – from very ill children as a result of a viral infection or road injury requiring intensive care, to children with developmental and behavioural problems. No problem involving children is too small to pay attention to. In terms of frequency, these days we tend to see fewer problems due to infections and more developmental and behavioural problems. Trauma (road and drowning), adolescent issues, schooling concerns, child abuse, Orang Asli malnutrition and children with chronic illnesses occupy much of our energy. Emotional and mental health issues are of increasing concern (the emotional wellbeing of our children is of concern).

What is your best advice to parents/children for better health?

Parents need to be present to their children. I often find that parents are too busy to spend time with their children. Children are often in the care of minders while parents try and earn money to secure their child’s future. But, in the process we lose the present. Children do not need quality time from parents, they need quantity time. We can always earn money tomorrow but we will never regain today with our child. Many children are “lost” and pressured by the demands of society. Parents who are present to their children (no electronics, no handphones) can offer their children a secure environment, an oasis in this lost world, to find themselves and know that they are loved.

Tell us about your work with persons with disabilities.

I have been working with individuals with disability since 1978 and, in the past 35 years, extensively with parents and children with disability. I have been instrumental in establishing a number of family support groups and disability NGOs. I have assisted the Family Health Division of the Health Ministry to revise the entire child health programme (2006) with a view to introduce routine developmental screening for preschool children. I also helped to revise the national registration mechanism for disability registration (2000). I have a very active practice supporting and working with parents and their children with disability as well as supporting governmental agencies. I was the President of the National Early Childhood Intervention Council (NECIC) until last year.

What are some awards you have won?

  • 2016 SENIA Advocacy Award
  • Outstanding Asian Paediatrician Award 2012
  • DPMP, Perak 2009 (award from the Perak Sultan, “Dato”)*
  • JMN, National 2009 (national award from the King)
  • AMP, Perak 2000 (award from the Perak Sultan)
  • Tun Abdul Razak Research Award 1994

How many children do you have?

My wife and I have planned not to have any children. We had planned to have a few children; we would have had two to three of our own and adopted another two to three children that were unwanted or disabled. But, very early in our marriage, God spoke to both of us independently to make it very clear that He would like us not to plan any children. This was one of the toughest decisions in my life but we decided to follow it. As a result, we have been available to many children, and not just in the hospital. Our home and our lives have been available to many children and adolescents, whose biological parents were not there for them. As such, we have many spiritual children, some of whom are more ours than their biological families.

Supporting many children at our home has made me appreciate how difficult being a parent (and a child) is; especially in present times. It requires much patience, enormous love and hope.

You are also an avid birdwatcher? How did you get into it and what do you find enjoyable about it?

I have always been, and continue to be, interested in everything around me – the stars, plants and trees, all kinds of animals and, of course, birds. My interest in birdwatching grew to become a passion when I inherited two secondhand objects as an adolescent – a pair of binoculars and a small bird book. My family was large and not wealthy and these items were treasures; they opened the world of birds to me. Very soon, I was found at all times of the day using the binoculars and referring to the book to identify the birds I was seeing. I have vivid memories of climbing up to the roof of our government quarters and sitting in the noonday sun to watch birds – arguably not the best time to do it! A very good friend of mine once said of me: “When you watch the way Amar really appreciates nature, you cannot help but know that God exists.” Birds and nature have brought me closer to God and taught me much about life, freedom, truth, etc.

Can you draw any parallels between birds and humans?

Birds live for today and have “no pockets” or bank accounts. Bird parents are completely focused on and protective of their young; not distracted by any other thing. We as parents need to imitate them. We need to treasure our young babies and children and be present to them all the time. I am not saying that we need to make children the centre of our lives … definitely not. But we can offer children our presence and time so that they can find themselves and become the unique individuals they are.

If you could invent something child-related, what would it be and why?

I would invent a device that would turn off all electronic gadgets in the home, especially screens (TVs, handphones, tablets, PCs, etc). This device would apply equally to children and adults. This would enable children and parents to really connect, see each other face to face, play with each other, and go outside the home and be with nature, etc. The world has become addicted to electronic gadgets and this is damaging our relationships.

* Datuk is used in this article as it is the house style to standardise the titles.

Datuk Dr Amar Singh and his wife, Datin Dr Swee-Im Lim.