This hospital has been around since the 1800s and its founder was the first Asian Justice of Peace. Can you guess which hospital we’re referring to?

This story is the second of a four-part series as we uncover the untold stories of Singapore’s charity pioneers who sought to meet the needs of our city.

Ask any Singaporean about Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) and you get the same response. The household name has been an integral part of the fabric of Singapore for 175 years, at the centre of some of the biggest events in Singapore’s history.

It was the designated medical centre for tuberculosis (TB) treatment, and was at the frontlines of treatment during the SARS outbreak. These are, no doubt, some of the more memorable milestones in TTSH’s long history, but TTSH is a treasure trove in Singapore’s health care heritage.

Here are a few things you might not know about TTSH:

Its founder started off as a vegetable seller.

Founder, Tan Tock Seng, came to Singapore in 1819, the same year as Sir Stamford Raffles. But while the latter was already well known and respected as the Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen upon arrival, the former was an unknown, entrepreneurial young man of 21 who started his life in Singapore selling vegetables along Boat Quay – and yet has had as enduring an impact on Singapore as his counterpart.

(L) Canvas painting of Tan Tock Seng. (R)

7,000 Spanish dollars was the first donation.

Tan Tock Seng started the hospital with an act of philanthropy through donating the a princely sum of 7,000 Spanish Dollars (a fortune at the time). This large amount, coupled with support and smaller donations from others in the community, formed the capital and was enough to start the building of the first hospital at Pearl’s Hill.

It was the first hospital in Singapore named after a person.

TTSH was originally known as the Chinese Pauper Hospital when it was first set up in the 1840s and was renamed Tan Tock Sing Hospital¹(with an ‘i’) before the name was corrected in official documents in the 1850’s, after its founder had passed away.

It was set up to serve the needs of the poor and needy.

In the early days of Singapore, there were many who lived on the streets, suffering poor sanitation and disease, with certain immigrant areas a hotbed for malaria, cholera, TB and smallpox. Tan Tock Seng, who was already active in contributing towards charitable causes such as funding decent funeral and burial services for the destitute, stepped up to fund a hospital for those who could not afford medical care.

Today it still serves more than 2500 needy patients through over 100 programmes.

TTSH is known for its medical care, expertise and leadership. And to continue its founder’s legacy of giving, a charity arm – TTSH Community Fund was set up in 1995. Disbursing over $2 million a year for programmes, the fund is focused on care and services to improve patients’ quality of life after they have been discharged.

One of TTSH’s programmes funded by the Community Fund is HELP (Helping Elderly Patients) programme. Elderly patients discharged from hospital often require long-term aftercare and medical essentials to help them manage their conditions. With long term care comes many ‘out-of-pocket’ expenses such as dialysis treatment, breathing equipment, blood pressure monitors, stoma bags, feeding tubes and more which many vulnerable elderly find hard to afford.

According to the Straits Times², seniors will need to set aside an average of $51k a year for healthcare, with such costs in Singapore projected to rise tenfold over the next 15 years.

The HELP programme focuses on easing the financial burden that comes with out-of-pocket expenses, so that vulnerable elderly patients can focus on their recovery without the additional stress of worrying about after care.

The small hospital that was set up to serve poor immigrants in early Singapore has come a long way in its 175 years. Yet it has never really forgotten its origins; it continues to strive to be a true community hospital and puts the needs of low-income, elderly and vulnerable people first.

Not a bad legacy for a humble vegetable seller.

Read other stories in our Origin Series: Charity Edition.

This story is written by our volunteer writer, Mona Thyagarajan, MSW.
¹National Library Board Singapore
² Straits Times