Singapore mourns the passing of Mrs Leaena Tambyah on Friday (8 Sep), a luminary in the realm of social service.
At the age of 86, she left behind an unmatched legacy as a pioneering advocate for persons with disabilities, having founded Singapore’s first school for children with multiple disabilities.
Born in Penang in 1937, Mrs Tambyah’s journey to Singapore started when her father became the headmaster of St Andrew’s School in 1940.
The ethos of service was ingrained in her from an early age, inspired by her parents’ association with St Andrew’s Mission Hospital. This foundation would shape her life’s work, ensuring that those marginalized and often overlooked found a voice and place in society.
A graduate of Raffles Girls’ School, she furthered her education at the University of Birmingham, earning an honors degree in social science.
Upon her return, she served at the social affairs ministry before starting a family with her childhood sweetheart, Dr John Tambyah. Though she prioritized raising their two children, her drive to serve never diminished.
Her commitment was actualized in 1979 when she founded the Handicapped Children’s Playgroup in the Church of St Ignatius.
Starting with just seven children, this initiative blossomed into the AWWA School, an institution now nurturing nearly 400 students with special needs.
Her son, Professor Paul Tambyah, not only excelled in the medical field but also absorbed his mother’s spirit of service and compassion. He fondly recalled how Mrs Tambyah’s influence shaped his and his sister Malini’s worldview, introducing them to voluntary work from a young age.
Mrs Tambyah was not just a compassionate soul but also a tenacious advocate. She spearheaded numerous efforts to ensure children with disabilities were integrated into the Compulsory Education Act. Furthermore, she championed the introduction of mobile therapy vans, deftly navigating bureaucratic obstacles.
Her efforts garnered national and international recognition. Notably, the Handicapped Children’s Playgroup received the United Nations Community Excellence Award in 1983. In 1994, her widespread contributions were celebrated when she was named Her World Woman of the Year.
This acknowledgment only scratched the surface of her enduring commitment. She also initiated AWWA’s Therapy and Educational Assistance for Children in Mainstream Education, further underlining her vision of an inclusive society.
Professor Paul Tambyah, chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party, and a prominent infectious diseases expert, recalled his mother’s influence.
He and his sister, Malini, were introduced to voluntary work from an early age. This early exposure profoundly affected their outlook on life.
Mrs Tambyah faced health challenges in recent months, shared Dr Tambyah. He mentioned that his mother was diagnosed with a blood disorder in March and had a stroke the previous week. She was firm about not being kept alive through artificial means.
His sister, who lives in Britain, returned home on Tuesday, and they transitioned their mother into palliative care. She passed away at about 1pm on Friday.
Prof Tambyah expressed, “She was in church three weeks ago and took communion. But she was getting weaker and weaker. She was suffering. So, in a way, this is a blessing.”
Mrs Tambyah’s funeral service will be held at 1.30 pm on Monday (11 Sep) at 85 University Road (S297893). The cortège will leave at 2.30 pm for Mandai Crematorium, Hall 4, where the cremation is scheduled at 3.30 pm.
Prominent figures, including Minister for Social and Family Development, Masagos Zulkifli, and Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, paid tribute to her monumental impact on Singapore’s social service sector.
Mrs Tambyah’s departure marks the end of an era. However, her legacy will continue to inspire countless others, reminding us of the boundless change a single individual can bring about through dedication, compassion, and advocacy.