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Preparations for Tzu Chi’s First TIMA Conference in Singapore

The Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) will be organizing the first Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) Conference outside of Taiwan at the Matrix@Biopolis on 6 March 2015. Already, 460 local and overseas healthcare professionals have registered themselves for the event. Singapore TIMA members have begun their planning and preparatory work since April 2013.

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Joy was evident in coordinator Lisa Chong as she announced that the initial target of 400 participants for the TIMA conference held in Singapore had been exceeded and there were registrants from 12 different countries. (Photo by Ong Soh Chin)

The Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) will be organizing the first Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) Conference outside of Taiwan at the Matrix@Biopolis on 6 March 2015. Already, 460 local and overseas healthcare professionals have registered themselves for the event.

Singapore TIMA members started their planning and preparatory work in April 2013. Since December 2014, Tzu Chi Singapore’s medical consultant Dr. Edwin Lim and his team have been making their rounds to the various local hospitals and medical institutes to invite participants to attend the conference.

A medical conference focusing on the humanitarian and humanistic aspects of medical care is relatively rare in Singapore. An impressive lineup of speakers and topics have been planned for the conference whose theme is “Towards Humanistic Medicine,” in the hope of propagating a humanely patient-centric approach in the provision of healthcare and with an eye on encouraging more to join the ranks of TIMA. Aside from being a platform to share medical knowledge, the conference will also be a discussion ground on how to promote cooperation among TIMA members across different countries so as to facilitate the timely provision of international medical and humanitarian aid to disaster victims.

The Lion City Plays Host

In September 2012, Dr. Fong Poh Him, the current head of TIMA Singapore, suggested to Master Cheng Yen about holding a TIMA conference in Singapore, and she subsequently gave her support. Thereafter the planning team enthusiastically worked to make the international conference a reality, hoping to bring the humanistic ideals of “compassion” and “gratitude” closer to the local medical community and society at large.

The year 2013 was the 20th anniversary of Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) and many large-scale events were lined up, so plans for the conference were fixed for March 2014. However, due to issues of securing a suitable conference venue, it was decided that the conference would be held in March 2015 instead. The planning team persevered on undaunted and in July 2014, they received the encouragement and blessings of the Master when they were in Taiwan to report their progress.

The range of holistic facilities, business-friendly policies, quality medical care and other factors, have contributed to Singapore becoming a medical service hub in Southeast Asia. “The Singapore government has designated the Biopolis as an iconic hub for biomedical science.” Conference coordinator Qiu Cai Ling goes on to explain that the Matrix building in the complex, housing a big auditorium and other smaller rooms, is suitable for organizing separate discussions on specific medical topics. As the Buona Vista MRT station is located nearby, it is also convenient for Tzu Chi to arrange for shuttle bus services for conference attendees.

CEO of the Tzu Chi Foundation (Singapore) Loh Swee Seh felt that in recent years, Singapore TIMA members had matured and displayed good camaraderie; its members made no distinction based on race or religion and would frequently conduct free clinics in neighbouring countries where medical resources were lacking. Since the establishment of the two Tzu Chi free clinics here, TIMA members would take turns to be rostered for medical house visits and community health screenings. TIMA members would also participate in emergency medical missions when international disasters occurred. In recent years, they had taken over the logistical work involved in community health screenings and blood donation drives, and had enthusiastically participated in Tzu Chi street fundraisers and Dharma presentations; many of them have even been attending Master Cheng Yen’s Dharma talks before dawn.

Skillful Propagation of a Humanistic Culture

The Singapore TIMA team faced many challenges in organizing such a large-scale event for the first time, especially in planning the content and in inviting participants to the conference. What is Tzu Chi? What is TIMA? These questions as well as others, such as what is humanistic medical care, had to be explained to those that they met. Dr. Lim tirelessly repeated the answers time and again as the focus of the conference is not technical knowledge but rather in promoting a humanistic medical culture. Locally, the medical institutions have never dealt with such a topic and most medical professionals view it as an abstract concept and are thus are not very interested.

