Share on:

The Peak Interview: The Good Doctor

Toughened by an impoverished childhood and having to care for his sick mother, a determined Dr Tan See Leng turned to hard work to become one of the most powerful men in Singapore Health Care.

The hospital is a place that Dr Tan See Leng is intimately familiar with – even before he dreamt of studying medicine. When he was five or six, he’d visit his mother at Si Bai Por, as the Singapore General Hospital was popularly known in the ’60s and ’70s, during her numerous bouts of illness.

“The wards were like a scene out of World War II,” he recalls. “There were open-air rows and rows of beds. The place reeked of disinfectant.”

Fast forward to 2013. Dr Tan, now Parkway Pantai’s group chief executive, observes that hospitals don’t have that stench anymore and look a lot more appealing.

As a result, more people now visit them for small issues, whereas in the ’50s up to even the ’80s, people were reluctant to enter because the moment they did, it felt like they were in trouble.

HEALTH CARE, PRIVACY GUARANTEED
The bright-faced 48-year-old head honcho and his team at Parkway Pantai have been part of this transformation in Singapore health care. One of Asia’s largest private health-care groups, it has four hospitals here and operates another 14 across Malaysia, Brunei, India and Vietnam. Now, the group aims to provide even more comfort: Last July, it opened the posh $2 billion Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, off ring luxury health care not only to patients here, but also to medical tourists.

“In the ’90s, a certain rock star came to Singapore. When he didn’t feel well, he took an entire floor at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Orchard Road for himself and his entourage. The star has passed on. He was a world-famous rock star,” Dr Tan shares. He cites patient confidentiality when asked about the celebrity’s identity, but some speculate it was Michael Jackson, when he came to Singapore for his Dangerous World Tour in 1993.

Dr Tan notes: “The point is that you can’t not develop such a hospital.” He points to the well-heeled posse of people moving to Singapore – the staff of top banks, financial institutions, investment houses and family offices, as well as royalty and celebrities within a seven-hour-flight radius.

Then there are the high-profile visitors who come for events such as the Singapore Grand Prix and the recent Social Media Awards, and who will also be in town for the soon-to-open Singapore Sports Hub – think international stars the likes of Jessica Alba, Aerosmith, Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer.

“It’s inconceivable for us as a premium health-care provider not to have suitable facilities for these people, should they need them,” says Dr Tan.

When Parkway Pantai designed Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, it recognised that people these days visit the hospital for a variety of reasons, besides to treat illnesses. So it turned the concept of the hospital around: It’s a place for people to feel good and get well. The lobby resembles more of a five-star-hotel reception area with bellhops. Soft lighting is located at the sides of the corridors to avoid hurting the eyes of patients who are ferried around on beds.

All the beds at the Novena hospital are in single rooms, to allow for greater privacy. Two-thirds of them are priced from $348, though the most expensive suite has a floor plan and price tag that can outdo those of the most luxurious hotels.

At $12,888 a night, it comes with two bedrooms, a living room and a small kitchen. Just outside the door is a designated space for personal security guards to protect the patient around the clock. Should there be an emergency, a private staircase provides a discreet exit point.

With the Novena hospital, Parkway Pantai is capitalising on a core strength – overseas patients already contribute 35 to 38 per cent to the revenue of its Singapore operations. “I think with the opening of Novena, that percentage will notch a few more points,” says Dr Tan. “We are on target to break even at the end of one year of operation – and that’s pretty remarkable.”

Dr Tan and his daughter, who is studying medicine in Australia.
Dr Tan and his daughter, who is studying medicine in Australia.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Dr Tan’s childhood is in sharp contrast to the luxury health-care industry he’s a part of. An only child, he grew up amid hardship, with an SBS bus timekeeper father and a homemaker mother who did odd jobs. Singapore was still a third-world economy. “Everyone was going through a hard time; everyone had a gut-wrenching story,” he says.

“I was fostered out to a Cantonese-speaking nanny until I was five or six years old. I stayed in Sam Leong Road, next to Desker Road, so you could say I grew up in the red-light district,” he adds with a laugh.

“Monday to Friday, my parents would come to see me at night. On weekends, I stayed with them.” Home then was a rented room in Toa Payoh.

He rose above his circumstances and excelled in his studies at Monk’s Hill primary and secondary schools. He would have specialised in the humanities – having been awarded a scholarship after his O levels to study at Oxford or Cambridge – had his mother not been hospitalised for a very rare (autoimmune) condition and fallen into a coma in 1981.

Fortunately, she came out of her coma, but that made him reassess his course of study. “Seeing how the doctors were managing the whole process, medicine became my primary objective. I switched from humanities to pure science. I thought I could treat my parents one day.” More than two decades later, in 2003, she died of bladder cancer. His father followed five years later, after battling liver cancer.

Before that, Dr Tan worked hard to put himself through medical school. He tutored junior-college students in mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry to help pay for his annual $3,000 fees. With up to eight students at a time, he earned around $800 to $1,000-plus a month. “It helped pay for the books, and I could even buy a nice stethoscope,” he says. That, and a “very beat-up Nissan”.

“I was also a part-time insurance agent in my final year, but I wasn’t very successful,” he says, adding with a laugh that “I guess I wasn’t very convincing”.

Cover40501-copy

DOCTOR, ENTREPRENEUR
But he knew where his future lay, and he was determined get there. Dr Tan broke his bond with the Ministry of Health to start Healthway with a bank loan of $90,000 and an initial capital investment of $5,000 from each of three initial stakeholders. “Many people laughed at my business plan. Fresh out of school, I wrote it as if I was writing an essay. I had no financial training, but it was good enough (for us to get a bank loan),” he recalls.

