Tan Tock Seng Hospital

Singapore Infopedia

by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala


Established in 1844, Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) is one of the oldest hospitals in Singapore.1 It was set up with the help of a generous donation by a wealthy philanthropist, Tan Tock Seng. First erected on Pearll's Hill, the hospital moved to Balestier Plain, then to Moulmein Road and finally to its current premises at Jalan Tan Tock Seng.2 Comprising 45 clinical and allied health departments and 16 specialist centres, it is one of the largest multi-disciplinary hospitals in Singapore.3


Health conditions in the 19th century were deplorable, with the poor and sick given little access to medical treatment.4 Tan, an immigrant of Fujian descent from Malacca who became a wealthy merchant in Singapore, offered to donate $5,000 to set up a hospital for the poor.5 He was responding to the governor’s request for advice on how to legally compel the rich to contribute to the welfare of the less well-off.6 On 25 May 1844, the foundation stone for Tan’s hospital was laid on Pearl’s Hill. The hospital was first called Chinese Pauper Hospital – the name engraved on the brass plate commemorating the laying of the foundation stone.7 It was later named Tan Tock Sing Hospital, and the spelling was changed only in the 1850s to Tan Tock Seng in official documents.8

Early developments
Although the foundation stone was laid in 1844, TTSH was only open for use in 1849.9 The construction took three years but the building had to remain vacant for the next two years due to insufficient funds.10 Bureaucracy prevented the government from paying for the operational expenses as originally intended.11 In the meantime, patients were housed in an attap shed at the foot of Pearl’s Hill.12 It took a storm in 1849, which brought down this shed, to activate the move of patients to the hospital building itself.13

TTSH was the first hospital in Singapore to be built totally from non-government funds.14 The architect was John Turnbull Thomson.15 In 1852, after many initial hurdles including staff shortage, the hospital committee decided to ask for more public donations.16 One response came from Tan Kim Cheng – Tan Tock Seng’s son and a member of the hospital committee – who volunteered to bear the cost of the improvements to the building.17 Donations came from other quarters too: the Parsee community donated $1,000 in 1852 and Syed Allie bin Mohd Aljunied, an Arab merchant, donated $1,000 in 1854.18

In 1856, TTSH faced another crisis when the government decided to fortify Pearl’s Hill. Guns were to be placed atop this hill, and cannons to be positioned at Fort Canning. These two areas were meant not only for guarding the town but also as refuge for the Europeans. This move stemmed from serious riots among the Chinese in 1854 and the Sino-British war in 1856.19 The hospital had to be moved to a new building and site, and the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road was chosen.20

Funds for the construction of the new hospital came from two quarters: the government as well as Tan’s family.21 On top of that, Tan’s widow, Lee Seo Neo, paid for the construction of a female ward in 1858. The younger Tan paid an additional $3,340 when the chief engineer saw that the building would cost more than the allocated budget. In June 1861, patients were moved to the new hospital, which had two new wards: one for lepers and the other for women.22 Because of this, the area around the hospital gained the nickname Rumah Miskin (House of the Poor).23 Living conditions at the hospital however did not improve with the move, as cleanliness was very difficult to enforce among the patients.24 Many of them ran away from the hospital, roaming the streets as they begged for money, and this became a social issue.25

Re-organisation and expansion

In 1867, the Straits Settlements became a crown colony under the Colonial Office in London.26 A new governor, Sir Henry St George Ord, took over the Straits Settlements.27 In 1873, TTSH was placed under the direct supervision of a government official.28 In 1879, Tan Beng Swee, a philanthropist, bore the cost of the construction of three new wards, and the Chinese community donated $15,000 to the hospital.29

In 1882, TTSH recorded 444 cases of malaria and 50 cases of beri-beri. The number of malaria cases was considered unusually high. Sited at low grounds, the hospital’s site was considered unsuitable for the treatment of beri-beri. In 1903, to curb the spread of this disease, the hospital committee suggested a new site near Mount Faber. The following year, the proposed site changed to the current location between Moulmein Road and Balestier Road. The new hospital received a generous injection of funds totalling $50,000 by Loke Yew. This was used to purchase land for the hospital.30

