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... I could seek divine assistance, but the chances of getting help from this quarter were slim. I wasn’t a particularly God-fearing or pious type, why should He help me?


I wasn’t well prepared for the exam. I was distracted by some of those capricious affairs that young people with fanciful imagination often get themselves senselessly involved. The timing was bad. Conceivably, one could give up or suspend the liaisons, but the other parties could not be persuaded. The examination would take place as scheduled unless there was an outbreak of war, the PSI exceeding 300 or some other catastrophe intervened, none of which appeared to be imminent. I was therefore in a state of anxiety.

I did some desperate thinking. Apart from acquiring enough knowledge, was there any weakness or loop-holes in the examination system that one could exploit or manipulate to influence its outcome?

I thought about the examiners. Though they were hard men, specialising in torturing the mind, nevertheless they were also human, in which case, wouldn’t they be susceptible to bribes and threats like the rest of us? It was not impossible, I imagined, to pressure, seduce or otherwise persuade them.  However, such tactics were beyond me.

Firstly, I didn’t have the financial means.  Secondly, people would only laugh at me when I threatened them, such were my physical attributes.  Thirdly, I wasn’t wily enough, otherwise I wouldn’t be in such dire straits in the first place.

I also thought about the examination itself. The little tricks employed for cheating during school examinations, like writing equations, formulae and historical dates on the thighs were no longer feasible. There simply wasn’t enough skin to copy all the information required and furthermore, wearing long pants posed a problem when attempting to retrieve the data.

One could pretend to use the toilet and then look up the answers in the lecture notes or textbooks hidden there earlier. The trouble was, there wasn’t any place to conceal a Davidson or a Bailey & Love in that so-called toilet we were using.

I had heard of other more audacious schemes like stealing the examination scripts and hiring someone to sit for the exam by proxy, but I didn’t possess the skill to pick a lock or know of any lecturer or professor who was moonlighting. Nowadays one can smuggle cellular phones into the examination halls, but we were not so high-tech at that time.

Perhaps I could seek divine assistance, but the chances of getting help from this quarter were slim. I wasn’t a particularly God-fearing or pious type, why should He help me? I concluded that it was futile for me to pray or to make pilgrimages to the Novena.

Realistically, my only hope was for Lady Luck to come to my rescue. As it turned out, I did manage to pass the exam. Here’s the story.

I made a calculation. With the time available, I could at best revise only 50% of the syllabus. But if I were lucky, there’s a chance that it might be enough. My fate depended on what was called ‘spotting’ in examination parlance.
There were two approaches to spotting, random or systematic. In the beginning, my approach was dictated by my mood. I would only study the topics I fancied or revise what I thought was important and likely to be asked in the examination. In the end, I decided to be more methodical. I did so by going through every other topic in all the disciplines. In this way I would be able to cover 50% of the syllabus.

For example, under the respiratory system, I studied asthma and skipped the pneumonias, under the cardiovascular system, I learnt congenital heart diseases but dropped the chapter on coronary heart disease, I did APH but not PPH, I read up on the uterus but not the ovary, I went through the bladder but omitted the prostate, I read about deafness but passed up on blindness and so on.

However, I must admit, even at that time, I was aware of the possible long term ill effects. Would learning only half of what was required make me a half-past six doctor? Anyway, the job at hand was to pass the exam. I made a promise to make up for any deficiencies later.

As it turned out, I was very lucky.  I did manage to spot about 70% of the questions, which more or less guaranteed a pass in the written papers.  The other 30% I answered with a mixture of common sense and whatever I remembered from past copies of Reader’s Digest.

However, there were still the practicals. To say that I lacked confidence is an understatement. I had nobody except myself to blame for missing so many ward rounds and tutorials. But again, Lady Luck was on my side. I had the greatest fortune to meet this doctor, (forgive me for not revealing his name, he is now a very senior consultant) at the then Housemen’s Canteen the day before the practical. His tip saved me.

“You look worried,” he observed.

“Yes, about the practicals starting tomorrow,” I replied. “I have no confidence.”

“No reason to,” he said. “All the cases are carefully chosen and meticulously worked out.”

“How does that help?” I asked.

“The patients would know their own diagnosis.  Just ask them what’s wrong with themselves at the beginning and then work backwards. No rules against it,” he said simply but seriously.

I got it. I didn’t go back to the library, I went straight to Capitol Theatre which was screening, “The Graduate,” starring Dustin Hoffman. It looked like a good omen. There was really nothing more that I could do at this late hour except to keep my fingers crossed and hoped that the patients allotted to me were nice and co-operative, not in too much physical discomfort and most importantly, spoke a language that I knew.

“Hello Uncle Tan,” I greeted the patient. “Long time no see and what are you doing here?.  How is Auntie and Ah Chai?”

“Do I know you?” he asked in perfect English.  One hurdle crossed. At least there wouldn’t be any communication difficulties.

“Uncle don’t you remember me?. I was your neighbour in Nee Soon.” “No,” he said.

“Then you must be his brother. He’s such a nice man, so kind and generous. Please send him my regards and my parents’ too.”

“Ah?” he said.

“So sorry you have some problems. What did the professor say you are suffering from?”

“My heart he said. MS with AF. I also had a mild stroke. He said he is giving me medicine to make my heart strong, the rhythm regular and also to thin my blood. Here is a list of the medicine if you are interested.”

Was I interested? “Got it,” I said.

“Why are you so happy?” he asked.

“To have met you, uncle, “ I replied.

“Young man,” he said, “You are rather unusual.  Other doctors never talk to me like this.  By the way, is an enlarged left atrium dangerous or not?”

“Not if you take your medicine regularly, uncle,” I said.

The whole examination was effectively over in about five minutes. Working the case backwards was a breeze. The history taking, clinical examination, reading of the X-rays and ECG weren’t much of a problem if you had inside information. I thought I was quite impressive during the viva and I spent some time convincing the examiner that there was an opening snap.

The next day was the OG practical and the same tactics were employed. “Good morning Mrs Lim and how are you?” I greeted the pregnant lady. “I must tell mother I met you.”

“Do I know you?” she asked, in a dialect, which I understood. I felt lucky once more.

“I recognise you as soon as I came into the room. You are my mother’s god-daughter. I am therefore your god-brother. “Kakenang,” I said.

“Ah?” she said.

“Anyway, is everything alright, sister?”

“No, I need a Caesarean operation.”

“Why sister?”

“The baby’s not lying right.”

“I see, but sometimes they do turn around.”

“Even if it does.”

“Why sister?”

“The placenta is blocking the birth canal.”

“Thank-you very much sister.”

“Why thank me?.”

“Because you are a great help. May your newborn be a gifted child. It is good to have one in Singapore. By the way did you have a little bleeding........”

I mustn’t bore readers anymore with accounts of my final MBBS examination. The legacy of it is that whenever I ask, beg, or force my children to study, I always feel that my tongue is in my cheek.  


* kakenang : ‘own people,‘ such as belonging to the same family, clan or tribe etc.