She was busy with her work as an orthopaedic surgeon in London when, in August 1982, an international appeal was made for medical personnel to treat casualties in war-torn Lebanon. Ang Swee Chai, then 33, did not hesitate. She quit her job, said goodbye to her husband, and was soon working in a hospital in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp.
A month later she witnessed the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in the camp by Lebanese Phalangist militia as Israeli troops stood by. She continued to operate and treat patients until gunmen marched her and her staff out of the camp at gunpoint.
When later that year the Israelis held an inquiry into the massacre, Swee Chai went to Jerusalem to give evidence. As she once explained: “… if we are silent in the face of massacres we would not be fit to be doctors and scientists. We have to be witnesses.”
In 1984 Swee Chai and her husband, lawyer and activist Francis Khoo who had left Singapore in 1977 to avoid detention under the Internal Security Act, set up MAP (Medical Aid for Palestinians), a British charity that works in Lebanon and Palestine to provide access to essential health services for the most vulnerable Palestinians, such as children and people with disabilities. Swee Chai is now an honorary patron of MAP.
She returned to Lebanon when the Camp War, another conflict during the Lebanese civil war, started in 1985. Between 1986 and 1989, she ran MAP’s humanitarian programme there and then left to work as a United Nations and World Health Organisation orthopaedic consultant in Gaza.
In 1987 she received the “Star of Palestine”, the highest honour for service to the Palestinian people, for her relentless work and courage in speaking up for them. Swee Chai is the first Asian and one of only six non-Palestinians to have received the award.
Swee Chai attributes many of her qualities to her parents, who were principled and determined people. Her mother, whose father refused to let her go to school because he believed educated girls made bad wives, insisted on getting an education. She went to the school and refused to leave until they admitted her.
The eldest of four children, Swee Chai attended Kwong Avenue Primary School, Raffles Girl’s School and the then University of Singapore. She was silver medallist for her undergraduate medical degree and gold medallist for her post-graduate degree in Occupational Medicine.
Of her schooldays, she once said: “We had dedicated teachers who taught us to think for ourselves and be independent. I also learned that science, to be meaningful, must be channelled to alleviating suffering and poverty. So I chose to study medicine.”
After getting her post-graduate degree in Occupational Medicine in 1976, Swee Chai trained to be a surgeon in Britain. She was the first woman to be appointed consultant orthopaedic surgeon at the prestigious St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
Swee Chai has written two books. Published in 1989, From Beirut to Jerusalem: A Woman Surgeon with the Palestinians is her account of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre. It’s been translated into a dozen languages including Chinese. She also co-authored War Surgery, Field Manual, a detailed handbook for setting up field hospitals and handling cases in a war zone.