Monday, 27 January 2014

Dr Paul Choo: Healing with help and hope

Shenton Medical founder is happiest lending a hand to those who need it most
By Wong Kim Hoh, The Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

By the time he was 34, an age when many are still struggling to find their professional feet, Dr Paul Choo was already pretty set up for life.

The Shenton Medical Group - which he had founded nine years earlier in 1973 with two partners - was doing swimmingly, with half a dozen branches in the Central Business District and more than 10 doctors on its payroll.

Success offered many perks; he could afford fancy cars and spend his afternoons on the greens if he wanted.

Unfortunately Porsches and golf were not quite his thing.

Then he befriended a teenager named Daniel Khoo whom he heard was helping poor folk in Chinatown.

And so one day, with Daniel in tow, he got his driver to drop him off in his Rover at Craig Road in Tanjong Pagar.

He could not believe what he saw.

"Old women were sitting in steel meshed cages, waiting to die. Mind you, these were not even the death houses in Sago Lane," he says, referring to the area in Chinatown once synonymous with funeral parlours and homes where the chronically old and sick were left to die.

"Craig Road was just three or four streets from where I had my nice office, sometimes doling out placebos to corporate types. But here were women suffering from tuberculosis and skin diseases and nobody was doing anything about it. It was unreal," he recalls.

It changed his life.

More than heading a medical practice, he believed his calling lay in helping the poor and those in need.

In 1995 Dr Choo - who had by then bought out his partners - sold his thriving chain of clinics to Parkway Holdings for $6.5 million.

Today, he happily gallivants around the region as the founder of Goducate, a non-profit group which helps to educate and train the poor and needy so that they can have better livelihoods.

Benign and fatherly with an ever-ready smile, Dr Choo is the younger of two children of educators: his late father, Mr Choo Keng Kiat, was an assistant director of education, and his late mother, Madam Choo Mei Kai, was a former vice-principal of Singapore Chinese Girls' School.

"My paternal grandfather was the head of The Chinese Protectorate," Dr Choo says, referring to the entity set up in the Straits Settlements in the late 19th century to cater to the needs of the Chinese community.

"As the highest ranking civil servant, he actually had a horse and carriage but he died of smallpox when my father was eight years old. There was no back-up, and the family became destitute. My father and his four younger siblings were all farmed out to be raised by different relatives," he says.

Dr Choo says of his father: "He worked his way up from teacher to inspector of schools to assistant director of education. His strong belief in education has rubbed off on me. I don't believe in giving handouts, I believe in giving people a chance to be educated."

Life was comfortable and crease-free while he was growing up.

He attended Anglo-Chinese School and was a bright student, and like his elder sister, studied medicine at the then University of Singapore. His sister became assistant editor of the respected medical journal The Lancet.

Upon graduation, he toyed with the idea of specialising in anaesthesia and getting trained at the University of Liverpool. To finance the plan, he decided to work as a general practitioner with Clifford Dispensary in Robinson Road.

"They were the big boys at that time, they were the doctors for Singapore Airlines," he recalls.

He did well, and soon shelved the idea of further studies. After a year and a half with Clifford, he decided to strike out on his own.

"It didn't seem so complicated. And Shenton Way had just come up then, it was the Wall Street of Singapore," he says.

The idea was to get first mover advantage in Shenton Way, and be a local clinic giving the big boys such as Gethin Jones and Thomson and Thomson - mostly headed by expatriates and located in Raffles Place - a run for their money.

With two friends, he set up Shenton Medical Clinic, a small outfit in the basement of UIC building, after borrowing $5,000 from an uncle, the father of retired general Winston Choo.

"My father had the philosophy that he would never give money to me. He said, 'If I gave you money, you would be lazy.'"

The first few months saw him doing without a salary.

"It was no big deal. I was 25, hungry and idealistic and did not have many needs. We were living with my father and my wife was also working as a manager of the Robina Department store," says Dr Choo, who got married not long after graduating.

As he was gregarious and personable, he became the pitch guy knocking on doors trying to secure accounts.

And they soon came in, the banks, the airlines and the trading houses.

He recouped his investment in no time.

"By the second year, we were flying," he says.

They upgraded and upsized quickly. At one stage, they took one whole floor in International Plaza. The premises came with an indoor swimming pool.

"It was unique, almost like a resort clinic and had a great view overlooking the harbour," he says.

He attributes their success, in part, to the personal touch.

"I taught all the doctors not to treat patients as cases but as people. That was my philosophy. I made sure that my doctors personally went out to the waiting room to take patients into their office," he says.