Thus began his education in the business side of health care. “When you open clinics, there’s no magic formula,” he says, adding that there are only two things: No. 1, good location; No. 2, friendly doctors who can reach out to patients. The simple strategy worked – Healthway became a successful chain of neighbourhood clinics. Along the way, he learnt to make tough decisions. “Not every clinic I opened was successful. I had to shut down some,” he admits. Once, in the 1990s, he took over a clinic in Kallang Bahru to help a doctor’s widow. “Eventually, I realised that we couldn’t really turn it around, so, after a couple of years, I closed it. I think we lost about $200,000.”

In 2001, he and his partners sold the group to the British United Provident Association for an undisclosed hefty sum of money. Still in his mid-30s then, Dr Tan became a millionaire.

LEARNING CURVE
Even after a successful coup with Healthway, Dr Tan did not rest. Perhaps reflecting on his first (amateur) business plan, he says: “I’ve always felt inadequate in terms of my financial training. I wanted to learn more.”

At the age of 36, he enrolled in B-School at the Singapore campus of the then-known University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business.

Again, he thought and planned far into the future. For his MBA research thesis, he explored the idea of running retirement centres in the region. “I even drew up a business plan to set up those retirement resorts.”

He says with a smile: “In view of my next phase of my life, I was planning to build this for myself. So, I had to make sure it is good – fine dining, a very nice spa, good activities for daily living. You go there to live again, you know. If I had not joined Parkway, I would have probably started something along those lines.”

Right after graduate school, Dr Tan was personally headhunted by then Parkway head Lim Cheok Peng. He joined Parkway in 2004, the year he turned 40.

Cover40679-copy-bw

PARKWAY CEO: A HUMBLE GUY
Dr Tan signed on as the chief operating officer of Mount Elizabeth Hospital and eventually climbed the ranks to take on the role of group CEO in 2011.

“I didn’t plan to be the CEO of Parkway. At that time, it was already a big group. I had run only a small chain of clinics. But I guess it’s a series of small steps.” He maintains he’s just a “small guy”.

Says Nellie Tang, CEO of Parkway College, who worked closely with him at Mount Elizabeth Hospital: “Though he is now the group CEO, he never puts on airs and is always approachable. I find him a very humble person. He never turns away staff who need his help or advice.”

Dr Lim Suet Wun, executive vice-president of Parkway’s Singapore operations, says that Dr Tan is ever ready to “roll up his sleeves to help”, adding that he seems to have endless energy and is “hyper and intense”.

Indeed, Dr Tan describes his management style as one of “servant leadership”. Self-deprecatory and having experienced hardship, he doesn’t dismiss the rank and file. “I think the tough circumstances of my youth and my struggles have prepared me for my various roles,” he says.

Every couple of months, he takes a small group of his front-line employees – for example, janitors, receptionists and nurses – out to tea at Mandarin Gallery. It is usually at these two-hour-long sessions that he gains insights into the hospitals’ ins and outs. “They tell me things like how slow our lifts are and how their operational efficiency is affected,” he notes. “That has resulted in me spending millions on the lifts (in recent years).”

In order to serve patients better, the management needs to serve the employees first, he says. “I try to get in touch with my grassroots because they are our unsung heroes.”

AFTER HOURS
Despite his long days at work, about a third of which entails travel, Dr Tan tries to spend as much time as he can with his family. He flies to Melbourne for a weekend every month to be with his 21-year-old daughter, who’s studying medicine. His two sons, aged 20 and 14, live in Singapore. His older son is also studying medicine.

He jokingly cites work stress as the reason he has lost a lot of weight in the past couple of years. If his slimmer physique is the result of an exercise-and-diet regimen, he is coy about it. Regardless, he loves food and will even travel 250km to Malacca on the spur of the moment to have his favourite nyonya cuisine.

You would think that, as the CEO of a massive healthcare company, Dr Tan would be jaded with dining out, yet family vacations are mostly “holiday food trips”. As a recent photo of his trip to Hokkaido shows, he’s the type to whip out his iPhone to document his comestibles.

He’s happy with simple pleasures. “For me, relaxation is a long drive along a lonely road early in the morning, and listening to music,” says the former choirboy from National Junior College. “I sing and drive.” The songs are ballads by Barry Manilow, Air Supply, the Carpenters and Cantonese greats such as Leslie Cheung, Sammi Cheng and Jacky Cheung. In place of a beat-up Nissan, he now cruises in a Volvo S80, a BMW 5 Series or a Mercedes CL500.

Life has been good, but Dr Tan is not even close to thinking about retiring. Asked whether he regrets sacrificing his entrepreneurial streak for a corporate career, he laughs and says: “Who says I’m giving up my business plan for the retirement resorts? I’ve not given up on it yet… I’m only 48.”

DOCTOR’S ADVICE
Dr Tan shares his life lessons.

ON ATTITUDE
“Life is about tenacity and resilience. Every time certain doors close, you shouldn’t think that’s the be-all and end-all. There could be something else out there better for you.”

ON WORK
“You go into medical school with a lot of passion but the moment you graduate and start to manage patients, when they put their health in your hands…that is when it really becomes a calling.”

ON EMPATHY
“If you are able to bridge the silos, you become the power broker. Many times, it is about putting people at ease and that happens when they know you are their advocate and are trying to make their lives better.”

ON COOPERATION
“I always tell my staff this dragon-boat story. We need everyone aboard to row. If one person on the boat decides to just watch the view, he is better off the boat.”