We now take maternity care for granted. But this was not the case in 1925 when a children’s clinic was opened at Telok Ayer Church Welfare Centre.
‘ANAK SAKIT – these are some of the sounds we heard the other morning down around our Telok Ayer Church building when an unusually large number of babies in arms were in evidence.
As we looked up and discovered that the rear door of the Church was open, our eye was struck by a nurse in uniform, standing in the doorway. And then we remembered that this was a Child Welfare Centre in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown.
“But,” said the nurse, “many of these mothers walk great distances to find health for their babies; for there are only two such centres in all of this city of 400,000.” And just then an old Chinese grandmother came in with an active enough child strapped to her back, and its very sickly looking twin securely tied across her front. Behind her a sweet young mother hobbled on two-inch feet, carrying a lovely girl baby, whose feet will never be bound. For this mother has learned that even so common an ailment as boils or sores demands concern, and on the stumps of feet she bears her precious child hither.
Just as we were wondering whether they were all Chinese babies, a dusky Tamil child wearing nose jewel and anklets, but otherwise far from festive, came in. Her little old-woman’s pug of black shiny hair was badly dishevelled, her face was drawn in pain and she was holding her hand over her ear. The tender hands of the nurse soothed her and coaxed her to the operating room. Certainly, there is an operating room! Its outstanding feature is a nice shiny baby bath-tub upon a zinc table with a hot water tank nearby.
“For the babies are so dirty we cannot possibly get at the seat of the trouble until we give them a real bath. And then you can imagine how we hate to clothe them again in the dirty old things we have taken off. But I suppose it would be an impossible thing to issue new clothes, for such ethics would surely result in these people starting a tour to find dirty babies to bring in for more clothes. Charity is imposed upon … ”
At that moment a wan little thing in her father’s arms drew the nurse. “Just food,” she said, “is all it needs.” She issued a pink ticket to the man who went away to get the milk.
“How do you know he won’t use it for his own tea?” we asked, the spirit of suspicion being contagious.
“Oh, we have to use a follow-up method. This afternoon one of our staff will make the rounds of the houses to see whether the babies are being properly cared for in the homes and whether they or the grown-ups are getting the milk.”
An Indian woman came in with her three children and made herself very much at home. Unfolding a gay red cloth, she spread it out on the floor as a mattress upon which she tenderly laid her six-week-old baby.
“These are fine children – especially the last one,” the nurse informed us. “The mother brought her first born to us and we were able to advise her about the coming of this new one. And from the beginning it has been cared for according to our prescriptions. It is properly fed, and that is the whole secret of ‘Better Babies’. Most of these mothers will not nurse their babies – mostly because they have to work at hard physical labour. And then, they are too poor to buy milk, or too ignorant to administer it properly. It is easier and cheaper to begin feeding these infants on rice and bananas.”
Although this Child Welfare Centre is little more than a year old it has made great headway against indifference, ignorance, superstition and fear until today it numbers 572 babies on its roll. And all but two of this number submit now quite readily to daily weighing. At first, mothers in terror, snatched their children from off the scales, but to weigh a child was only to tempt Providence. The child would die. But now they have come to understand the value of weighing the child. Monthly Prize Shows have had their part, too, in rousing interest and pride in the babies. There were 17 fine specimens competing last month, and it was necessary to award three prizes, instead of the one announced. Three Chinese doctors give generous service to this welfare work.
It is a comfort to see our Telok Ayer Church used as a centre to save Singapore children from physical disease. But this rapidly growing institution will soon require a building of its own more adequate to the scope of its work …’ — MM October 1926, p. 8-9.
Earnest Lau, Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.