The Singapore Medical Journal (SMJ) has in the past 55 years reflected the phenomenal socioeconomic progress of Singapore. Publications in the pre-independent years were mainly on diseases like cholera, diphtheria, leprosy, tetanus and worm infestation. In the new millennium, the research papers included molecular genetics, health economics, obesity, Internet medicine, cancer, cosmetic surgery and palliative medicine. The annual SMA Lecture published in the SMJ provides an ethical compass for doctors to remind them of primum non nocere.

Keywords: history, Singapore medicine, SMJ


The portrait of an era which witnessed the emergence of Singapore from Third to First World is often framed by a narrative of dramatic progress, from a colonial outpost in the backwater to a metropolis with a skyline of towering buildings stabbing the sky. In a quiet and measured way, this transformation is also chronicled in the Singapore Medical Journal (SMJ), which has charted medical advances in tandem with Singapore’s socioeconomic development in the past 55 years. The published papers defined these changes and have become milestones that acquired a sepia tone with the march of time.


In the early 1960s, with the insalubrious state of public health, SMJ papers were focused mainly on tetanus, cholera, leprosy, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, syphilis, diphtheria, malaria and worm infestation. Professor Tow SH published his seminal work on choriocarcinoma in 1965,(1) and Dr Gwee Ah Leng headed the medical team during the koro epidemic of 1969.(2) In the 1970s, there were publications on social problems like opium addiction,(3) heroin abuse,(4) smoking(5) and alcoholism.(6) Military doctors wrote on the health of national servicemen.(7)

However, in the 1980s, the published work on illness patterns was decidedly different. There were studies on AIDS,(8) anorexia nervosa(9) and work stress.(10) The Hotel New World disaster was reported by Dr Lim Meng Kin and the medical rescue team.(11) In the 1990s, communicable diseases no longer dominated the contents of the SMJ; research papers were on the ageing population,(12) escalating health costs,(13) cancer,(14) obesity(15) and doctor’s stress.(16) A report on the mental health of the nation was published in 1998,(17) while Dr How J wrote on decompression sickness and the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), a landmark national development in Singapore.(18)

The new millennium heralded changes in the health and social landscapes of Singapore. SMJ papers included molecular genetics,(19) Internet medicine,(20) positron emission tomography scan,(21) liver transplantation,(22) gambling addiction,(23) health economics,(24) palliative medicine,(25) sports medicine,(26) cosmetic surgery(27) and robot-assisted surgery.(28) The SARS epidemic, a tragic event in Singapore’s history, was documented by doctors on the front line.(29,30)

In 2005, medical education was the focus during the centennial of the National University of Singapore Medical School. A few years earlier in 1998, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who was then the dean, published a paper on rethinking medical education.(31) Leading nursing educationists wrote on the new Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies(32) and Dr Cheong Pak Yean expatiated on the future of family medicine training.(33)

During the 2015 Jubilee year, two papers reflected important societal issues in Singapore – the Mental Capacity Act for the care of the cognitively impaired elderly(34) and polypharmacy in the treatment of elderly patients, especially in nursing homes.(35) The short-lived upheaval in Little India was reported by emergency doctors caring for victims of the riot.(36)


The SMJ publishes the annual Singapore Medical Association (SMA) Lecture, which often highlights prevailing and pressing socio-medical matters. With rising healthcare costs, some doctors have questioned whether healthcare is a commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Corporate terms like ‘customers’ and ‘clients’ are now used in hospitals to replace ‘patients’. In the 1996 SMA Lecture, Dr Charles Toh cautioned that “economic growth driven by a free market does not necessarily translate into better healthcare for all.”(37) Dr Yong Nen Khiong, in the 1993 Lecture, opined: “Good doctoring keeps cost down.”(38)

