Alden Boon

Dr Siew Tuck Wah on Breaking the Poverty Cycle, Saving Singapore’s Street Dogs and Finding Buddhism

February 26, 2017

When he was studying in medical school, Dr Siew Tuck Wah would, come mealtime, ostensibly say he had a prior appointment and steal away from his peers. Embarrassed that he could not afford the meals at the restaurants, he would make a beeline for a hawker centre to get his sustenance at cheaper prices.

One look at the 38-year-old — with his white-collar ensemble of blazer and shirt as well as his stellar résumé which includes receiving an education at Raffles Junior College; and running his own medical aesthetics practice in the bustling Suntec City — it is easy to assume his success was inherited. Dr Siew’s upbringing was anything but privileged. “Both my parents were from Selangor, Malaysia. My father came to Singapore in hopes of pursuing a better life. He enlisted in the army just so he could put food on the table. My mother used to work multiple jobs:  From going door to door selling cosmetics to sweeping floors, waitressing at a nightclub to winding cassettes, she did it all, often enduring eighteen-hour workdays.”

When his parents came to Singapore, they had no more than fifty dollars on them. Dr Siew, along with his parents and brother, used to cram into a two-room flat. All through his teenage years, Dr Siew was a latchkey kid who rarely saw his father, who after his military service entered the construction industry and worked as a foreman. The scorching sun was his father’s enemy. His mother would go to work at 7pm and only return home in the wee hours.

Dr Siew eventually earned his merits and qualified to study in Singapore’s elite schools. Surrounded by peers who hailed from well-to-do families, he began to feel the heft of societal pressures. Rancour at times festered, and the young Dr Siew lamented his milieu like any teenager is wont to do. “If I wanted something, I had to pay for it myself as my parents couldn’t afford it. Back then, I didn’t understand why I had to be poor,” he quips.

In retrospect, seeing how his father managed to raise his family despite the circumstances was a life lesson nearest to the doctor’s heart. “My parents drilled the importance of studying hard into me. It became a very conscious effort to want to earn enough money so I could support my family. I knew I had to get good grades in school.”

From rags to riches: Through sheer hard work and owning a positive attitude, Dr Siew has made something of himself. He is the founder of Radium Medical Aesthetics.
From rags to riches: Through sheer hard work and owning a positive attitude, Dr Siew has made something of himself. He is the founder of Radium Medical Aesthetics.
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Youths who are trapped in such situations may feel the need to rebel and hurt their parents. Just because life has been bad to you it doesn’t mean you need to project the same unto people. Work hard, be nice — your life will turn around when you start treating people with kindness.

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Becoming a proponent of animal rights

A flower is often admired for its outward beauty, but in the absence of strong roots it cannot blossom. Like gnarled but strong roots to a flower, Dr Siew’s hardships have built his character and steeled his resolve. Besides a busy work schedule, his calendar is pencilled with activities related to Saving Our Street Dogs (SOSD), a charitable organisation where he is President.

That SOSD is running like a well-oiled machine today is a far cry from its early beginnings. “Back then, it existed only as a Facebook group,” Dr Siew recalls, laughing at the memory. Currently, it boasts a 500-strong force of volunteers across different departments. Its shelter at Pasir Ris is a sanctuary for up to a hundred strays. Volunteers would walk and feed the dogs up to four times a week. The rehoming team is tasked with organising adoption drives and finding new families for the dogs. And then there are the rescuers, who take on the noble cause of saving dogs in distress.

To onlookers, a charitable organisation seemingly operates in a utopian world where all Samaritans driven by a noble cause play nice. In truth, passions run high, personalities clash, and friction arises. Different members have different opinions. Dr Siew for one yearns to rescue all the street dogs in Singapore — but his wants are vetoed by other committee members concerned about overworking the volunteers. Whereas a boss can foist his convictions on his employees, managing volunteers as President is a whole new ball game altogether. “Over the years, the SOSD family have matured. What is heartening to me is that all of us have learnt to put aside our differences for the greater good.”

Saving our Street Dogs Dr Siew Tuck Wah
By day, Dr Siew works on his clients' faces; by night, he puts his finesse to use by cleaning open wounds on dogs.
Dr Siew also devotes a huge part of his spare time to spearheading outreach efforts, engaging the public and children on the need for animal welfare.
Dr Siew also devotes a huge part of his spare time to spearheading outreach efforts, engaging the public and children on the need for animal welfare.
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There is a stereotype that Singaporeans are cold-hearted and do not volunteer. I’ve found this to not be true.  

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Divine intervention it was that got the doctor started on his SOSD journey circa December 2011. That very month, a jogger was attacked by a pack of stray dogs at Punggol Waterway. Culling efforts by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore were swift in the aftermath. An agnostic at the time, Dr Siew was at Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery attending the wake of a family friend when he offered up a prayer to Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion.

“I remember pleading to Guan Yin to protect the dogs. And that was when an inserted thought hit me: that I had to be the one to act. Her will was very specific: I had to alert the media and raise awareness. I did exactly that. Soon, it galvanised fellow animal lovers, and the incident caught the attention of our ministers.” Dr Siew and the early members of SOSD then went to work, doing what they can to rescue the strays. And as selfless as his motivation was, Dr Siew did get a gift out of this: Bacon, a big goofy dog that became his adoptee.

