As the subject of numerous magazine articles, it is striking just how often Associate Professor Leong Keng Hong has been
described as ‘introspective’, ‘quiet’, ‘soft-spoken’ and ‘genteel’. These adjectives are not surprising — after all,
he is a man of science and a physician.
However, those descriptors clearly did not apply when THIS Quarterly interviewed the rheumatologist one warm and sunny afternoon
on 20 October 2017. In that session, held in his clinic at Gleneagles Medical Centre, his volume rose a notch, his gestures
became more energetic and passion burned bright in his eyes when he opened up about a particular topic. Don’t let his gentle
demeanour fool you because A/Prof Leong is one mean musician.
Providing The Beat
“Yes, I play the drums. Recently, I got involved in my brother’s band, Wild Ginger. We play once a month at Tanah Merah Country
Club,” reveals the 58-year-old medical specialist. “Actually, the band’s music is slightly old for me, but I can adapt!”
He also plays with a band in his church, Chapel of Christ our Hope. “My church caters to families with severe autism,”
he shares. “As it is an autism-friendly church, some of the members with autism are noise-sensitive, so sometimes I play
the cajon [a box drum] instead.”
A/Prof Leong emphasises that he is a self-taught musician; while he is confident of providing the beat for the pop
and evergreen tunes in Wild Ginger’s repertoire, he feels his musical foundation isn’t firm enough to tackle genres
such as jazz, which demands more complicated rhythms from the drums.
When he is not making music, A/Prof Leong is listening to it. “Music is a big part of my life,” he states. “I like
classical music and go watch the SSO [Singapore Symphony Orchestra], but my musical taste is very varied.” He cites
jazz fusion bands Spyro Gyra and Casiopeia, Mandopop queen A-Mei as well as Japanese R&B singer Utada Hikaru as just
a small sampling of artistes he has on his playlist.
The former Anglo- Chinese School student also reminisces about hanging out with two prominent local musicians, Clement
Chow and Sydney Tan.
Getting Into Medicine
When asked if his Christian faith played a part in his decision to be a doctor, A/Prof Leong replies, “Honestly, no. I only
became a Christian after I entered medical school. Many people become Christians in times of crisis; for me, it was not like
that.” He reveals that when he got into medical school, he started to contemplate existential issues, and was asking himself
questions such as, “What is the meaning of life?”, “What happens to you after you die?”, as well as “What is the purpose
of everything?”. He has been a Christian since 1978.
The desire to pursue medicine has been in him since he was a child growing up in No. 51 Club Street. “I’ve always wanted
to be a doctor because people close to me have had a lot of very severe diseases; in retrospect, most of them had autoimmune
What is Rheumatology?
Autoimmune diseases are significant to A/Prof Leong because his clinic sees a lot of patients with such maladies. The medical
speciality of rheumatology only started in the 1960s. “Rheumatology is very young,” he clarifies. It is a discipline
that is the internal medicine counterpart of orthopaedic surgery, and is concerned with the health of the bones, joints
and connective tissues. Although there are about 100 different conditions that fall under a rheumatologist’s purview,
A/Prof Leong’s clinic sees mostly patients with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, the No. 1
and No. 2 conditions he treats most frequently.
And just because he deals with bones and joints doesn’t mean that all his patients are old folks experiencing wear and
tear. “More than half my patients are young,” he points out.
What’s the attraction?
“There were two things that attracted me to rheumatology,” A/Prof Leong states.
The first is that rheumatological conditions tend to affect multiple organs and systems. “Even rheumatoid arthritis
affects your eyes, your lungs, etc,” he elaborates. This is interesting for him because “there is still a breadth of
internal medicine you need to be familiar with”. This is different from other specialities that focus on oneorgan systems
The second thing is that rheumatology is linked to immunology. Targeted therapies in oncology have similarities to what
rheumatology does. “So cancer and autoimmunity are like two sides of the same coin; the mechanisms that control both
are very similar and that is very interesting to me,” he says.
Internet of Things
The proliferation of websites with medical content is a good thing, as far as A/Prof Leong is concerned. He has always encouraged
his patients to ask questions, so the Internet has empowered them. “I am not really in favour of doctors who are dictatorial,
telling you to take this and that. I think this is a wrong approach,” he stresses. “If you don’t get your patient’s cooperation,
it will be an exercise in futility.”
In fact, he will often insist that a patient look up certain issues on the World Wide Web before the next consultation.
“Building trust is very important. I am fine with patients trying to find out more. They should, or else there is no
point going further.”
He is also of the opinion that no jargon be used and that his medical advice be delivered according to the type of patient
he is seeing. “If they are not so educated, you have to use different illustrations. As for those who are very knowledgeable
and want a lot of facts, I will give them all the details,” he assures.