Focusing on the ethical mind, Professor SS Ratnam challenged the medical fraternity in the 1977 Lecture: “I think the time has come when we critically review our own position in relation to society and its needs and to re-dedicate ourselves to our first and only cause as doctors in making our only role that of helping the sick.”(39) In the 1999 Lecture, Dr Chew Chin Hin reminded the doctors “not to be ministered unto, but to minister”.(40) A few years earlier, in the 1971 Lecture, Dr Yahya Cohen exhorted the SMA to “instil among its adherents a sense of values so necessary to dignified survival – of values such as pride but not arrogance, of discipline but not servility, of respect but not fear, of loyalty but not subservience, and in so doing to imbue the coming generations with a deportment that is both discriminating and courageous”.(41) With the restructuring of hospitals and new governance, there was an uneasiness about the role of administrators. Professor Woo Keng Thye, who spoke on doctor leadership at the 2007 Lecture, stressed the need to “walk the ground”, invoking the principles of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.(42)

One of the most inspiring speeches published in the SMJ was the SMA Lecture of 1997 by Dr Wong Heck Sing on role models in medicine.(43) He enumerated the attributes of a good mentor: clinical competence; broad perspective of life; well-versed with the art and science of medicine; ability to teach; and making the patient’s welfare a priority. His Hall of Famers included Arthur Ransome, Yahya Cohen, Thamboo John Danaraj, Gwee Ah Leng, Lim Kee Jin, Seah Cheng Siang, Wong Hock Boon and K Shanmugaratnam.


In the last 55 years, the SMJ has recorded the social history of public health and medical advances in Singapore. As you scan through the catalogue of papers culled from the archives (Table I), you will be amazed that some of the diseases that were prevalent in the 1960s are now rarely encountered. There is also a sense of nostalgia reading the papers, especially if you personally know the doctors, some of whom have passed on; these pioneer doctors were able to conduct research with meagre or no grants and write papers, albeit encumbered by heavy daily clinical duties.

Table I

Selected SMJ papers from the archives.


The SMJ has chronicled the rise of Singapore medicine and the socioeconomic development of this city state. With the ferocity of the pace of life, some publications may have been missed or read and forgotten. There was a gentle reminder by Dr Raj Mohan Nambiar in the 2004 SMA Lecture, when he warned of escalating medical litigation and the surge in insurance premiums.(44) In the 2005 Lecture, Dr Chee Yam Cheng quoted that the insurance premium for cosmetic practice had risen phenomenally from $5,250 in 2000 to $22,875 in 2005, and general practice from $700 to $1,740.(45) The emphasis or re-emphasis must be primum non nocere or ‘first, do no harm’.

As Singapore medicine evolves and expands, the SMJ will continue to reflect this transformation. In the next decade, the publications are unlikely to be on cholera, malnutrition, worm infestation or opium addiction. There may be more publications on health costs, integrated regional health system, translational research and dementia prevention.

A notable change in the authorship of the SMJ papers is the increasing number of women authors. In the sixties, there were less than 10%, as compared to nearly 40% in the last decade; even the authorship of this paper is a fine balance of genders. With the global feminisation of medicine, it is perhaps timely for the SMA – possibly one of the last few bastions of male dominance in Singapore – to consider, in the not-to-distant future, a woman as the SMJ Editor.

The Past Editor Series is a collection of invited articles written by former SMJ Editors and their co-authors, who are respected medical practitioners in their respective field of expertise.