Meet Bacon, Dr Siew's rescue dog turned lifelong companion.
Meet Bacon, Dr Siew's rescue dog turned lifelong companion.

The greatest satisfaction Dr Siew derives is seeing stray dogs bounce back from debilitating illnesses. “Their will to live is very strong,” he says. Chica is a proud story. When rescuers found her, they initially thought she was dead: She was paralysed, furless and had mite infestation.  After nearly two months of rehabilitation which entailed trips to the veterinarian’s clinic and potty training, Chica healed and became a force of nature, her blithe spirit rubbing off on others.

But belying every rescuer’s pride are the ripples of emotional agony and much sweat. For every dog that SOSD saves, there is one that it cannot due to resource constraints. Some dogs are feral and dislike human contact, and they growl at the approaching rescuers — leaving the hands of the latter tied. For every dog that has a happy ending, there are many whose stories are heartrending. Joy was one such example. She was found chained up in a shophouse, and SOSD’s many calls to the tenant went unreturned. In the end, the rescuers had to take matters into their own hands by cutting loose her shackles.

“No matter how hard we tried, she just couldn’t get used to being in a home. She would stay cooped up in her shelter, crying and walking only in circles — it was the only freedom of movement she was allowed and knew when she was chained up. She passed away a year ago.”

The passing of their charges can hit the volunteers hard. Imagine expending much energy and time sterilising and feeding the dogs, only to have them succumb to a virus outbreak. Or to hear news of dogs in foster care being knocked down by a car. Such news cast a pall on the volunteers’ days. Extrinsic criticism sometimes follows, with the volunteers’ handling methods and training philosophies coming under scrutiny. Some are lambasted for failing to do more for dogs with terminal illnesses. But the hardest barrier to overcome, Dr Siew says, is self-blame. “‘What should I have done differently? ‘Was I at fault?’ — these questions haunt the volunteers.”

At SOSD, the highs are so high, and the lows are so low that sometimes it feels impossible to recover from.
At SOSD, the highs are so high, and the lows are so low that sometimes it feels impossible to recover from.
Solace in religion: A practising Tibetan Buddhist, Dr Siew chants, mediates and prostrates all in search of enlightenment. Since becoming a Buddhist, he has let go of his materialistic wants and is content with what he has.
Solace in religion: A practising Tibetan Buddhist, Dr Siew chants, mediates and prostrates all in search of enlightenment. Since becoming a Buddhist, he has let go of his materialistic wants and is content with what he has.

The noise of negativity

That someone doing good should be at the receiving end of vitriol is baffling, but that is the reality Dr Siew now grapples with. His work with SOSD has thrust him into the public eye, his every move unfairly dissected in the same fashion as nosy keyboard warriors encroaching on a young celebrity’s personal life. Detractors are all around.

Accusations of racism have arisen. “There is a sentiment floating out there that SOSD only rescues white but not black dogs. What really transpired was during an operation, my rescuer-in-charge took in a few puppies, and the three black dogs that she could not take were very timid. We had every intention of going back for them. Next thing I knew, it blew up and people were organising ‘justice for black dogs’ movements on social media.” SOSD’s track record proves that the number of black dogs it has rescued is comparable, if not higher, to the number of white dogs it has in its care, so accusations like that are unfounded.

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There is a need for all of us to be constructive rather than destructive. We prosecute someone who has made a simple mistake — but what of it? What do we get out of it? Instead, build something positive out of it. Educate. Raise awareness of the issue. That’s how we can attract light, and keep growing. 

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Some days can be very trying, and Dr Siew's determination frays like a worn-out thread. The hope of achieving a better tomorrow for the less fortunate is what invigorates him and keeps his spark alive.
Some days can be very trying, and Dr Siew's determination frays like a worn-out thread. The hope of achieving a better tomorrow for the less fortunate is what invigorates him and keeps his spark alive.

The online mobs were also all up in arms when Dr Siew adopted a dog from Korea last year. He met a fellow rescuer, a cancer survivor who had just shut down a dog meat farm, who now had the herculean task of caring for six hundred dogs. Dr Siew visited the organisation to lend some muscle and relocate the dogs. One particular dog caught his eye — a white one. Dr Siew’s adoption decision only fanned the flames and perpetuated the racism rumour. Thing is: All the dogs in the farm had fair coats.

The doctor also drew flak for his supposed predilection for foreign dogs. “When it comes to adoption, I believe in fate and connection. I do not see skin colours or nationalities. We live in a world where people are quick to draw lines and erect boundaries. Boundaries of ‘you’ versus ‘me’; ‘Singaporean’ versus ‘non-Singaporean’. It is this divisive mindset that plagues the world.”

Such wanton mudslinging is perhaps what got to the late Taiwanese veterinarian Chien Chih-cheng. “Tragic,” Dr Siew says of the incident. “I have had a volunteer who because of the stress of the job almost had a mental breakdown. It is my hope for SOSD volunteers to be kind to themselves, and to practise self-forgiveness. We cry; we cry so hard. But we learn from every painful incident and then soldier on so that we can do more and save even more street dogs.”

For more information on the work that Save Our Street Dogs undertakes, please visit http://sosd.org.sg/.

Enjoyed this story? Read how “ice slayer” Nathan Russell  finds his own path as a glacier guide.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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