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A/Prof Chew Sek Jin


A/Prof Chew Sek Jin, (1959-1998)

The unassuming young intellect, Chew Sek Jin (SJ) was the first of our second-generation ophthalmologists in Singapore and, arguably, Malaysia. When talking to him, he was always praiseworthy of others, never himself. He concealed his fatal illness even from me and I was the last to know.

I first met SJ when he was in a coach with his father, well-known ophthalmologist Dr James Chew. They were starting on a tour from Russell Square in London. SJ reminded me of our first encounter, saying that he was a young lad then and hardly ten. The young lad went on to school in Singapore, at the Anglo-Chinese School and National Junior College, bagging numerous merit prizes along the way. He scored the best performance (adjudged by Cambridge’s Trinity College) for the Oxford-Cambridge Entrance Scholarship award for the study of medicine, but chose to enter our own National University of Singapore on a merit scholarship.

Upon graduation, he served full-time National Service in the SAF and was assigned MO I/C Ophthalmology Section, Medical Classification Centre. His early talents were already recognised by his peers and, when he became fully qualified in due course, he was appointed as Adjunct Senior Research Associate at the Defence Medical Research Institute.

SJ started his ophthalmology career as a medical officer in the Dept of Ophthalmology. SGH, as we all did in those days. He was the first Asian to win the gold medal at the FRCS Ophthalmology finals when he sat the examination in Edinburgh in 1987/88. He returned to Singapore and helped to organise the first conjoint FRCSE/MMed (Ophthalmology) examination to be held in Singapore in 1989. He not only coached the first batch of our ophthalmic residents but took on their night calls as well, to allow them time to study.

When he was first among his peers to be promoted to Senior Registrar, the then chairman of the NUH Medical Board cautioned him of his early and fast success. But SJ was to prove himself when he resigned from that position to pursue research studies in USA.

His easy entry into the portals of academia in the most prestigious research institutes and his appointments to professorial positions there established a "beach-head" for Singapore’s entry into the US and the big league. Amongst his many appointments were that of Vice-President, Myopia International Research Foundation and Director of its Asia-Pacific HQ; Visiting Professor, City University of New York and New York Eye & Ear Infirmary; Visiting Scientist, Rockefeller University; Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, LSU Eye Center and anatomy adjucator, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology.

Although SJ was offered professorial positions in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he chose to return to Singapore, which was the country of his birth and infant nurture. He had chosen to come home, even as he confided his trepidation to me, but with the full backing of his mentor, Prof Arthur Lim, he proved himself again and again. As Deputy Director of the nascent Singapore Eye Research Institute, he was already attracting major grants from top industry, and had research investigators coming from around the world. He established links between SNEC/SERI/MOH and top institutes in the USA and Europe.

SJ and his wife Esther arranged for our accommodation when my wife and I visited New York in 1994. They came to meet us and to take us out for dinner. And when I phoned him late the next night that I was mugged in Broadway, he promptly reported the loss of my credit card by fax to my bank in Singapore and offered whatever meagre savings they had. When I told my wife of SJ’s death, my wife said that she regrets she had met him. Now that she knew him, his loss was personal to her. For those of us who have come to know SJ and to watch grow, more so his wife Esther who knows him best, what can we say? Words cannot express the fact.

Apart from SJ’s likeable personal attributes, the most promising research brain that Singapore has produced in our two generations was nipped in the bud. Notwithstanding whatever successes so far, his full potential was not allowed to bloom with maturity, History has repeated itself with another cruel example.




CHEW SEK JIN was born in Singapore in 1959 and was married to Esther Chu in 1991

1983 MBBS (NUS)

1987 FRCSE Ophthalmology

1st Asian to win the Gold Medal

1988 FCOphth (S’pore)

1990 FAMS (S’pore)

1991 MS (Anatomy), Louisiana State University, USA

1996 PhD (Neuroscience), Rockefeller University, NY

1996 Deputy Director, Singapore National Eye Centre

1996 Consultant, Myopia Service, SNEC

1997 SNEC Gold Medal Recipient


His appointments, Honours & Awards, Research support & Grants, Professional Recognition, Teaching experience, Learned Societies Membership, Journal Reviews, Bibliography & Publications, and Public Service are too numerous to detail. His CV in 25 pages is available for reference.