What HealthServe’s Founder Learnt from Singapore’s Poor and Forgotten
Growing up in a “good Christian” world, Dr Goh Wei-Leong had great plans for his career—until his world was upended when he came face to face with society’s invisible.
Dr Goh at Jalan Kukoh, where he has been serving and helping residents for many years.
long the streets and corridors of Jalan Kukoh, residents slow down and stop whatever they’re doing to talk to Dr Goh Wei-Leong whenever he walks by.
One elderly resident crosses the carpark to update him on her latest ailments. At a provision shop, a shopowner comes out to share stories of how the doctor had treated all three of his sons when they were young. A third passer-by stops to say “hi”. Clearly, Dr Goh is a much-loved and respected figure in the neighbourhood.
But Jalan Kukoh, located in an area near Chinatown, is a neighbourhood like no other. Known as one of the poorest estates in Singapore, it comprises mostly rental flats. It’s a stark contrast from the lush condos and eateries lying just across the Singapore River, along the glitzy Robertson Quay.
It’s a place where Dr Goh himself would probably never have imagined spending time in. Not until God opened his eyes to the plight of the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalised.
Growing Up as a “Good Christian”
As the 61-year-old would put it, Dr Goh was a “good Christian boy” who grew up in a Christian family, went to a good school, and did “all the good Christian things”.
Once an organist in his church, he cruised along in life: he went to a top-ranking school, studied medicine in university, and briefly joined a medical group upon graduation, before taking over a clinic at Chin Swee Road—which just happened to be a stone’s throw from Jalan Kukoh.
By then, Dr Goh was doing well. He began living the high life, buying a sports car, getting a membership at an exclusive country club, and hobnobbing with equally well-to-do peers.
Yet, a part of him wondered, Is this all there is to life?
God answered his question after he joined a churchmate on a mission trip to Mongolia in 1995. As he treated missionaries based there, he was struck by their stories.
“I met missionaries living a hundred miles away from the capital, living in freezing temperatures in a ger (Mongolian tent), with no running water or heating, except for a fireplace,” Dr Goh recalls. One young German couple, for example, travelled many hours with their three-month-old baby just to see him.
“I was introduced to the gospel afresh by the real stories of these people,” Dr Goh says. “It changed my life, because I became aware that there’s a larger Christian world beyond the confines of my church. For many Christians I know, life is just about getting to church on time, making sure we finish our Bible study homework, and going for cell group. But this was the Christian life lived differently, in a way that was truly alive.”
Upon returning to Singapore, Dr Goh found that his outlook on his life and faith had changed irrevocably.
Convicted of living out his Christian faith in a way that was “not divorced from the realities of life”, the doctor quickly swapped his posh car and country club membership for mission trips to India and connecting Christian doctors to missionary networks. Together with a small group of young doctors and medical students, he founded an online platform called Linking Hands in 1999, which helped to facilitate global partnerships in medical missions for a decade. The ministry now focuses on missional networking and resourcing.
Seven years later, Dr Goh set up HealthServe—what he’s most known for—a non-profit organisation serving disadvantaged migrant workers. His efforts eventually saw him and his charity receiving The Straits Times’ Singaporean of The Year award in 2017.
Being Relational, and Not Transactional, For Christ
The housing estate in Jalan Kukoh, near Dr. Goh’s clinic, houses many rental flats.
Back in his own clinic, Dr Goh also became more conscious of the need to reach out to his patients with God’s love. He began sharing outreach booklets by Our Daily Bread Ministries with them, and offering to pray for them whenever the opportunity arose.
“Many of my patients would come in—for example, for a headache or sore throat—and I would probe deeper. And there’s always a large percentage—easily more than 50 per cent—who have underlying psychosocial problems,” says Dr Goh. “It could be problems in their marriage, with their parents, or with their kids. And because they can’t sleep, they fall sick, so they come to see me.”
During these conversations, following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Dr Goh would let them know that he was a Christian, and offer them an outreach booklet that talked about how God could help them through anxiety, depression, or sickness.
“Almost invariably, almost all of them would take it,” he says.
But passing patients these booklets, he stresses, is just the beginning of his efforts to build a relationship with them—and hopefully, journey with them in coming to know Christ. In all his conversations with patients, Dr Goh aims to be relational rather than transactional.