Tow SH. Choriocarcinoma: a review of current concepts based on the Singapore experience. Singapore Med J. 1965;5:117-26.
Gwee AL. Koro Study Team The Koro “epidemic” in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 1969;10:234-42.
Koon LH, Chuan PS, Gandevia B. Ventilatory capacity in a group of opium smokers. Singapore Med J. 1970;11:75-9.
Teo SH, Chee KT, Tan CT, Ng BC. Heroin abuse in Singapore – a profile and characteristics study. Singapore Med J. 1978;19:65-70.
Lee HP, Ng KS, Chan KH, Liang HL. Smoking in a local community in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 1979;20:323-9.
Khoo OT, Fernandez P. The problem of alcoholism in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 1971;12:154-60.
How J, Leong CC. Physique of school boys and school leavers who are NS registrants. Singapore Med J. 1977;18:155-63.
Feng PH. AIDS – the facts. Singapore Med J. 1986;27:96-8.
Ong YL, Tsoi WF, Cheah JS. A clinical and psychosocial study of seven cases of anorexia nervosa in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 1982;23:255-61.
Kua EH, Tian CS, Lai L, Ko SM. Work stress and mental distress. Singapore Med J. 1989;30:343-5.
Lim MK, Fong YH, Tan EH, Lee KH. Medical support at the Hotel New World disaster. Singapore Med J. 1988;29:125-9.
Kua EH. The health of elderly Chinese living in the community. Singapore Med J. 1990;31:111-5.
Goh LG, Cheong PY, Phua KH. Calculating the GP consultation fee in Singapore: towards a rational costing approach. Singapore Med J. 1993;34:496-9.
Kong HL. Cancer therapeutics beyond 2000 – more rationality, less empiricism. Singapore Med J. 1999;40:125-7.
Cheah JS. Current management of obesity. Singapore Med J. 1996;37:299-303.
Kua EH. Doctor under stress. Singapore Med J. 1998;39:478.
Fones CS, Kua EH, Ng TP, Ko SM. Studying the mental health of a nation: a preliminary report on a population survey in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 1998;39:251-5.
How J, Vijayan A, Wong TM. Decompression sickness in the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit Project. Singapore Med J. 1990;31:529-38.
Teh BT. What molecular genetics holds for the future?. Singapore Med J. 2001;42:1-2-4-5.
Chin R. The Internet: another facet to the paradigm shift in healthcare. Singapore Med J. 2000;41:426-9.
Ho GC. The evolution of positron emission tomography. Singapore Med J. 2005;46:257-8.
Isaac J, Lim SG. The future of liver transplantation in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 2006;47:564-5.
Lim KD. A case of pathological gambling – its features and management. Singapore Med J. 2001;42:217-9.
Phua KH. The social costs of disease and the economics of prevention. Singapore Med J. 2002;43:329-30.
Koh NY, Koo WH. Polypharmacy in palliative care: can it be reduced?. Singapore Med J. 2002;43:279-83.
Tan B. The evolution of sports medicine in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 2013;54:552-4.
Ng JH, Yeak S, Phoon N, Lo S. Cosmetic procedures among youths: a survey of junior college and medical students in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 2014;55:422-6.
Liow MH, Chin PL, Tay KJ, et al. Early experiences with robot-assisted total knee arthroplasty using the DigiMatch™ ROBODOC® surgical system. Singapore Med J. 2014;55:529-34.
Tambyah PA. The SARS outbreak: how many reminders do we need?. Singapore Med J. 2003;44:165-7.
Chee YC. Heroes and heroines of the war on SARS. Singapore Med J. 2003;44:221-8.
Tan CC. Rethinking medical education. Singapore Med J. 1998;39:273-6.
O’Brien AP, Arthur DG. Singapore nursing in transition: perspectives from the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies, National University of Singapore. Singapore Med J. 2007;48:875-9.
Cheong PY. Education and training in family medicine: looking ahead. Singapore Med J. 2014;55:124-5.
Ng PS, Ang LP, Kandiah N. Importance of mental capacity: time for greater attention and action. Singapore Med J. 2015;56:646-8.
Chia HS, Ho JA, Lim BD. Pharmacist review and its impact on Singapore nursing homes. Singapore Med J. 2015;56:493-501.
Lee WF, Ooi CK, Phua DH, et al. The Little India riot: experience of an emergency department in Singapore. Singapore Med J. 2015;56:677-80.
Toh C. SMA Lecture. Impact of a free market system on medicine in Singapore. Singapore Medical Association. Singapore Med J. 1997;38:7-10.
Yong NK. SMA Lecture. No man is an island. Singapore Med J. 1993;34:295-7.
Ratnam SS. The tenth Singapore Medical Association Lecture 1977. The doctor’s dilemma. Singapore Med J. 1977;18:94-9.
Chew CH. “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister”. Singapore Med J. 1999;40:3-8.
Cohen Y. SMA Lecture. Association, Profession, Adaptation. Singapore Med J. 1971;12:121-6.
Woo KT. Physician leadership. Singapore Med J. 2007;48:1069-73.
Wong HS. In search of future role models in medicine. Singapore Med J. 1997;38:459-64.
Nambiar RM. Professional development–in a changing world. Singapore Med J. 2004;45:551-7.
Chee YC. Do no harm: do thyself no harm. Singapore Med J. 2005;46:667-674.