A champion for the helpless

For someone who will start the first of 10 radiotherapy sessions for gum cancer tomorrow, Miss Daisy Vaithilingam is remarkably upbeat.

"I've worked in hospitals and I come from a family of doctors. And I know the doctors will take very good care of me," says the 88-year-old social work pioneer whose illness was diagnosed earlier this year.

There is another reason for her high spirits.

"I'm so impressed by the reactions of my family and friends. They have been so caring and loving. I feel so cherished; what is there to worry about?"

Many call and visit her regularly at her three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh; some have set up a taxi fund for her visits to the hospital.

There is just one downside, she says with a grimace.

"There are a lot of things I can't eat because I can't chew. Everything has to be blended and tastes like nothing. I can't add chilli, not even ginger."

Her treatment means she cannot attend the Singapore Council of Women's Organisation gala dinner on Friday where she will be honoured as one of the 108 women in the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame.

The youngest of four children, she had always wanted to care for the helpless and needy.

Her mother, a nurse, and her stepfather, a doctor, were her role models.

She has left huge footprints on Singapore's social work scene. She started the first fostering scheme for children, assigning abandoned children to hospital attendants and amahs for care.

She also lobbied for financial aid for parents of intellectually disabled children, helped set up the Singapore Association of Social Workers and chaired the first Committee of the Care of the Aged.

Although she read English Literature, economics and geography at the now defunct Raffles College, she went into social work after listening to a talk by a medical social worker at the university.

In the 1950s, she left for England to be trained in social work and returned after three years to help set up a social service structure at the Singapore General Hospital.

Miss Vaithilingam, who is single, was a social work lecturer for 15 years at the National University of Singapore.

She has never been afraid to speak up. "If I felt there was a problem, I would open my mouth," says the feisty woman who once stood up to Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister of Finance, during a tuberculosis outbreak in the 1960s. She told him that medical treatment should not just be limited to Singaporeans, but extended to immigrants too. Dr Goh listened to her and extended the treatment to immigrants.

The avid cricket fan is happy that her contributions to social work are being recognised.

"I'm proud of many things but I'm proudest of my students, all of whom have done brilliantly. I'm so happy that so many of them are doing wonderful things to help those who need help."

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