Sunday, July 27, 2008

Interview by Prestige Magazine

Prescription for the Heart

by Low Yit Leng

Prestige February 2001

Dr. Kenneth Lyen, the founding chairman of Margaret Drive and Balestier Special Schools, turns to his hobby to raise funds. Low Yit Leng talks with the musically-inclined pediatrician.

One can easily be fooled by appearances. The first impression Dr. Kenneth Lyen gives is that of any other medical professional. However, he is hardly your usual specialist in children’s diseases. The recipient of the 1997 Public Service Medal for community work is also a writer and coauthor of several books on childcare, creativity and education. On top of these, the prolific writer is working with two undergraduates, Vincent Wong and Ivan Ho, on his seventh original musical entitled Sayang. Funds raised from its production, to be staged at the Jubilee Hall in May 2001, will go to the Balestier Special School and the Autistic Resource Centre.

Lyen first started writing musicals back in 1994, but his love for music has been firm since he was a child. “I started learning to play the piano when I was three and I learned to play the violin at about 10,” he recalls. The musical streak can be traced to strong influences from the family. “My father, Dr. David Lyen, who is a general practitioner, used to sing. He was a band leader and played the saxophone, and my mother, Edith, played the piano,” he shares.

An alumnus of Oxford University, Lyen returned to Singapore after his training in England and the USA. “When I came back, I was helping out at a clinic for mentally-disabled children. There were so many cases, but relatively little was done. Then I was invited to sit on the board of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS),” recalls Lyen. He remembers the infancy of the work there. “The services were still at the early stage of development and with the help of the Community Chest, the Margaret Drive Special School was launched. The school caters to the needs of young disabled children, including those with multiple handicaps, and autistic children.

“Starting new services in the 80s was exciting although it was not easy. Many people were not convinced of the need of such services. We did not get immediate support from the authorities but gradually they came round to it. It was all about educating people and changing their perceptions. There was the belief that if you are disabled, you are a parasite and cannot contribute to the economy,” he explains.

“We had to convince them that we have to look at everybody as members of a big family and everyone has equal worth - from the gifted to the disabled and less gifted - and all have to be cared for. It does not mean that if your grandfather is in a wheelchair, you don’t care for him. We have to adopt the family approach rather than a corporate approach, where you can sack an employee if he is of no use to the company,” he asserts.

“Over the decade, public awareness has increased and there are more support and sympathy from the public. Ten years ago, many people did not know about hyperactive behavior, or what autism is. Parents did not know what to do and they suffered privately. Now I think the kindergartens, schools, and doctors, are more alert to this situation. The support system is also much better and, as more people are aware about it, they can discuss and get counseling,” Lyen says, proud of the changes that have taken place. Today about 1000 students attend the two special schools he started.

Although the doctor is pleased with his achievement, he remains modest. “It is not just my work,” he insists. “I have been fortunate to work with very dedicated and talented people in this area. That’s what keeps me going. It is a tough area but it is good to see equally committed people around.” Lyen has recently relinquished his post after 10 years as president of the Rainbow Centre (which manages the two schools), but he still plays an active role in raising funds for the new school at Balestier.

Today, while Lyen is no longer involved in tailoring the programs for the special schools, he has other plans. “Now that the Margaret Drive Special School has its own purpose-built building, I am trying to raise the building funds to realize the dream and make it a reality at the Balestier School as well. That’s where my musicals and books come in.”

“I am an eternal optimist. When working with disabled children, one has to be.”

Despite his busy schedule, Lyen has managed to use his hobby for fund-raising activities. “Writing musicals and books is a creative process. You start from nothing and then go through a process of getting it done - that brings great joy. Of course, it gives me a lot of satisfaction to get good comments from people who have read my books.”

To date, Lyen has written 12 books, most of which he coauthored. One of his first books was on Asian childcare. “Although the manuscript was completed in 1993, it was only published in 1997. By then another seven books were completed, bringing his total to eight books, which came out in the same year,” explains Lyen, who decided to start writing when he noticed recurring questions from his patients’ parents. “The answers cannot be found in the books available. They were questions that were very much related to our local customs, such as ‘Can we take birds’ nest soup?’ and ‘What is heaty food?’ I learned a lot through asking questions, talking to older people, and doing research for this book. The book encapsulates Western practices and Asian customs and beliefs of the Malays, Chinese and Indians,” he says.

Lyen hopes to see more volunteers in social work. “The bottom line is, people need to take the plunge by contacting the Community Chest - it is one of the best ways to start. The schools can help a lot because they lay the foundations. When I was at the school, it was compulsory to visit the old folks. Although I did not like it initially because I did not know what to say, once you started doing it, you get acquainted with such work, and I slowly began to like it. School children nowadays should be trained to be helpful and to be eased into voluntary services so that they don’t get in the way of the service providers,” he declares.

For those who want to accomplish something but find it difficult to get started, Lyen has this advice. “Try to make time. There are little areas of time when we are not doing anything. For me, the time between 5 to 7 p.m. can be used more efficiently. I also find that my most productive time is when everyone is asleep - all my music composing and book writing are done at this time. It is purely a question of discipline - putting aside a few hours every day and ruthlessly eliminating time stealers - strictly no television or movies.”

Now, that’s a tough one!

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