Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Double Bill: The curious case of Dr. Susan Lim

Doctors are usually mild-mannered people. They are service providers. They do their job and mind their business. Controversy is something they want to keep at an arm’s length.

If you follow the Singapore news, you will know of Dr. Susan Lim, one of Singapore’s path-breaking surgeons. Willy nilly, the top surgeon finds herself mired in controversy these days.

The doctor has asked the Singapore High Court to disallow a second disciplinary committee’s constitution by the Singapore Medical Council (SMC) to look into a grave charge on her. According to reports, she allegedly overcharged one of her royal patients (Penigran Anak Haja Damit) and billed the Burunei palace $24.8 million for breast cancer treatment between January and July 2007 just before the patient died. The council wants to investigate if the claims of mark ups and inflated bills made by the relatives of her patient, the deceased sister of the Queen of Brunei, are true.

Yesterday, the high court resumed hearings in her case. Dr. Lim was absent from the day long hearing but her lawyer explained how her invoices added up. The Straits Times reported today: “The SMC’s portrayal of Dr. Susan Lim marking up certain bills is false, mischievous and scandalous, her lawyer told the high court yesterday.”

Days in Paradise

From Europe on a skiing trip with her children, Dr. Lim tweeted: “Lessons in life go against the grain of doin good; never provide services even to a regular client without payment upfront; it can backfire.” (March 20)

If you know the background of her case, you will know what she is possibly alluding to.

Her next tweet is: Life is beautiful.

Is it? For her?

If you look at today’s newspaper’s headlines, you would wonder: What must be going on in her mind? Of course, she is rich. She has hired an expensive Queens Counsel, Ian Winter. Yet, moving between Moutiers to Courchevel, where she wants to enjoy the freshness of spring skiing, don’t the headlines from back home weigh her down?

What intrigues me is this: why did she bother to take on the establishment, the SMC and so on? Why does she want to fight back? Why does she want a judicial review?

Is she fighting for her reputation? If so, what’s wrong with that? A doctor’s reputation is all that she has. It is a delicate thing—takes a lifetime to build. One misstep and it is sullied. In today’s digital age, damage to one’s reputation stays for ever—a lifetime of embarrassment.

Is she fighting to get her millions back? The bills that, even after a fifty per cent discount, remains unpaid?

If that is the case, is it (to attempt to get one’s due back) a commercial dispute (between the doctor and the patient’s family) or is it a breach of medical propriety?

I think this question is at the heart of the matter.

Beyond the surface

The intense media coverage that this case has garnered—coupled with the fact that it affects Singapore’s image as a great destination for medical tourism—puts the onus back on the media. The media needs to get to the bottom of the matter.

Dr. Lim sounds very concerned when she tweets like this: “Let not an honest citizen be trampled upon by public authorities when their injustice and irregularities are exposed.”

What injustice? What irregularities?

If there are irregularities indeed, will the media uncover them? Dr. Lim is again skeptic: “the challenge to the media in reporting, is to delve deeper than merely scratching the surface and to report with substance and intellect.”

What is it that Dr. Lim wants the media to find out and expose? What’s beyond the surface? Is there something we have not seen yet?

Now that it has been revealed that the second SMC panel’s head was a rejected admirer of Dr. Lim and SMC’s rebuttal that its rule was not changed to target the beleaguered doctor, it would be interesting to see how the case moves forward and how does the media go after the proceedings. I think it is a great chance for the Singapore media to show its mettle.

What do you think? Which way will the case go? Will the institutions hold Singapore’s reputation of being a just and fair country? Will the media step up to the plate?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Autumn of the Matriarch

Written by Stella Koon and directed by Glen Goei, Emily of Emerald Hill is one of those plays that stays with you long after you have left the theatre. Through Emily’s portrait, essayed by Ivan Heng with masterful ease, we witness an era long gone, now hidden in the fog of history.

This W!ld Rice tenth anniversary production, a solo performance, is set in the post-war Singapore. It tracks the life of Emily, an orphan, who gets married into a rich Peranakan family. As time passes, the family’s wealth grows and Emily, through her wit, charm and savoir faire, rises to become the matriarch of the family.

The structure of the play follows a chronological pattern and Emily’s past, her painful childhood, is evoked through flashbacks. Background score and stage lighting add powerful touches to the performance, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride through time and landscapes—from sunny Singapore to chilly Salisbury and back.

Ivan Heng pulls off the feisty lady’s part with such aplomb that you forget it is a play. He lives the character and becomes the character. He is Emily. Period. Such is the level of verisimilitude achieved by this thespian of Singapore theatre. On a playful note, Heng develops a rapport with the audience right at the outset when late comers get a chiding from him. Patrons in the front seat are startled in some scenes that involve audience participation—a hallmark of W!ld Rice’s productions. It always works—a theatrical conceit cinegoers can never imagine.

One of the ways in which Heng brings Emily’s character alive on stage is through the evocation of the fragrance of food and the feel of the parties that dominated the lives of the everything-British-loving rich of Singapore. The reason why Emily, a complex individual, captures everyone’s heart is because she knows how to glide through the barriers of class and cut through the confines of culture. Switching between languages with a dexterous appeal, she knows equally well how to talk to a school principal and how to chat up a fish seller in the market.

Emily’s power over the members of Emerald Hill is established through her controlling nature—her Achilles’ heel, that culminates into tragedies and disappointments for her in the autumn of her life.

Despite the glory and grandeur of Emerald Hill, Emily ends up an emotional pauper—the historical changes and personal defeats perplex her. She comes across as a person who has outlasted everything that she loved and cared for. In the end, she witnesses the crumbling down of a time and place that she had aspired to hold on to forever. But change is inevitable. Emily seems reluctant to accept the unsettling change around her.

Like his pretty Peranakan outfits, Ivan Heng shines in his role as Emily. All other departments—make up, costumes, sound, set design—beautifully compliment Heng’s performance, spellbinding the audience for nearly two hours without a trouble. For lovers of theatre, Heng’s solo act in Emily of Emerald Hill is a feat and a treat in this Twitterish age of short attention spans.