During the planning of topics for the conference, TIMA doctors openly shared their own experiences and emphasized the importance of providing humane medical care. CEO Mr Loh also encouraged them by pointing out that the CEO of Tzu Chi Taiwan’s Medical Mission Dr. Lin Chin-Lon had stated that Singapore already had an edge in medical skills. As the objective of the conference was to promote humanistic patient-care, the team should not shy away from planning something that others have not done before. They should therefore do their best to reach out to others and not wait for those who are already familiar with the philosophy to sign up.

The team involved in content planning took the needs and views of the various medical branches into account and in naming the topics, gave the titles an interesting spin yet took pains to use words that were familiar to the profession in order to facilitate quick understanding.

The planning team felt that the best approach was to get the support of the management of the various established hospitals who would then encourage participation among their staff. The team thus sent invitation letters out and followed up with personal visits. The team also took the initiative to contact specialist medical associations and with their endorsement, reach out to more interested parties.

Extending Invitations With Confidence

During the initial stages, the response to the conference was lackluster. According to Dr. Lim, at the year’s end, some of the medical employees were on leave while others were not sure about their shift rosters for the next year and were thus unable to commit.

At that time, the planning team were also busy with their own family and work commitments. Seeing that the participant numbers were less than a hundred, the coordinating team held a briefing on 12 December 2014 for all TIMA members to explain the objective of the conference and even demonstrated how to conduct a proper invitation. This made them feel more confident about how to extend an invitation to others.

Dr. Ho Eu Chin shared how he would first tell his friends about what he had learnt from his experience at the TIMA conference in Taiwan in order to pique their interest. Dr. Chiang Li Wei, one of the conference coordinators also felt that one must tailor one’s approach to fit the other person’s needs; rather than coming straight to the point, it may be better to get others who are on good terms with them to extend the invitation instead.

When Dr. Chiang was talking to his supervisor from the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital about the conference, his supervisor brought up something that happened a year or two ago. Then, Dr. Chiang was attending an interview for promotion to the position of resident physician. When asked how he would raise the level of medical care of the hospital, Dr. Chiang had replied that first and foremost, as a doctor, one had to love one’s patients and the rest would fall into place. This simple answer had made a deep impression on his supervisor who became keen to attend the conference once he found out its theme.

Apart from emails, telephone calls and personal invitations, even work meetings became opportunities for disseminating news about the conference. The team also allocated between themselves the task of inviting colleagues from their own workplace and set up a platform on their smartphone to share news. When conference coordinator Lisa Chong managed to invite more than ten nurses from a hospital to attend through their supervisor, she shared the news immediately via the platform.

“What’s important is that the person who extends the invitation must also display Tzu Chi’s culture of humanity during normal daily interactions,” says Chong. If others can perceive this, they will be willing to accept the invitation and find out more. Chong also points out that it was pertinent to explain that the conference was not about religion but about medical care and the culture of humanity.

When making his personal invitation rounds, Dr. Lim also discovered that many local hospital heads were surprised to find out that so many of their subordinates were passionate about Tzu Chi. He jested that now that everyone knew he was part of Tzu Chi, he too would have to ensure that he maintains a good image at all times.

Joyfully Receiving a Gift and Surpassing the Target

After three months of hard work, the registration numbers surpassed the original target of 400 and reached 460. Out of the attendees, 382 are healthcare professionals from local hospitals.

“At the beginning, I was afraid of being rejected,” said Chong, who was later able to quickly change her mindset; since the Master had given them such a big “gift,” that meant that they were each capable of delivering. “No matter what the response, we still have to take the initiative to extend the invitation. Once the fear has been conquered the first time, the subsequent invitations became easier.”

Formerly a deputy nursing director of Gleneagles Hospital, Chong understands that a humanistic medical culture needs time to be nurtured. Therefore it would be a challenge to convince medical professionals to take three days of leave to attend a conference that would not produce instant results. Whenever she was asked if it was possible to attend just one day of the conference, she would patiently explain that since they had the intention to come for the programme, it was best to be present for the entire three days instead of missing out on two days of learning.

