April 2020 | Issue 47
LKCMedicine Assistant Dean named one of 25 kindness leaders in Southeast Asia

When 300,000 business leaders around the world were asked to pick and rank the top four qualities of a leader, predictable attributes topped the list. These included high integrity, honesty and an ability to motivate and inspire others. Kindness in the context of leadership is rarely, if ever, mentioned. 

But that is precisely one of the qualities that LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for Year 5 Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying has been recognised for. Last month, she was named one of 25 Leading Lights of Kindness in Leadership in Southeast Asia. The inaugural edition of the list celebrates leaders who are deeply thoughtful of others and show humanity, generosity and compassion. 

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LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for Year 5 Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying is a role model for many in healthcare

On making the list, A/Prof Tham, who is also Senior Consultant, Emergency Medicine at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, said, “I was surprised by the nomination and even more surprised by being included in the list.”
For her, kindness comes in two forms. “[It is] the positive aspect that relates to generosity, extending a helping hand, niceness and giving others the benefit of doubt,” she explained. “[It is also] the conscious avoidance of unnecessary nastiness, if a gentler way of saying or doing something can achieve the same outcome.”  

In the eyes of many colleagues and students who have worked with A/Prof Tham, the consensus is that she is generous with her time and expertise, sincere in her care of others and committed to fostering a spirit of collaboration across age, rank and discipline. She leads by putting her patients, colleagues and trainees at the heart of what she does. 

That made nominating her a no-brainer to LKCMedicine’s former Senior Vice Dean Professor Jenny Higham. 
“She is someone fizzing with energy who combines her dedication to the tasks in hand with consistent kindness to all those around her,” said Prof Higham, who is now Principal at St George's Medical School, London.

In her nomination, Prof Higham cited, “Kum Ying has amazing energy and drive - but there is space in all this to be kind. She genuinely puts her patients, colleagues and trainees at the centre and goes beyond to ensure the very best for them. She dedicates personal time to overseas community projects, delivering help where it is desperately needed, providing support to medical students alongside her. I am indebted to her personally for her help in my understanding of the organisation and delivery of healthcare and culture in Asia, which was essential for success. She is an exemplar of a hugely inspiring yet very kind leader.”

Tan Tock Seng Hospital Deputy Director of Nursing Ms Lee Leng Noey has known A/Prof Tham for more than 20 years. Supporting A/Prof Tham’s nomination, Ms Lee singled out A/Prof Tham for her contribution to the nursing profession in Singapore.

“While many other doctors also contribute to nursing training, A/Prof Tham is almost the only one who has done so consistently, patiently, willingly and kindly ever since she graduated as a doctor. Because of her many years of unceasing contributions to nurses and nursing, she has a rare accolade as a ‘friend of nurses’,” said Ms Lee.

For example, A/Prof Tham was instrumental in creating an advanced resuscitation training programme for nurses 10 years ago. Previously such training was only available to doctors. Since then, more than 1,000 nurses have undergone the training. 

Her impact as a mentor also extends to younger colleagues. Dr Daniel Quek, now an emergency medicine consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, recalled how the assertive senior physician left a deep impression on him as a newly minted medical officer, and his peers.

“At her core, she is a lady of grace who has the deepest respect for her patients, students, colleagues and friends. [She] always displayed exemplary bedside manners, and often went out of her way to explore the social issues that contributed to the patients’ presentation. I readily saw her as a role model. During that posting, she took a keen interest in the career plans of my peers and I, which had a profound impact on many of our lives. It was during that posting that I made up my mind to be an Emergency Physician.”

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Associate Professor Tham together with LKCMedicine student Goh Xin Rong (right) during a mission trip to the Thai-Myanmar border (Courtesy of the mission team) 

Since then, he’s been inspired by A/Prof Tham’s rise through the ranks as an educator through the years, adding that she is not one that is confined by stereotypes and constantly pushes the boundaries. “She displayed leadership in envisioning and seeing to fruition national level projects such as the National Collaborative Prescribing Programme, which allows trained pharmacists and nurses to prescribe selected medications in their fields of practice. Hence, I am not surprised to learn that she has most recently been called to serve in the Ministry of Health to advise on matters relating to medical education and assessment.” 

Students, too, turn to her as their role model. In the past, A/Prof Tham has received numerous education awards, including NTU’s Nanyang Education Award. 

She was also recognised for her mentorship by Class of 2018 Graduate Dr Ang Jia Wei, who received the prestigious Koh Boon Hwee Scholar’s Award. The award recognises top students who, in turn, pay tribute to two mentors who have had a significant impact on them. 

In dedicating her award to A/Prof Tham, Dr Ang said at the time, “Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying is a role model whom I look up to, who has imparted much wisdom about approaching and managing patients.” 
LKCMedicine Class of 2021 student Goh Xin Rong, who also supported A/Prof Tham’s nomination, agrees with Dr Ang’s assessment. Recalling a medical aid trip to a community clinic along the Thai-Myanmar border, Xin Rong noticed how respectful and professional A/Prof Tham’s approach was in sharing her expertise. 

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Associate Professor Tham Kum Ying (centre), together with a group of LKCMedicine students, marks their mission trip to Maetao Clinic (Courtesy of the mission team)

“On the mission trip, I saw how she exercised her clinical acumen while maintaining a professional balance as an advisor to local medics, without crossing the delicate line of a ‘foreign intruder’. This awarded her a huge amount of respect not just from the local medics, but from all members of the team,” said Xin Rong.  
“Prof Tham serves as my guiding lighthouse. She is a woman overflowing with knowledge, but incredibly humble,” added Xin Rong. 

While she inspires many, A/Prof Tham is clear that her kindness does not mean she closes an eye when it comes to performance.

“Kindness in leadership, however, does not mean a tolerance for suboptimal performance or avoidance of corrective action where it is needed - that is nepotism and lack of system discipline and not kindness,” she said.

The list of Kindness & Leadership 25 Leading Lights, which was compiled by the UK-based Women of the Future Programme, also includes Facebook Global Business Group Vice President for APAC Karen Teo, Blu Ink Media CEO Azliza Ahmad Tajuddin and Osel Group Chief Clinical & Innovative Scientist Kris Ke-Shyang See.

Founder of the Kindness & Leadership 25 Leading Lights Pinky Lilani outlined the initiative’s mission, saying, “By placing a spotlight on phenomenal leaders throughout the region who are using the power of kindness to make a massive impact in business and to effect positive change, we collectively place kindness at the centre of the leadership debate. Together, we encourage the leaders of today and tomorrow – no matter their role or background – to #leadwithkindness.”