In 1909, the new TTSH along Moulmein Road was completed.31 Housing nearly 1,000 beds in different blocks, it was built by the Public Works Department.32 The wards were built with better ventilation and supported with metal frames. The roof was made of corrugated iron and painted in very light green, while the floor was cemented.33 During the Japanese Occupation, the hospital was renamed Hakuai Byoin, meaning “Universal Love Hospital”, and was one of the main civilian hospitals at that time.34 After the war, in 1956, two new six-storey ward blocks were built.35

In 1961, TTSH was taken over fully by the government.36 Old wards were demolished to pave the way for the construction of five new blocks in the late 1980s.37 In order to keep its management and operation efficient and to meet the changing needs of Singaporeans at the turn of the century, a new building was proposed.38 The construction of this $580-million building, at Jalan Tan Tock Seng, started in 1993 and was completed in 1998.39 Officially opened on 1 April 1999 by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the new hospital was fully operational by May 1999.40 With the move, the hospital redesigned itself, adopting a new logo as well.41

Description and facilities
A 15-storey building, TTSH spans a total floor area of 19,700 sq m.42 It houses 1,211 beds in 34 wards and is made up of four blocks.43 The hospital is also home to a small museum showcasing artefacts related to the hospital and Peranakan items from the mid-19th century, the era of its founder.44

On 1 April 1992, TTSH was restructured. The hospital became a regional and national referral centre for five core disciplines: Rheumatology & Immunology, Respiratory Medicine, Geriatric Medicine, Rehabilitation Medicine and Neurosciences.45 It introduced new one-stop centres in 1994, including Laser Bronchology Suite, Neurodiagnostic Laboratory and Non-invasive Cardiac Laboratory.46 In 1995, the Communicable Diseases Centre (CDC) was restructured and put directly under the administration of TTSH.47 In 1999, TTSH became a member of the National Healthcare Group.48

It was announced in 2013 that TTSH, Ministry of Health and National Health Group will jointly develop the Health City Novena project, to build the largest single integrated healthcare complex in Singapore. The complex will house an expanded centre of the hospital’s day-care and specialist outpatient services, and will be linked to the hospital building.49

TTSH has scored several firsts in the medical world of Singapore. A medical school was set up in 1905 at Sepoy Lane and clinical teaching classes were established at TTSH in 1908. The island’s first batch of medical students graduated from TTSH in 1910. In 1930, the hospital set up X-ray facilities that formed the base of its tuberculosis treatment facility.50 It was designated in 1948 as a centre for tuberculosis treatment.51

In 1967, TTSH made news when it performed the first open-heart surgery in Singapore.52 This was followed in 1976 with the first coronary bypass surgery to be performed in Singapore. In 1985, the hospital became the first to perform a bone marrow transplant in Singapore. It made news again with a unique surgery in 1990: Dr Lee Kheng Hin made use of a CT-directed stereostatic system to locate and remove a small and deeply located brain tumour. This surgery was the first of its kind to be performed in Southeast Asia.53

In 2003, TTSH and its staff were at the forefront in the fight against severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Singapore.54 TTSH was the designated hospital for SARS, and treatment of all suspected and confirmed cases was centralised at TTSH and CDC.55

1844: The foundation stone of the first hospital building is laid.56
1849: The hospital receives its first patients.57
1861: The new hospital building is completed and patients are transferred from temporary sheds on Balestier Plain to the building.58
The hospital is moved to Moulmein Road.59

1910: First batch of medical students graduate.60
1967: First open-heart surgery in Singapore is performed.61
1972: The Department of Neurosurgery is established.62
1989: Opening of the first geriatric unit in Singapore.63
1994: First hospital in Singapore to register on the Internet.64
1996: First hospital in the region to use functional MRI in the treatment of stroke, epilepsy and tumour.65
1997: First hospital in the region to use intra-operative portable mobile CT scanner to remove brain tumours.66
1999: The hospital becomes a member of National Healthcare Group.67
TTSH is marked as a historic institution by National Heritage Board.68
2013: Health City Novena, a joint development by Ministry of Health, National Health Group and TTSH, was announced.69


