His Life and His Dreams
BY DR. DAVID K. L. TAY
(See also excerpts from the THE DENTAL SURGEON / DEC 2015 ISSUE: SG50 COMMEMORATIVE EDITION)
My father was a passionate man.
He came from humble beginnings. Born to a planter in Sapong, a small town about 100 miles from Jesselton, British North Borneo (now Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, East Malaysia), he was sent to Singapore at the tender age of thirteen to continue his education in English.
At St. Anthony’s Boys’ School, he met a kind and dedicated teacher, Mr. Leslie A. Woodford, who took him as his own ward. My dad’s adolescence naturally revolved around the early scouting movement as Mr. Woodford, or ‘Black Bear’ as he was better known, went on to become the Chief Commissioner of the Boy Scouts Association, Singapore. I discovered from my old ‘uncles’ that my father was amongst the first to earn the King Scout badge and that his scout name was ‘Wadaga’ (the swimmer) - I thought that was oh-so cool!
The outdoor survival skills he honed through scouting proved useful during the Japanese Occupation, when he was relocated to an agricultural settlement in Bahau, Malaya, that was specially set up for Eurasians and Chinese Catholics. However, Fuji-Go or ‘beautiful village’ turned out to be a malaria-infested swathe with soil that could not sustain farming. Sanitation was also poor and many succumbed to dysentery, malaria or malnutrition. It was estimated that some 500 settlers (about one in six) lost their lives there! [1,2]
I remember he once dug out a section of my mom’s flower bed to plant tapioca and sweet potato for my sister and I to sample; to tell us how these easy growing roots/tubers had been his staple for two years and to remind us how privileged we were! It was there in God-forsaken Bahau, amidst unimaginable human suffering and death, that he first embraced Christianity. When the war finally ended, he was treated as a prisoner of war and specially flown back to Jesselton by the British forces.
The war, in many ways, forged his character and the strong views he held about life. He understood, firsthand, what it was like to have no food in his stomach, yet he harbored no lasting bitterness but instead was able to draw strength from the experience. You see, my dad was my hero when I was growing up and I’d always wanted to be like him. For him to be proud of me.
He was a gifted all-rounder; a high achiever with a never-say-die attitude – a real tough act to follow! He secured a place as a medical student in 1947 in King Edward VII College of Medicine, University of Malaya, where he met my mother. Unfortunately, during the first term of his first year, his father passed away and he had to go back to Borneo where, as the eldest son, he was expected to look after the family estate. On his return, he switched his course of study to dentistry so he could graduate a year earlier to support his family.
He was an outstanding sportsman during his under- graduate years; receiving commendations in field hockey, swimming and long distance running. He was active in the University Students’ Union Executive Council and was also the President of the Catholic Students’ Society. Because he was consistently one of the top students in his cohort, he was selected by the late Professor R.J.S. Tickle to join the dental department. He began as a demonstrator in October 1952, a job which paid a measly monthly salary of $400!
“Dentistry in the post-war years was considered a very poor second choice to medicine. One reason for this was when you graduated as a medical person, you were addressed as ‘Doctor’ while dentists were merely ‘Mister’. The title‘Dr’ carried a lot of weight in the community back then. Many unqualified dentists were also practicing at the time and this tarnished the image of the dental profession. When Dentistry first started we were a school within the King Edward VII College of Medicine. Later, we became a department within the Medical Faculty of University of Malaya in Singapore. Throughout this time we were subservient to the Medical Faculty. My aim was for Dentistry to get equal status as a Faculty. If you are master of your own house you can plan your development. It took us almost seven years agitating the Senate to grant us faculty status. Ultimately, we got this in 1966.” 
When the Academy of Medicine (Singapore) was first conceived, my father and others lobbied successfully to put our dental specialists on par with their medical counterparts. He assumed leadership roles in many professional societies and was, notably, the founding Chairman of the Chapter of Dental Surgeons (1978-1980) and also the third President of the Singapore Dental Association.
Dr. Edmund Tay Mai Hiong spent his entire working life in academia. He was elected Dean of the Dental Faculty in September1966, a position he held for 19 years. He was the longest serving dean in the history of our University and had the distinction of working under five different Vice-Chancellors. As the founding dean, he visited dental faculties in UK, Denmark, Canada and USA, and incorporated their best practices when redesigning our dental curriculum, including the shortening of the undergraduate course to four years. He was also responsible for the planning and supervision of the Faculty’s move to Kent Ridge from Sepoy Lines. He retired in 1986 after having dutifully served the University for 34 years.
He was a devoted teacher, husband, father and grandfather. A distinguished gentleman! We miss him dearly.
- Demonstrator – University of Malaya, Oct 1952
- Founding Dean - Faculty of Dentistry, University of Singapore, Sep 1966
- Full Professor – University of Singapore, Jan 1972
- Retirement – National University of Singapore, Dec 1986
- Founding Chairman, Chapter of Dental Surgeons, Academy of Medicine (Singapore) 1978-1980
- Third President, Singapore Dental Association, 1979
Bestowed awards include:
- Honorary Fellowship of the International College of Dentistry
- SDA’s Roll of Honour
- NTUC’s ‘Friend of Labour’ Award
- Tay Mai Hiong Edmund on the Japanese Occupation of Singapore & Medical/Dental Services in the early years. Oral History Centre, The National Archives of Singapore. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/oral_history_interviews/multiple-records)
- Hodgkins, F. From Syonan to Fuji-Go: The story of the Catholic settlement of Bahau in WWII Malaya. Select Books (2014)
- ‘The Acci-dental Pioneer’. pg.176, Imagination, Openness & Courage: The National University of Singapore at 100. (2006)