Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dr. Susan Lim's search for justice

In recent months, well-known Singapore surgeon Dr. Susan Lim has received enough media attention here and abroad in the wake of her run-in with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC). Last week, the judgment on her appeal against constituting a second disciplinary committee by the SMC was reserved.

SMC, whose job, among others, is to determine and regulate the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore, wants to conduct a second disciplinary inquiry into the Ministry of Health's accusation against Dr. Lim that she overcharged a patient--the sister of the Brunei queen--over seven months in 2007. Her controversial medical bill, still unpaid, after discounts, stands at $12 million.

The first SMC disciplinary committee had to stand down after Dr. Lim's lawyers claimed it had per-judged the case (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). Dr. Lim's lawyers want to exploit this 'standing down' of the first committee to avoid being further investigated. "It was illegal, improper and biased," said Dr. Lim's lawyer in the court of the SMC's disciplinary proceedings (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). However, the SMC's lawyer insists that there is a case against Dr. Lim since there is no evidence of an agreement between the doctor and the patient of a fee agreement, and so the overcharging was unjustified. Who knows if this case leads to the standardization of fees by medical specialists in Singapore, just like Britain is contemplating legislation next year to curb excessive executive pay?

I had briefly written about this case before as it had caught my attention (a writer always keeps a lookout for interesting stories; Hemingway, when he was in Paris, loved to read crime stories in the scandal sheets). It sounds callous and heartless but that is how writers are.

Months later, upon reading my piece, one day I was invited to meet Dr. Susan Lim's team. They wanted to present the facts, their side of the story which was not sufficiently covered in the media, in front of me. I wondered why they would want to do that for an insignificant blogger like me? Maybe it was because of the questions that I had raised in my previous blog post.

One the one hand, I was curious; on the other, I was apprehensive, not sure about going for the meeting. A meeting meant an obligation to write a piece. Or may be not. But as is the case with me, I am too soft-hearted to say no to anyone. I also had to think of the possibility of any consequences of my writing about an ongoing case. Should I be afraid of anything? The moment I thought of that, of being afraid, I knew what I should do. I went right ahead to the meeting. Ideally, the whole country's media, and not just me, should have been called in to an open press conference for them to be presented with the facts of the case.

The meeting lasted more than an hour. It was a pleasant meeting. Like any corporate briefing, there also was a representative of a PR company present there. At the end of the meeting, he asked me to get in touch with him if I needed any more info. "Shop talk," I smiled and got out of the meeting venue.

A reputation collapses under the weight of newspaper headlines

After the meeting, I was thinking about the beleaguered surgeon and her staff (I don't know how many of them have already been retrenched because of lack of funds). What a price to pay for a royal engagement? One the one hand, Dr. Lim's image has been tarnished because of the heavy media coverage and the chatter in the blogosphere: she has been portrayed as a greedy profiteer, as if she were not a top surgeon but a buccaneer, prizing profit out of human misery (even though the 'misery' was royal in her case). On the other, she has lost her business. A medical practitioner of 30 years standing, Dr. Lim once (in 2007) led the largest surgical practice in Singapore with 33 staff at two clinics in two of Singapore's top private hospitals. Not long ago, according to her team, Dr. Lim's business was worth about 80 million dollars in valuation. Today, that business has gone kaput, bankrupt. Dr. Lim is a pioneering surgeon in Asia; she is a star speaker in conferences all over the world.

Imagine losing your business after achieving such great success, after climbing such great heights, and on top of that, being labelled a greedy person, a profiteer. And for what? According to her team, it was merely for going out of her way to treat the patient. She should have billed the patient every month. Then the issue of outstanding bills would not have arisen.

According to her team, the doctor has been wrongly accused of having no fee agreement with the patient. But the agreement was only verbal--or so it was said. Their point is that Dr. Lim had been assured by the royal patient that Istana (The Royal Palace of Brunei) would take care of her fees and she should not worry about it. True to the promise, for six years, the doctor was paid her fees, whatever the amount, without any questions asked; but, once the patient passed away, the same kind of fees were deemed outrageous. According to her team, the Brunei government were appreciative of her services and only wanted a benchmark or justification from the Singapore authorities for standardizing fees.

Since the rest of her story is well-known, encapsulated here in this video ( (brought to my notice by her team) and numerous press articles and blog entries, I will not go into much detail. As a writer and artist, I am only interested in the individual.

From the meeting, I emerged impressed by the fearlessness and perseverance of Dr. Lim's team. All they want is to get her name cleared.

Justice and Fearlessness: A Faulknerian quest

After the meeting with the doctor's team, I had been thinking of the controversial case. Why is it important for anyone but her? Why should anyone bother about what happens to her? She is not even an underdog! (It is simple human instinct to champion the underdog) She is well-set and is married to a rich banker. I have been wondering about all these questions when one afternoon, as if by serendipity, I came across a volume of American writer William Faulkner's Essays and Speeches in a library. Some of the Nobel prize winning writer's thoughts jumped at me, making immediate connection with my quest at hand as well as with numerous uprisings making headlines around the world.

In speech after speech, if Faulkner has emphasized on anything, it is fearlessness. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1950, he said that the basest of all things is to be afraid. In 1951, addressing the graduating class of University High School, Oxford, Mississipi, he said: "What threatens us today is fear. Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it...Our danger is not that. Our danger is the forces in the world today which are trying to use man's fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery...because they themselves are baffled and afraid, afraid of, or incapable of, believing in man's capacity for courage and endurance and sacrifice."

In the same speech, Faulkner says: "It is not men in the mass who can and will save Man. It is Man himself, created in the image of God so that he shall have the power and the will to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving;--Man, the individual, men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked and frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed."

Dr. Lim is fearless and is seeking justice for herself and her team. If she thinks she has a solid case, which she thinks she has, why can't she allow SMC to conduct another inquiry and prove her point? After all, SMC has the responsibility of regulating the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore. If SMC does find something wrong in her case and passes a regulation which she might consider unfair, she still would have recourse to justice, won't she?

One can understand that her faith in the SMC is shaken after what happened in the first disciplinary committee. But my hope is that Singapore, having made its name on the back of championing hard work, fairness and justice, will give Dr. Lim a fair chance to clear her name.

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