“Because of my personality and the relational capital I have with my patients, it’s an open door,” he says. “But without that relationship, giving them a tract is totally useless.”
One memorable story is that of Madam Chua, a Jalan Kukoh resident and longtime patient who had been seeing Dr Goh for more than 20 years. “At a certain point, I just felt that I really had to tell her about God,” he says.
After she shared with him her personal challenges, Dr Goh prayed for her and passed her a booklet telling her about Jesus. It spoke to her in her pain, and Madam Chua eventually gave her life to Christ—and later on, so did her husband.
Making Space for the Marginalised
Dr Goh with a resident at Jalan Kukoh.
It wasn’t, however, entirely a happy ending. After Madam Chua passed away from cancer. her husband visited Dr Goh’s church for a while. But, says Dr Goh sadly, the man found it hard to relate to people there, as he came from a low-income, Hokkien-speaking background. “He couldn’t find his space,” he adds.
This is why Dr Goh believes that sharing God’s love needs to go beyond evangelising to people, inviting them to church, or even sharing outreach tracts with them. “You need a ‘daily bread’, not just a one-off banquet,” he says.
For Dr Goh, this means discipling and mentoring the next generation, and looking out specially for the marginalised people in society—like those in Jalan Kukoh.
In fact, he adds, people in such communities often have a stronger faith and better understanding of God’s grace than many longtime Christians. “I see Jesus much more in them,” he says.
He cites the example of one migrant worker whom HealthServe had helped, after he was fired when he broke an ankle at work. Touched by the volunteers’ self-sacrificial help and love, the man began to attend Bible study and church, and was eventually baptised.
Even though he had to return home without any compensation, the worker told them: “I now know why God allowed me to come to Singapore. I came to Singapore poor, and I’m going back poorer and with a broken ankle. But I found something much more precious.”
Dr Goh pauses as he relates this story, tears glistening in his eyes. “This guy’s theology was more correct than many of us,” he says. “He found something of surpassing worth.”
Such testimonies encourage the doctor to keep going in his efforts to help the poor and those living on the margins of society.
“Because I’m on the ground with my practice as a doctor, I have the privilege of seeing real people every day, and hearing their stories,” he says. “I can see a man who drives a Rolls-Royce, telling me his health issues and the struggles in his life—and the next patient in line is a karang guni man, with the same health issues and struggles in life.”
So how does Jalan Kukoh’s resident doctor continue to have such optimism in the face of what seems like perpetual and persistent problems plaguing the poor and marginalised? How does he reconcile his faith with the failures of this world?
He replies: “It’s about being aware of the brokenness of this world—exploitation, injustice, poverty, climate change, and so on—but also being aware of the presence of God.”
He adds: “God, in His sovereignty, allows all this. And knowing this, I have to respond by stewarding what God has given me: my gifts, talents, resources.”
Making the Best Of the Autumn of Life
Dr Goh at his clinic, which he has been running for more than 30 years. It sits opposite Jalan Kukoh, whose residents he has been serving and helping for many years.
This is why at 61, Dr Goh is still fully immersed in his missional journey even though he has stepped down from heading HealthServe and has semi-retired from running his clinic.
He now sees patients—in the same clinic that he has been operating for more than three decades—thrice a week, and spends the rest of his time meeting people to coach them or discuss new ideas. In particular, he loves to mentor and coach young people, with the hope that they, too, will create and nurture a life-giving community, that transforms churches, neighbourhoods, and workplaces in the image of Christ’s radical, sacrificial love.
Dr Goh points to an insight he received on the significance of comparing ageing to entering one’s “autumn” years.
“The role of autumn leaves isn’t just for us to enjoy their vibrant colours—it’s to compost on the ground, so that it becomes life-giving for the saplings around them,” he says.
“I’ve reached a part of my life where I’ve entered my autumn season,” he adds with a laugh. “I’ve had my busy summer of ploughing and working, of accolades and ascent, and I’ve decided I want to descend in this autumn of my life, to open up space and be regenerative in how I live.”
A Bible passage that he holds close to his heart is Jeremiah 9:23–24:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.
“People encounter Christ when we serve them with humility, integrity, and simplicity,” says Dr Goh. “Learning to live out our faith that’s not divorced from the realities of life, is a wonderful journey of discipleship with Christ. And we’ve got to learn to celebrate its joys—warts and all.”