Sometimes, Chong would receive comments such as: “Oh, but I am a Christian and our church also advocates such a philosophy!” In such instances, she would take out various publicity materials and patiently explain the unique programme lineup, taking the opportunity to tell her listener about Tzu Chi’s Medical Mission: “In Taiwan, Tzu Chi has established six hospitals, and also a medical school with the “silent mentor” (body donor) programme……” In this manner, even if she was rejected, she would feel glad that at the very least, she had had the opportunity to introduce Tzu Chi’s Medical Mission to others.

Venue Limitations Pose No Limitations to One’s Intention

With some 460 attendees and 90 group leaders, the auditorium’s capacity of 481 was exceeded. However, as not every attendee would be present for all three days, the planning team made logistical preparations for “a just-full capacity.” Thus whenever there was a slight change in participant numbers, there would be logistical issues to contend with during mealtimes and the arrangement of tables and chairs would also be affected. The coordinating team came up with many contingency plans and explained them all one by one to the other members, in the hopes of getting the joyful cooperation of everyone.

The planning team hoped to bring the same warmth that they had experienced during the previous TIMA conferences they had attended in Taiwan to the conference held in Singapore, especially in the areas of reception, transport, meals etc. To this end, they departed from the practice of providing standing space to participants during mealtimes as was usual for academic conferences. Instead they alternated the large dining tables with the small tables used during breaks in order to make do with the space constraints and allow participants a more conducive setting to engage in “meal etiquette.”

The venue also did not allow for food preparation and washing up, hence all the food will be prepared and delivered from the Jing Si Hall, a half hour or more journey away. Similarly, used utensils will also be transported back there for washing.

An exhibition area for DA.AI Technology products used in international disaster relief and Jing Si publications and products will be laid out at the auditorium’s entrance, and posters on the Tzu Chi missions explaining the beginnings of Tzu Chi and its work will also be displayed in the hopes that attendees will understand and be better able to accept the humanistic culture of Tzu Chi.

TIMA members have also planned for three sign language presentations and a drum performance to showcase the humanistic culture of Tzu Chi. As the three-day programme was rather lengthy, the team also came up with four short skits to aid attendees’ understanding and enable them to progress to the next topic with ease. Community volunteers too, enthusiastically stepped forward to help after the lunar new year holidays with the mentality of facilitating the success of a worthwhile medical undertaking, as they prepare to receive attendees hailing from 12 countries and regions.

Though the preparatory work kept their hands full, TIMA members knew that their work had only just begun. Putting into practice what they have learnt and actualizing humanistic medical care in their vocation, helping others to put the same into practice and even bringing them into the fold of TIMA; this would be the true measure of their achievement. Dr. Edwin Lim himself concluded that in reality, humanistic patient-care can be practiced by any medical professional as this is a quality that can be nurtured. He further added that when one sees the suffering of others, one will be able to find the true compassion within one’s soul.

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During the site visit, conference coordinator Qiu Cai Ling (third from left) informs the rest of the team that the government intended the Matrix@Biopolis as a space for biomedical research and development activities. (Photo by Teh Siau Ching)

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The TIMA conference will be held at the Matrix, one of the seven buildings within the complex located just ten minutes by foot from the Buona Vista MRT. (Photo by Chua See Siew)

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On 13 February 2015, Dr. Edwin Lim (first from right) lead a team of TIMA members to Parkway College to invite participants to attend the conference. (Photo by Bernard Ng)

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During the first sign language practice session, many local healthcare professionals who had just come in contact with TIMA signed up to join the sign language presentation. (Photo by Bernard Ng)

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As the three-day course was rather lengthy, TIMA members presented four skits to help the attendees transition easily into the next lesson. (Photo by Bernard Ng)

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TIMA members will present a drum segment at the opening ceremony. They had prepared for the segment by practising at Dr Fong Poh Him’s house after working hours. (Photo by Edwin Lim)

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