An AcciDENTAL Clinic
A story of why a dentist chose to set up her practice at Telok Blangah
By: Tan Yi Shu
When Dr Audrey Ng Kuen Siew wanted to set up Dentalplus at the Telok Blangah Mall some fifteen years ago, friends advised her against it. The population density in the area was relatively low, and business would not be brisk, they said.
Many did not even know where Telok Blangah was.
Why then, did she persist with opening a clinic here?
“It’s Telok Blangah,” she said. “It’s home.”
Telok Blangah is where the Heart is
Over the last decade and a half, many residents have had the convenience of a dental clinic within walking distance of their homes. Yet, Dentalplus almost did not come to be. Prior to setting up shop in her early 30s, Audrey did not seriously entertain thoughts of starting her own business; in her own words, she was a simple person who wanted a simple life.
However, as she grew weary of commuting to her workplaces amid long work weeks, thoughts of starting her own practice where she would have more control over her time begin to crystalise. Having lived in Telok Blangah most of her life then and being fond of the residents, the idea of serving the local community also appealed to her very much.
So, in spite of her friends’ reservations, when she finally decided to take the plunge, she chose to set up shop at Telok Blangah. And having been in business there for so many years, it has turned out to be a good decision.
“It really worked out well on so many levels. I was able to serve residents I know and care about. A five minute walk to work — I saved so much time! Also, I got to go home for lunch almost every day,” she exulted.
While there are undeniably many advantages of running a business close to home, one particular concern Audrey had was that people knew her and would have higher expectations. She was also worried that any trouble or complaints at work might follow her home — literally. It was with these in mind that she made professionalism and integrity key principles of her practice.
“You know, there’s extra pressure when you work near where you live. You don’t want to let down your neighbours or people you grew up with, went to school with. So right from the start, I strived to make my practice as ethical as possible.”
As the first dental clinic in the estate then, Audrey was fairly confident that business would be decent. Even when another dental clinic sprouted up not long after hers, she was concerned but not overly worried. It was never in her character to want to make a lot of money, and correspondingly she did not have very high financial expectations of her clinic.
“I just wanted to do a good job, provide a needed service in the area, have the business be decently sustainable,” she explained.
Part of ensuring sustainability was to start off prudently with just one dental chair.
“It’s better to start small, get established first before considering your next steps. If I have to expand and add chairs later on, it’s a better problem to have than to start off with a few chairs and reduce it.”
Another reason Audrey preferred operating in the heartland was the more familial feel and culture of the place, where word-of-mouth and line-of-sight publicity were more effective than high-end advertising campaigns. It also helped that the mall area had good footfall from residents getting their groceries or on their way to the hawker.
“I think, especially at the start, residents really enjoyed having a dental clinic nearby. So business picked up fairly fast. In fact, even residents from Pasir Panjang and Sentosa begin coming by the clinic,” she said.
The Dentist Will See You Now
Not having any close friends who are dentists, I asked Audrey a question that I have long wondered about: why do so many, including me, have an irrational fear of dentists?
She chuckled and pointed that dental procedures can be very invasive, as the insides of a mouth is a very personal area. It is thus not uncommon for people to feel a sense of nervousness and fear. It may also be that people are not used to keeping their mouths wide open for a long period, and the supine position makes them feel more vulnerable.
“Hence, helping patients feel at ease is very important. My character is that I can be very calm; I think patients can sense that and it soothes them,” she said.
That made a lot of sense to me; my dentophobia started as a child when a trip to an impatient dentist turned out badly. I did not feel at ease in a dental chair for many years after that!
Trust is also important.
“People know we are a small set-up, we are a heartland clinic. We try to get to know our patients a little, we build little bonds with them, people feel safer in the hands of someone they know and trust.”
The Person Behind the Mask
As I chatted with Audrey, it occurred to me despite having her as my dentist several times, I would not be able to recognise her if we crossed paths outside. It was because I had never quite seen her unmasked face for a prolonged period before, given that she was always masked up while cleaning my teeth. Do patients actually recognise her? The answer was a surprising yes; in fact, she shared that sometimes when residents see her on the street, they would even seek out some quick advice on whatever dental problems they were having.
“It’s okay,” she grinned. “It does not happen too often and anyway, I’m happy to help.”
As it goes, recognition is not just one way. Practicing in a place where she lived meant that she saw many familiar faces as her patients — neighbours, hawkers, relatives, even the workers helping to keep Telok Blangah clean. One of the funnier moments was when she saw a patient for a chipped front tooth, and recognised who he was.
“I asked him, how did you chip your tooth? He said he was out partying at Zouk, and had accidentally smashed his mouth into something while dancing. I remember thinking, oh dear me, that’s my daughter’s teacher!” she chuckled.
Getting To The Root
Given that dentophobia, especially among the young, is very real, why did she aspire to be a dentist?
“When I was studying, I knew that I wanted to help people medically. I chose dentistry over medicine because ever since young, I had disliked long commutes. So I wanted to work somewhere nearby such as the former Institute of Dental Health at Alexandra, or at the dental clinics at Singapore General Hospital,” she laughed.
I asked what was her secret to being a good dentist.
She listed her formative years as a young, hardworking dentist, where she cut her teeth at various places in the Singapore Armed Forces, Singapore General Hospital, Changi General Hospital and a private practice in Orchard Road. The concept of work-life balance was not so in vogue those days, and she spent many years working six days a week under the tutelage of helpful mentors, which helped to level up her experience and skill quickly.
“So my secret really is tons of practice. It’s important to work hard and learn a lot when you are younger and have the time and energy. Things become easier after that, after you have established good technique and deep muscle memory. In fact, when I opened my clinic, I was working seven days a week for several years,” she said.
Great advice! It is like what all parents tell their children — study hard when you are young, work hard when you are an adult, reap what you sowed later in life. 先苦后甜!
Like many who grew up in or relocated to Telok Blangah as adults, Audrey listed the presence of lush greenery as one of the reasons she has such fond memories of the place.
“There used to be these very tall trees in the center divider of Henderson Road. I found them to be a very calming sight. They were removed a few years ago, but the plentiful greenery still remains, the sights and smells are all still familiar. And even though I have since moved away from the area and am now based at my second clinic at Holland Village, Telok Blangah will always feel like home.”
 The center divider was replanted with native shrubs and trees as part of Tanglin Nature Way.
It is easy to see why she feels that way — as a resident myself, I would never tire of walks around the estate, with sights of many majestic trees and surrounding hills flourishing with lush shrubbery. It will always be home!
As someone who has enjoyed the accessibility of her clinic for many years, as well as the calm manner in which she and her staff (shout out to Dr Amanda Nguee!) perform dental procedures that has helped me get over my dentophobia, I am extremely grateful and look forward to many more good years of check-ups there.