First impressions may sometimes be wrong, and people can change for the better
In 1995, I attended the International Epilepsy Congress in Sydney.
Two days before the congress ended, I was doing my step aerobic exercise in my hotel room during lunch break. I took a step a centimetre lower than the step aerobic board, and fell, hitting my shin against the sharp edge of the board.
The wound was long and deep, extending from the skin to the bone. I knew it needed to be stitched for it would not have healed otherwise. So I hurriedly changed into my jeans, grabbed my waist pouch and headed for the convention centre where there was a first-aid room.
The convention centre was 1.5km from my hotel. By the time I reached the first-aid room, my jeans were soaked in blood, from the shin down to my socks.
There was a man at the first-aid room. I told him I needed toilet and suture – that is, my wound needed to be cleaned with antiseptic and then stitched.
He said he was not licensed to treat me thus. I told him I was a doctor and showed him the name tag that allowed me entry into the convention centre, but he refused. Then I asked him if there was a hospital nearby. He pointed in a direction leading away from the hotel.
I set out in that direction, but saw no hospital after walking briskly for half an hour. So I asked a stranger where the hospital was – and he pointed me in the same direction.
But for the next one and a half hours, I still saw no hospital. Two strangers I stopped to ask for the hospital’s location pointed me in the same direction. Finally, after two hours and 15 minutes, I arrived at the hospital, not a moment too soon.
I walked into the emergency room and went to the counter to register. And only then did I realise I had only my conference label in my waist pouch. I had no other identification – or money or credit card, for that matter. I told the woman at the counter my predicament, wondering whether she would chase me out of the hospital. Instead, she accepted the incomplete form I had filled out and directed me to a doctor.
The doctor assessed my wound, cleaned it, gave me an injection of local anaesthetic and stitched the wound more neatly than I would have. The doctor then told me that she would give me an antitetanus injection. I explained that I could not pay for her service and that I would get the injection when I returned to Singapore.
By the time I stepped out of the hospital, it was already 7pm and the sun had set. In the dark, I could not see the landmarks I had memorised on the way to the hospital. I saw a woman standing just outside the hospital gate, and asked her for directions to my hotel.
She sounded surprised and asked: “Do you know how far it is from here?”
I replied that I did, as I had walked all the way from the hotel to the hospital. But in the dark, I was not sure whether I would make it back without getting lost.
As it turned out, she was a medical social worker, and she handed me a coupon which she said any taxi driver would accept. I needed only to write down where I got into the taxi and where I got off. I was embarrassed to benefit thus from the Australian taxpayer but I knew I had no choice. So I flagged down a taxi and got back to the hotel within half an hour.
Despite the neat stitching and the gauze and bandage covering the wound, when I woke up the next morning, I found the blood had soaked through and had stained the bedsheet.
But the wound remained clean and no infection developed. I called home and asked my mother to get me tetanus antitoxoid so that I could inject myself as soon as I got home.
I arrived in Singapore the following day, and gave myself the injection. The wound healed.
I had visited Australia twice before this trip in 1995 – once in 1970, when I went hiking alone in Blue Mountains, and the second time in 1988 with my parents. On both occasions, I had stopped for a few days in Sydney.
In 1970, when I went to the grocer or boarded a bus, there were subtle but clear signs that I was being treated with less courtesy than a white Australian would have been. In 1988, I was recognised as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter and was, of course, treated with courtesy by all Australian government officials.
As a result of my experiences, I had labelled Australians as racists in my mind. But my experience in 1995 showed that many Australians no longer looked down on orientals. Whether that is because the orientals who had emigrated to Australia in recent decades have proven that they were as capable as white Australians, or whether Australians have become more open-minded over the years, I cannot tell.
But I learnt that I should not cling on to my prejudices. With each new encounter, one should judge a country and its people anew. One’s impressions may have been mistaken, or people may have changed their attitude. Not only must one not tar all with the same brush, one must also not assume that people cannot change for the better.
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.