Year on year growth averaged nearly 30 per cent.

"By our 10th year in the business, we peaked. The next stage was to take it easy," he says.

That was when Dr Choo felt he needed to give back and do something.

"My way of expressing my faith was not going to church to sing Hallelujah but to help people," he says.

Venturing into Chinatown with Daniel gave him the purpose he was looking for.

"I treated Shenton Way patients. Nobody was dramatically sick so no one got dramatically well either. But here, I saw women so weak from anaemia they couldn't walk. I gave them iron shots, and two or three days later, they were up and about.

"After that, my greatest joy was to finish my morning work and go with my little doctor's bag."

Dr Choo - who also referred many ageing amahs and Samsui women to old folks' homes - helped patients in the area for several years.

"The good thing was I worked myself out of this job in Chinatown. People got better, and many went to old folk's homes."

In the late 1980s, differences led him to buy out his Shenton partners, albeit reluctantly, with help from a venture capitalist.

His heart, he says, swayed more towards helping the poor but as the Shenton group was now his, he had to start rebuilding the business.

He did it so well that Parkway came calling in 1995. By then, the group had eight clinics and also owned Executive Health Screeners, a service catering mainly to corporate clients. After selling the practice, he started Gospel Light, a church which comprised members from two different ends of the social spectrum: bankers and other corporate types as well as Filipino maids.

"Today, the composition is still the same although we also have Indian dockyard workers and Chinese construction workers," says Dr Choo, who is a church elder.

He continued helping the poor, travelling to places like the Philippines and India. He would ask to go to the poorest areas, and work with local communities to start clinics and kindergartens.

With a laugh, he lets on that he has made many mistakes and been cheated many times. "I don't blame them. If you want to be a cash cow, expect people to milk you," he says.

But he has become a lot smarter.

"Unless it's relief work now, there's no handout. Instead, I give skills. If you want to cheat me and run away with your skills, that's okay."

In 2009, he started Goducate with a very clear mandate: to help needy Asians help themselves.

The organisation's focus is on education and imparting skills which meet the needs of a community, as well as giving hope.

"Many poor people are hardworking but their hope level is very low. They have no role models and they cannot see themselves rising above their lot in life," he says.

To counter this, he identifies people in the communities he works with whom he can groom and mentor into role models.

"I don't care if he grows mangoes or bittergourds, but I want to see local people make good. If I can groom two or three role models in each community, I know I have begun the process. You can't change communities in a hurry."

In 2010, he set up a Goducate centre in Ilo Ilo in the Philippines to train community development workers who then go out into the field to help the poor.

There are many who support his projects in nine countries in the region including the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

One of them is doctor-cum-food blogger Leslie Tay.

"I like it that he is helping people that some organisations would not even touch, people who need help the most. He goes in and teaches them to help themselves," says Dr Tay.

Together with some followers of his blog,, he has raised funds for and visited Goducate projects which help illegals in Sandakan, Sabah.

Earlier this month, Dr Choo also started a Happy Happy English programme for migrant workers in Singapore.

"They are also needy people. They are separated from family, and many just eat, bathe, sleep and work," he says.

Happy Happy English, says Dr Choo, is "edutainment".

Using short films of Singapore's top attractions like Universal Studios, Goducate volunteers stop the virtual tours at different times to teach basic English to migrant workers living in dormitories.

The first one was held earlier this month at the Westlite dormitory in Jurong and attracted more than 800 people. Goducate hopes to take the Happy Happy English programme to all 40 foreign worker dormitories here in the next six months.

The amiable Dr Choo - who has four children and three grandchildren - laughs when asked how much he has spent on helping the poor.

"Well, I used to have two houses in Raffles Park," says Dr Choo, who now lives in a condominium in the West Coast.

Then he adds that he could not be happier.

Right kind of charity

"Charity is not so simple, it can be done in a very bad way. People should give the same amount of thought to giving as they do to money-making. The question they should ask themselves should not be 'How much did I give?' but 'How much value did I add?'"

DR PAUL CHOO on charity.

Learning from his mistakes

"My idea of poverty was wrong, I was using my Singapore brain. I'd see a house and think: 'Oh this is so terrible, let's help him paint his house.' Then you realise that everybody's house is like that. Or you see a kid and go: 'Oh, so poor thing, he has no shoes.' Then you realise slippers actually made more sense. It was a steep learning curve, and lasted 10 years."

DR CHOO on his the mistakes he made when he first started doing charity in the region.

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