As part of International Women’s Day, we sat down to speak to Dr Teoh Chin Sim, Vice President of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC), as she reflected on PlayBuddy, a whirlwind 2021 and shared her hopes for para sports in the future.
25 March 2022
By Lim Wei Hao
In 2012, Dr Teoh Chin Sim’s life, in her own words, changed completely. Dr Teoh was the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for Team Singapore for the London 2012 Paralympic Games (PG). It was through this appointment that she was introduced to the world of para sports. Fully immersed in the Games, Dr Teoh had the opportunity to be acquainted with para athletes such as Yip Pin Xiu, Theresa Goh, Nurulasyiqah Mohammad Taha, Laurentia Tan and several other Team Singapore athletes.
“The blind, the lame, the amputees, those who could not speak, those with two arms only, those with two legs only, I saw everything at once. It created a deep impression in me, especially at the swimming pool. You see people in their swimming costumes and trunks. Their physical appearance is very stark and jumps out at you as a doctor. We’re not seeing one or two; we’re seeing hundreds upon hundreds. Even the volunteers and officials included people with disabilities,” said Dr Teoh.
It was this experience that stirred Dr Teoh’s heart and she wondered what Singapore was doing for people with various impairments. Dr Teoh’s chief concern was whether or not persons with disabilities were being active, and if they were aware that they could utilise sport as a means of fitness and health. Dr Teoh went knocking the doors of various social service agencies and found that it challenging to navigate and find answers to her questions back then.
The next turning point for disability sports in Singapore came in 2015, when Singapore hosted the 2015 ASEAN Para Games, the first time the Lion City ever hosted the Games.
“There were over 1,500 athletes from ASEAN countries and I said to myself, at last, many people will understand what I have been raving about because Singaporeans will at long last they will see what I mean,” said Dr Teoh.
With the successful hosting of the 2015 ASEAN Para Games came a new wave of understanding. People were more curious about disability sports than ever before. Things moved in the disability arena and for people with special needs. Numerous initiatives sprung up and were created. Dr Teoh also witnessed para athletes getting much more media coverage compared to the past.
In a discussion with her colleague, Tan Jia Ling, a physiotherapist, a new initiative was born. Dr Teoh and Jia Ling were determined to work with children with disabilities and went out in the community to explore starting a sports play group. Jogging in the park at East Coast Park over a weekend, Dr Teoh approached a father and his son who had cerebral palsy, who were enjoying a day out in the park, and asked the son if he would like to play sports. His father expressed surprise at the statement.
“We were not sure how it would go but our intention was to show and create awareness that people with disabilities can play some form of sports or get active, whatever their disability,” shared Dr Teoh.
And PlayBuddy was born. Through word of mouth and through Dr Teoh’s network in the local sports industry, a community was building organically. From the first play session at a former national netballer’s gym, to activities in public parks, PlayBuddy grew from strength to strength. Dr Teoh, Jia Ling and a core group of volunteers would walk up to complete strangers to engage children the same way the first child was enrolled. As a ground-up initiative and completely volunteer-run, PlayBuddy does not collect any fees. Well-wishers contribute on a free-will basis to a fund that sustains the activities and programmes for the community.
Pre-COVID-19, on average, up to 12 children with special needs would attend the weekly PlayBuddy sessions. During the last two years, while physical, in-person gatherings have been challenging to organise due to safe management measures, more children have been added to PlayBuddy sessions delivered via Zoom. Dr Teoh is looking forward to the day that they can gather as one big family once again. With the children’s family members, caregivers and volunteers joining a gathering, one could see anything between 80 to 100 people on special occasions such as National Day and Christmas which are celebrated together.
“For one particular Mother’s Day, our chief volunteer Shanice Chia made cards, bought flowers, brought an ink pad, and got the children who could not write to ink themselves and leave their thumbprint on the cards. On that day itself, they presented the cards and flowers to their mothers. They took a picture and sent it to me as I was in Penang with my own mother. At that time my mother was sick, she had cancer. I was looking and I saw the photo, I showed my brother and I thought to myself, these are all my extended family and my “children.” It’s other people’s children but this is like my PlayBuddy family, and I really cried. I never could imagine that,” said Dr Teoh.
Dr Teoh’s biggest satisfaction is in seeing PlayBuddy’s growth into a social community support group that it is today – from strangers to family, and this is beyond what she could have imagined when the group first started in 2016.
First Olympic Games Appointment
As CMO for Team Singapore to numerous major games, one would think that Dr Teoh had seen it all. Dr Teoh’s appointment as CMO for Team Singapore for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (OG) was her first-ever Olympic appointment. With the Games held against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had brought her the most stress and took a toll on her own health. In her professional work, Dr Teoh serves as Senior Consultant at the Sports and Exercise Medicine Centre of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.
