Beyond Borders

Irene Toh at the Singapore General Hospitalʼs Rehabilitation Centre.

Physiotherapist Irene Toh has been volunteering with the Singapore International Foundation in Vietnam and Cambodia for more than a decade. She shares insights and lessons from her trips abroad.




s a principal physiotherapist at the Singapore General Hospital, Irene Toh, 37, is not one for sitting comfortably, and her slight build belies her age and work experience.

In between her diploma in 2000 and master’s degree in physiotherapy in 2010, she spent time volunteering in hospitals in Vietnam (from 2003 to 2004), teaching arthroplasty – or total knee replacements – and conducting workshops. Since 2011, she has also been travelling to Cambodia to share her expertise.

Her attachments in Vietnam and Cambodia were with projects funded by the Singapore International Foundation (SIF). In Cambodia, she was part of the SIF team involved in the three-year Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Specialist Training Project, which helped train 558 Cambodian doctors, nurses and physiotherapists in techniques to help patients recover from surgery without complications.

She says: “I really like to work with people from different cultures. I also like to travel and experience different cultures. When you have something to share, it gives better meaning to your profession beyond just the things you do every day. The skill (of a physiotherapist) is very portable. I don’t have to speak the same language as them but people will still understand as there is a common language that exists in the skill itself.”

Aside from opening her eyes to different cultures, the most lasting impression she had was of the people she met and worked with.

Of the friendships forged over several visits to teach and mentor, Toh says that she bonded especially well with those she worked with in Cambodia as she spent more time there. When she speaks of the people, there is a palpable soft spot for the country.

She says: “They are simple, down to earth, and of course hospitable.”

She proceeds to rattle off a list of Cambodian physiotherapists who formed fast friendships with her over the past three years, and adds: “Through the formal and informal gatherings, we learnt from each other in terms of culture, working styles, professional standards as well as pet peeves!”

Although she doesn’t see her Cambodian friends very often – usually two to three times a year and only for a few short days each time when Toh flies to Cambodia for training sessions – it doesn’t hamper their friendship. She says: “I don’t think you need to be together all the time. Every time we are together, it feels like we have a lot of things to catch up on.”


Toh is especially grateful that her volunteer work allows her to return at frequent intervals, building on what she had planted from previous trips to see the progress of her contribution. It has also made her think deeply about training from a different angle, incorporating changes to the training programme and ways to measure the impact of the training.

The impact, says Toh, is beyond what money can buy. “It changes their life,” she adds, noting that her work has a multiplier effect as the knowledge gets passed from the physiotherapists she teaches to their colleagues. Ultimately, the patients benefit too.

While she takes pride in raising the level of physiotherapy knowledge and skills, her work in Cambodia has also had an added effect. “It has raised the profile of the physiotherapy profession among other health practitioners, especially the doctors in Cambodia.

Physiotherapists are now more recognised as key players in the successful rehabilitation of patients,” she says.

And it’s not just the physiotherapists overseas who have benefited from Toh’s work. She says: “My long-term commitment to the projects has raised interest and awareness of skillbased development volunteering amongst my physiotherapy peers.”

But the biggest reward she has reaped from volunteering is personal development.

“As a volunteer, you get to know yourself better and what defines you,” she says. “You receive a lot more than you give when you volunteer. When you change the way you do things, you become more mature and undergo personal growth and development.

“It also gives you a better perspective about life. When you see how people get by with the little they have, you start to question your own needs and wants. You realise that the valuable things in life are not about dollars and cents.”




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