Former businessman gave up lucrative job to save charity TCM clinic

As a businessman, Mr Toh Soon Huat could earn half a million dollars a year. But the founder and former chief executive of Novena Holdings gave it all up to save an ailing traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) clinic.

Mr Toh quit the private sector and is now the chairman of Sian Chay Medical Institution. It is his full-time job but he draws no salary. He accepts that the monetary reward from doing business is attractive, “but if you want to do something properly and do it well, you need to be committed”.

“(In business), we talk about money. Here, we are talking about people’s lives,” said the 55-year- old in Mandarin, referring to his work at Sian Chay.

Indeed, Sian Chay is “not just another clinic”, as Mr Heng Chee How, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, described it in October, when the clinic’s latest branch in Whampoa opened.

“You need a lot of leadership, passion and drive to make something like that happen,” said the MP for Whampoa.

When Mr Toh took over in 2008, the 113-year-old charity clinic was in dire straits. Unable to draw enough donations, it seemed to be on the verge of closing down.

But six years later, the charity clinic – Singapore’s second oldest after Thong Chai Medical Institution – is in the pink of health and growing fast.

The clinic opened its first branch in Hougang two years ago and will open its fifth in Boon Lay next March.

Sian Chay plans to set up 14 more branches in the next five years, building a string of affordable TCM outlets in the heartland.

“Some people, especially the elderly, won’t see the doctor if it’s too far or not convenient,” Mr Toh said. “We want to make it easier for them.”

Sian Chay’s 35-year-old headquarters in a Geylang shophouse was renovated earlier this year.

Physician consultations at its clinics are free, while a day’s supply of medication costs a flat fee of $2.

Acupuncture and tui na – a Chinese therapeutic massage – cost $5 and $10, respectively.

“Just relying on what we get from patients is not enough. We definitely have to top it up,” said Mr Toh, who has decades of experience in business investment and business development.

A significant part of Sian Chay’s funding comes from sponsors, which vary from foodcourt operator Koufu to the 18-outlet myCK Department Store.

The clinic also holds regular fund-raising events and is part of the Care and Share Movement, where donations are matched dollar for dollar by the Government.

Many of Sian Chay’s patients are senior citizens from the low-income group, for whom Mr Toh has a soft spot. After all, he was once poor himself.

Mr Toh was born into a large family, as the seventh of 12 children of a taxi driver and a housewife. He excelled academically, doing well enough to secure a place at the former Chinese High School. But in Secondary 3, he dropped out because money was tight.

Three of his siblings also had to drop out of school to work and help supplement their father’s income.

Mr Toh took up odd jobs, such as cleaning cinemas and working in a factory, before opening a small furniture shop in 1984.

That shop eventually grew to become Novena Holdings, now known as Viking Offshore and Marine after it acquired a company of the same name for $44 million in 2009.

“When I first started doing business, I was poor and had only one thought – to earn money,” said Mr Toh, who has four grown-up children.

But that drive to make money soon became passion to help others, after he saw how those who had fallen through the cracks struggle.

“Some people say they will donate their (assets) to charity after their death. For me, I don’t believe in doing that after I die. I think one should do it now,” he said.

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