“I had never attended so many meetings with all kinds of people at the planning level. The planning took up a lot of time – I worked non-stop every day for a few months before we went to Tokyo, on top of my daily clinical work. Monday to Sunday. I was so exhausted, by the time it was the month before I left, I had chest pains,” said Dr Teoh.
There were many uncertainties and many questions from all quarters – government stakeholders, parents, members of the public – how will we be able to guarantee the safety of the Team Singapore contingent? This question weighed heavily on the entire Team Singapore support team for Tokyo 2020. There was new information coming out of Tokyo continuously and it was an evolving situation. As the Vice President of SDSC, Dr Teoh was also heavily involved in discussions for Team Singapore for the Paralympic Games, which took place immediately after the Olympic Games. This was coupled with other hats that she wore, such as that for the International Paralympic Committee.
“One of my work philosophies is that the buck stops with me. When you’re a leader and the chief medical officer, you are ultimately medically responsible for everybody. I take that quite seriously, there’s no finger pointing later. At the end of the day, I answer to Singapore – that’s how serious it is. We wear the Singapore flag. As a doctor, I am responsible to myself, my profession, I carry out my duty the best I can. In the Team Singapore context, I am also responsible to the athlete, the sports association, their parents and the country,” said Dr Teoh.
Surrounded by a community of faith-driven friends, Dr Teoh prayed for wisdom and for teamwork. In leading a medical team made up of professionals from different hospitals and institutions, everyone worked well together as One Team Singapore.
When asked to reflect on the Tokyo 2020 OG, Dr Teoh was moved to tears when sharing two anecdotes. After the Opening Ceremony, Dr Teoh and Team Singapore boarded the buses to be transported back to the Games Village. She witnessed members of the public waving the teams on and sending them off. Two young children were with their parents, out late at night, waving the teams off. That was “the most touching scene”, amidst negative media coverage about certain groups of Japanese not wanting the Olympics to proceed due to the danger of COVID-19 clusters and the economic costs of hosting the Games.
Another moment etched in her memory was the entire experience with the Japanese medical staff who were very helpful. Dr Teoh met with the head of the Games Village Polyclinic and presented him with a thank you card.
“I thanked him because, so many people, the press also had featured a Japanese hospital putting signboards demanding that the Olympic Games be cancelled and pasted them on the windows of the hospital. Our experience as team doctors was not like that at all. The medical staff were all very helpful, they always did whatever they could, the best they could for us. They took care of us, the 100,000 of us, when their own country had so many people with COVID-19. They still had to take care of the athletes and officials who were in Japan to participate in the Games, to play sports. They were respectful, they bowed to you. I told him, on behalf of all the team doctors, thank you so much. I cried in gratitude to him and all his staff. They really gave of themselves, they really took care of us as if they had no other work to do. They tested us every day and we had so many questions for them, and we didn’t know what variants we might bring to their country,” said Dr Teoh.
With Team Singapore wrapping up their Olympic Games campaign, attention turned to the PG, that would be held immediately after the OG. As the contingent departed Tokyo and returned to Singapore, Dr Teoh and a physiotherapist stayed back in Tokyo as they would remain involved in the Tokyo 2020 PG. As a member of the Anti-Doping Tribunal for the International Paralympic Committee, Dr Teoh would be activated if there were any related issues to handle for the Tokyo 2020 PG.
Dr Teoh had the privilege of catching all Team Singapore Paralympians in action at the Games, with the exception of cyclist Steve Tee and his pilot Ang Kee Meng who were based at the Cycling Village. Dr Teoh was proud that so many athletes achieved their personal bests and did better than they had ever done before, surpassing themselves “was a real achievement in itself”.
“Of course, it is always a happy moment when you see the Singapore flag flying up and you see Pin Xiu getting her gold medals. When Pin Xiu was watching the flag and watching her tear. Of course, all of us cried also. I remember that moment,” said Dr Teoh.
In total, Dr Teoh was in Tokyo for 53 days, and returned to Singapore and spent 14 days in a hotel due to Stay Home Notice. Looking back, it was an “unforgettable” experience. Burdened with a lot of worry and stress, this all dissipated when Dr Teoh was in Japan itself. The interaction with the Japanese hosts was highly positive. Dr Teoh has since learned to relax, and not worry so much, controlling what can be controlled.
Looking forward, the future is bright for persons with disabilities, whether they are born with disabilities or acquire disabilities along the way. Dr Teoh’s encouragement is for persons with disabilities to look and find opportunities available – “If you’re not sure, do ask. Keep going and never give up. You can do it!” We’re looking forward to more achievements and more milestones being achieved by members of the community this year. You can be sure that Dr Teoh will be involved one way or another, and will be cheering all our athletes on.