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Building Bridges:
Dr Kanwal Nain Singh in Malaysia

ROSALIA SCALIA

 

 

 

The 18th century poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.”

Dr. Kanwal Nain Singh, a true renaissance man in Malaysia, embodies this sentiment.

The 69-year-old medical doctor specializes in women’s health and infertility: in 1979, he founded the first private hospital for women, the Specialist Women Hospital, in Johor, Malaysia.

Armed with a keen sense of adventure, he connects people to solve a specific problem. In the process, he creates a network of associations and links that invariably serve the community’s greater good over the long term.

In short, Kanwal possesses a penchant for building bridges -- both literal and figurative bridges.

“He is friendly, without trying. A walking and talking Dale Carnegie,” says Sangat Singh, 80, a retired plantation manager, former director for nine years of the International Amateur Radio Union Region 3, and long time friend.

Perhaps Kanwal’s ability to communicate represents the necessary fodder that links people to each other.

For more than 33 years, he has operated his 24-bed, modern hospital with two fully equipped surgery theaters, offering a comprehensive array of services that covers gender-specific health care for women, from pregnancy through menopause, including infertility services.

“It was really busy. We counted more than 170 deliveries a month as there were really no facilities in Johor Baru, and everyone who wanted to deliver privately had to go to Singapore,” he says.

Kanwal also provides infertility serves to couples having difficulty conceiving and attributes his success rate to the grace of God. “I fill the couples up with positivity, and for about 58 percent of them, positivity and God’s help works. They return in a few months, pregnant.”

“Another 40 or so percent may have some small problem that we attend to,” he says. “For the small percentage who can’t conceive after we’ve exhausted all our possibilities, we discuss other options,” he says, delighted now to be delivering the offspring of babies he first delivered 33 years ago, bridging families with generational births.

When Kanwal was first posted as a medical officer in charge of District Hospital in Pekan Pahang in 1973, he noticed that the 450-bed hospital with a maternity unit sat in a flood zone. December’s continuous non-stop drizzle that sometimes lasted a whole week, day and night, encouraged the rising tides that flooded the hospital campus.

“You needed boats to get from one point to another, which made it difficult to transport patients,” he said, simply stating the problem. Undaunted, he set out to solve the problem -- not the one of the long-time flooding issues, but the inability to easily and safely transport patients to other areas of the hospital grounds without boats.

Marshalling the brain trust of his colleagues, they devised a solution: Raised covered walkways.

“The government funded the project,” says Kanwal, who applied for the resources to complete the walkways, “and we were able to transport patients.”

During his stint at District hospital which served the entire region, he and his colleagues looked for better ways to deliver health care to the area’s women. “I  became an obstetrician-gynecologist because I have long thought that women were downtrodden. They bore life, but were powerless, and they needed someone who cared about them and their health.”

His desire to deliver better health care to the region’s women resulted in the launch of rural ANC clinics at which District hospital doctors were assigned to visit regularly; over a two-year period, the effort resulted in a marked decrease in parental and infant mortality in the region and for this the HRH Sultan of Pahang awarded Kanwal the PJK Meritorious Service Medal in 1975.

“It was unexpected!” Kanwal says of the award.

Even in his hobbies, his natural penchant for bridge building and community service play vital roles in the lives of those around him. Long before computer technology made chatting with people worldwide ubiquitous, he became an inadvertent good Samaritan for the citizens of Darwin, a city located in Australia’s Northern Territories.

Introduced to the world of amateur radio operators by a friend, Kanwal happened to be listening to the radio frequencies on Christmas in 1974 when a distress call came from another amateur radio operator in Darwin.

“The man said he was using a car battery to operate his radio, that he was in Darwin and Cyclone Tracy had destroyed the entire town,” Kanwal recalls.

Kanwal called the Australian government to relay what he had heard -- that the city of Darwin had been destroyed -- but “no one believed me.”

Cyclone Tracy’s Category Four winds had indeed devastated Darwin, killing more than 70 people. Because of the Christmas holiday, no one outside Darwin was aware of the devastation, except for Kanwal and a handful of other amateur radio operators.

