From humble origins Benjamin H Sheares with self-discipline and a commitment to excel became an eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist. Beginning in 1942 under difficult conditions he pioneered many improvements in the management of obstetrical and gynaecological patients, and also improved the services and facilities at Kandang Kerbau Hospital so that maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity were markedly reduced. In January 1951 he became the first Singaporean to be appointed Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in the university, and achieved reknown in his service to patients, the teaching of undergraduates and postgraduates, and in clinical research. His surgical treatment of vaginal agenesis was acknowledged internationally. He was elected President of the Republic of Singapore on 30th December 1970 by Parliament and during his three terms spanning one decade he discharged his duties with thoroughness, distinction, tolerance and a quiet dignity. When he died on 12th May 1981 85,000 people, identifying with his humble origins and his achievements through self-reliance and meritocracy, paid their last respects to him. He had set an example on how to live and depart this life.
When Dr Benjamin Sheares, President of the Republic of Singapore,3 died on 12th May 1981 and his body laid in state at the Istana, 85,000 people turned up to pay their last respects including a few who were physically disabled and some were tearful. When the Istana gates closed,5 there were still hundreds outside unhappy that they could not express their final farewells. Never denying his humble origins, he rose to high office through self-discipline, perseverance to succeed, sacrifice of leisure, and a commitment to excel in all his endeavours yet maintaining a humility and tolerance to all. It was easy for many Singaporeans who shared his humble beginnings to identify with his achievements,4 so it was not surprising that his death provided an occasion for the expression of national solidarity. The then Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in his moving and compassionate tribute to him in Parliament on 12th June 1981 quoted a Chinese saying “gai guan ding lun – when the coffin is closed, only then is an assessment conclusive”. This assessment must encompass his academic achievements and service to patients and the Nation, of which much has been written, as well as glimpses of his private life and personality, of which little is known.
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