Can Singaporeans be idealistic?

Can Singaporeans be idealistic?
Mr. Kishore Mahbubani

When I was a student studying in the Bukit Timah campus of what is now the National University of Singapore in the late 1960s, if anyone had approached me and asked me to become a bone marrow donor, I would have politely demurred.

Why? My pain threshold was not very high. All I knew about bone marrow donations was that they were very painful because a big needle had to be inserted into your bone to extract the bone marrow.

Against this backdrop, you can imagine my shock when my daughter casually informed us at dinner in October last year that she was going to donate her bone marrow to an anonymous patient somewhere in the world.

My jaw dropped. As a Singaporean parent, I asked myself the obvious kiasu (afraid to lose) question: "Why is my daughter going to incur pain and risk her health to save an anonymous patient she may never meet in her life?"

At the same time, I knew that I could not dissuade my daughter. She has a strong will and nothing deters her when she has made up her mind. Instead of trying to dissuade her, I tried to find out more.

The first question I asked was why she had signed up to become a bone marrow donor. She told me that when she enrolled as a freshman in Yale in 2007, the students were encouraged to sign up as bone marrow donors.

This is one of the great strengths of the leading American universities - they do their best to reinforce and strengthen the idealistic spirit of young university students, instead of trying to snuff it out.

Several years passed. Then out of the blue, seven years after she signed up, the bone marrow registry in the United States told her that her bone marrow was a perfect match for a leukaemia patient somewhere in the world. Subsequent tests by the Singapore Bone Marrow Donor Programme (BMDP) confirmed this.

I was worried that my daughter would experience great pain as a donor. I was therefore relieved when I learnt that there is now an easier and relatively painless method of extracting bone marrow.

The old method of inserting a needle into a bone is still carried out, usually for about one in 10 donations. Some donors continue to opt for this method as they see it as a one-off, faster operation, which is less disruptive to their work.

Afterwards, the general comment from most donors is that the procedure is not painful, although some say they experience a dull backache which lasts no longer than two to three days.

I was relieved when my daughter chose the alternative method of having a stem cell harvest. All she had to do was lie in a hospital bed for several hours while her blood was circulated through a machine.

While her blood went through this machine, her stem cells were extracted. So the whole procedure took longer than the old method. She also had to take some medication for the few days before, to stimulate the production of stem cells.

All in all, my daughter suffered only some discomfort. When she took the medication, she felt some aches. Also, after the stem cell harvest, she felt a little weak for a few days. But she quickly returned to her good health.

This is an important point worth emphasising in this article.

Apparently, some Singaporeans are reluctant to enlist as bone marrow donors because of some false beliefs in our society.

Some men believe that donating bone marrow will rob them of their manhood. Some women believe that they will remain "weak" for the rest of their lives after donating bone marrow.

Ms Jane Prior, honorary president of the BMDP, says "it is hard to change minds that are set in self-appointed misinformation".

This is why I am writing this article about my daughter's experience: to help expel and kill the many false beliefs that surround the BMDP.

With modern technology, we have now developed a relatively easy and painless way of saving people's lives. And I am not exaggerating here - this is truly a life-and-death matter.

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