“Five hours later, someone from the Australian government called me back saying they couldn’t get through to Darwin. The Australian Navy was dispatched, and since they couldn’t communicate with the people in Darwin any other way, they relied on us -- a group of amateur radio operators in distant lands -- to relay messages back and forth,” he says. “Ham radio operators provided essential emergency communications at the time.”

Similarly, Kanwar once connected the owner of a tile company to Sikhs at a local gurdwara who wanted to renovate the structure’s tiled areas. “The tile renovation project would cost upwards a half a million dollars. They came to me for a donation but whatever I could donate wouldn’t complete the entire project.

I thought about it. I knew a man who ran a tile company. As it turned out, the company had a policy in place for non-profit institutions and offered to sell the tiles to the gurdwara at cost plus ten cents. What would have cost the gurdwara upwards of a half a million dollars ended up costing a fraction of that, about $10,000,” says Kanwal, a proponent of the Network 21 philosophy, noting that if one doesn’t network enough to be able ask others for ideas and information, one carries alone the burdens of whatever issues need resolution.

When Kanwal, who is also a pilot, was learning to fly, he gathered like-minded flight students in Malaysia so that they could all take their lessons at one time. “One guy would drive to where the airplane was, park and leave the car, then fly back in the plane with the instructor. We’d all take our lessons, and the last guy would fly back to where the plane was to be parked, and then drive the car back,” he says of the group, still friends and still sometimes bridging the distances between themselves and various points of interest in Asia.

“Ken was President at the Johor Bahru Flying club in Malaysia and has a lot of  flying experience,” says Robert Gschwendtner, 49, originally from Melbourne, Australia, but living and working in Phuket, Thailand, and owner of Group D.M.T Co., Ltd., a prepress company with 350 employees.

“He is a great friend, very kind, and he always tries to help others in anything.”

Robert too is a ham radio operator. The two men met in 1995 at a South East Asia Net (SEANET) Convention in Koh Island, Thailand. Established in 1964, SEANET consists of a group of amateur radio operators in South East Asia who meet every evening via radio to promote international understanding, fellowship among hams and to relay emergency, medical, urgent or priority traffic.

Mrried to the “beautiful Jyotika Patel,” Kanwal says he wooed her by performing American Country-western tunes on a guitar he learnt to play. “I taught myself to play and sing the songs by listening to the radio. I paid for my medical school expenses by playing American Country-Western songs in a small hill station night club in Kashmir where all the foreign students stayed,” he says.

“She was one of the foreign students from Nairobi who often came to the club,” he adds Kanwal too was considered a foreign student since his family had fled from the Partition of Punjab and India to Malaysia in 1947 when he was three.

Kanwal and Jyotika married and raised one son and two daughters who have earned a combination of law and science degrees.

When I interviewed him, Kanwal sang a decent version of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” bridging the distance between his home in Malaysia and the U.S. with his steady tenor and a familiar song.

For Dr Kanwal Nain Singh, however, all of his talents, skills, accomplishments and awards hold one purpose: to serve others and thus, Waheguru, the sole bridge connecting us to each other, despite the illusions that we are but singular islands.

 

December 3, 2012

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 03, 2012, 4:53 PM.

My friend Dr. K. N. Singh, the gynecologist and equally keen Rotarian, once organized a community project and offered free Pap Smear examinations. His own nurse brought her elderly mother to have her first ever Pap Smear. She was quite nervous but her daughter persuaded her to have the first pelvic examination. After the examination, our friendly doctor commented, to lighten things up: "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?" The lady replied: "No, it wasn't, but I do have one question to ask you." "Go ahead," he said. "Does your mother know what you do for a living?"

2: TJ Singh (India), December 04, 2012, 6:21 AM.

I am so thrilled to see this story about Dr. KN Singh ji! I've long considered him a mentor and role model. What is not in the story is his pioneering role in the emerging medical field of palliative medicine in Malaysia. He has encouraged new doctors like me to pursue this new specialty.

3: Lucky (Baltimore, Maryland, USA), December 04, 2012, 8:24 PM.

Wow! What a renaissance man! Amazing life of accomplishments! I really admire any man who can dedicate himself to causes in support of women and children. Bless him!

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