SINGAPORE: Renowned infectious diseases specialist and Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah revealed on Saturday evening (9 Sept) that his mother, distinguished special education advocate Leaena Tambyah – a woman who dedicated her life to serving children and young people with disabilities, has passed on at the age of 86.
Prof Paul, President of the International Society for Infectious Diseases and the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said on Facebook: “My Mum joined my Dad and our beloved Heavenly Father yesterday. She was comfortable and at peace after a life well lived in the service of the children and young people of Singapore especially those with disabilities.”
“We will miss her very much…….” he added.
Born in 1937, Ms Leaena was the youngest of six children. Her family lived in Penang before they moved to Singapore in 1940, and Ms Leaena attended Raffles Girls’ School, then Raffles Institution, before moving to England to earn her bachelor’s degree in social science at the University of Birmingham.
She began working as an assistant director at the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1961 when she returned to Singapore after completing her studies. Three years after that, in 1964, she married her longtime sweetheart, endocrinologist Dr John Anantharajah Tambyah.
The couple had met more than a decade prior, in 1953, when she was studying at Raffles Girls’ School, and he was attending Raffles Institution.
Ms Leaena resigned from her job at the Ministry of Social Affairs when she became pregnant with their first child months later, and the couple were blessed with a baby boy, Paul Anantharajah Tambyah, in 1964. The family later became complete with the arrival of a baby girl, Malini Tambyah.
While she cared for her two young children, Ms Leaena continued working part-time as a social worker and volunteered extensively. She began volunteering at the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA), where she helped run a family service centre.
Ms Leaena established the Handicapped Children’s Playgroup at the Church of St. Ignatius in 1979. This pioneering initiative catered to children with multiple disabilities who were not accepted into mainstream or special needs schools at that time. Under her leadership, the playgroup thrived and was later renamed the AWWA School, receiving a United Nations Community Excellence Award in 1986.
Ms Leaena’s remarkable dedication earned her numerous accolades throughout her career. In 1984, she was awarded the Public Service Medal for her outstanding work.
In 1991, she spearheaded the TEACH ME (Therapy and Educational Assistance for Children in Mainstream Education) project, which integrated children from special needs schools into mainstream schools and offered mobile therapy clinics for physically disabled children.
Her tireless efforts were recognized with a special volunteer award from the Community Chest of Singapore that same year.
In 1994, Leaena Tambyah received the Public Service Star and was honoured as Her World Woman of the Year for her pioneering work assisting children with special needs. Her commitment to philanthropy and volunteerism led to the Special Recognition Award at the President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards 2011.
Mrs Leaena Tambyah’s legacy is one of unwavering dedication to the welfare of children with special needs in Singapore. Her passing marks the end of an era, but her contributions will continue to inspire generations to come. She leaves behind a profound impact on the lives of countless individuals and a lasting legacy of compassion and service.
The Independent Singapore extends our heartfelt condolences to Mrs Tambyah’s loved ones during this difficult time.