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Kash Cheong, “Shock and Awe at Hospital Museums,” Straits Times, 7 January 2015, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Philip Choo, “Tan Tock Seng Hospital,” in Singapore’s Health Care System: What 50 Years Have Achieved, ed. Lee Chien Earn and K. Satku (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2016), 234. (Call no. RSING 362.1095957 SIN)
3. “About Tan Tock Seng Hospital,” Tan Tock Seng Hospital, accessed 30 June 2016.
4. Lee Yong Kiat, The Medical History of Early Singapore (Tokyo: Southeast Asian Medical Information Center, 1978), 83. (Call no. RSING 610.95957 LEE)
5. Lee Siew Hua, 150 Years of Caring: The Legacy of Tan Tock Seng Hospital (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 1994), 13–14. (Call no. RSING 362.11095957 LEE)
6. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 13, 16.
7. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 410. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
8. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 16.
9. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 123.
10. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 16.
11. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 119–25.
12. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 120.
13. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 123.
14. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 83.
15. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 410.
16. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 124, 135–36.
17. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 136.
18. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 21.
19. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 148.
20. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 22.
21. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 154–55.
22. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 22–23.
23. John Hall-Jones and Christopher Hooi, An Early Surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore 1841–1853 (Singapore: The National Museum, 1979), 63. (Call no. RSING 526.90924 THO)
24. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 162.
25. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 148.
26. Constance Mary Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 ( Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 76. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 754.
27. Arnold Wright and H. A. Cartwright, eds., Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (Singapore: G. Brash, 1989), 120. (Call no. RSING 959.5 TWE)
28. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 177.
29. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 26.
30. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 26.
31. “Poor People’s Paradise,” Straits Times, 1 February 1909, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “New Tan Tock Seng Hospital,” Straits Times, 19 March 1909, 7; “Poor People’s Paradise.”
33. “Poor People’s Paradise.”
34. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 35–36.
35. Colony of Singapore, Annual Report 1956 (Singapore: G.P.O., 1957), 161. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-HYT])
36. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 45.
37. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 57.
38. Yeo Cheow Tong, “ Ground Breaking Ceremony,” speech, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 4 September 1993, transcript, Ministry of Information and the Arts. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. yct19930904s)
39. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital: A Distinguished Past, a Vision for the Future  (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 2000), 11. (Call no. RSING 362.11095957 TAN)
40. Lea Wee, “Check In,” Straits Times, 1 April 2000, 22. (From NewspaperSG); Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 16.  
41. Janice Tay, “Keeping It All under One New Roof at Tan Tock Seng,” Straits Times, 7 January 1999, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 11.  
43. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 11; Tay, “Keeping It All under One New Roof.”
44. “TTSH Herital Museum,” Tan Tock Seng Hospital, accessed 29 June 2016.
45. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 89; Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 28.
47. “Communicable Disease Centre Comes under TTSH’s Wings,” Straits Times, 5 April 1995, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Annual Report 2001/2002 (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 2002), 3. (Call no. RCLOS q362.11095957 TTSHAR-[AR])
49. Jasmine Ng, “Novena to House New Healthcare Hub,” Business Times, 31 August 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
50. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 31, 34.
51. “Tan Tock Seng and T. B.,” Straits Times, 15 January 1948, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
52. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 100 Years of Surgical Excellence: Since 1912 (Singapore: Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 2012), 17. (Call no. RSING 617.095957 TAN)
53. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 23–25.  
54. Lee Ching Wern, “SARS Hospital’s Badge of Honour,” Today, 2 April 2003, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
55. Li-Ann Wee, “For Next 2 Weeks: TTSH Won’t Take in New Patients, A&E Also Closed,” Straits Times, 23 March 2003, 23. (From NewspaperSG)
56. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 410.
57. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 123.
58. Lee, Medical History of Early Singapore, 151, 160.
59. “Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Straits Times, 21 April 1909, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Lee, 150 Years of Caring, 31.
61. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 100 Years of Surgical Excellence, 17.
62. 100 Years of Surgical Excellence: Since 1912, 102.
63. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 25.  
64. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 30.  
65. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 39.  
66. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, 45.  
67. Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Annual Report 2001/2002, 3.
68. Tee Hun Ching, “Healthy Pursuit,” Straits Times, 25 July 2001, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
69. Ng, “Novena to House New Healthcare Hub.”

Further resource
C. H. Chew, “Tan Tock Seng Hospital: Some Recollections from 1942 to 1997,” Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore27, no. 1 (January 1998), 131–39. (Call no. RSING 610.5 AMSAAM)

The information in this article is valid as at 29 June 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

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