Singapore’s Philanthropists: Hospitals for the Poor

Over a hundred years ago, many immigrants in Singapore had to work really hard. Some became rich and were very generous with their money. Instead of keeping it to themselves, they shared their success by building hospitals and schools so that others, especially the poor, could make use of them and make their lives better too. These generous people are called ‘philanthropists’. You see, unlike now, there were not many places you could go for help in old Singapore — especially if you were poor.

The six buildings you see on page 16 of The Little Singapore Book are just a few examples of the buildings and organisations built by these philanthropists. Two of them are hospitals for the poor, and they are still around today.

Thong Chye Watermarked JPG (2)

The Thong Chye Medical Institution was started as a free clinic almost 150 years by a group of Chinese immigrants. Traditional Chinese physicians or doctors there took care of the sick free of charge! Lots of rich merchants and businessmen donated money to help run this free hospital, and lots of poor people got the help they needed. One of the biggest donors was a man called Gan Eng Seng. (A school is named after him too.)

Even though it no longer runs out of the beautiful old building which it used to occupy along Eu Tong Sen Street, Thong Chai Medical Institution is still around today and continues to provide free medical care to the poor, thanks to the generous philanthropists from a long time ago!

Pauper's Hospital Watermark JPG

Another hospital that helped the poor was the Chinese Pauper’s Hospital. It is more than 170 years old, making it one of the oldest hospitals in Singapore. Most people know it today as Tan Tock Seng Hospital. It was first built at Pearl’s Hill, but had a move a few times over the years before it arrived at its current location. It is named after Tan Tock Seng, a rich Hokkien merchant who gave money and land to build this hospital in 1844. But many people may not know that other rich merchants also helped to build the hospital, like his own son Tan Kim Cheng, and Syed Sharif Omar al-Junied, a wealthy Arab spice trader, who also donated land for the hospital!

Did you know?
Hospitals in 19th century Singapore were very different from the hospitals now. Can you imagine that a very, very long time ago, many patients would run away from the hospital so that they could expose their sores and beg for money along the roads? To prevent them from doing that again, these misbehaving patients would be caned as punishment! That surely would not have helped the patients get well sooner! Aren’t you glad things are not like that anymore? We sure are!

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