MP Charles Chong dives back into work after liver operation

Punggol East MP Charles Chong discovered he had non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, three years ago and was given two months of medical leave after an operation.
Punggol East MP Charles Chong discovered he had non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, an inflammation of the liver, three years ago and was given two months of medical leave after an operation.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

On Feb 20, the day Mr Charles Chong returned to his Meet-the- People Sessions, the MP for Punggol East nearly had a health scare - again.

Eager to get back into the thick of constituency work after a liver transplant last December, the 63-year-old agreed to meet an acquaintance who wanted help to appeal against some traffic offences.

The meeting lasted only five minutes but it resulted in days of anxiety.

Mr Chong found out the night of the fateful meeting that the man had been hospitalised for tuberculosis, an infectious, airborne bacterial disease.

He immediately consulted his general practitioner, who asked if he had been inoculated against the disease. He had, but was advised to go for a check-up as a precaution.

When he mentioned the incident to his liver doctors a few days later, they whisked him off to get a blood test and a chest X-ray. "Fortunately, everything was fine," he said.

Mr Chong, who turned a deaf ear to his doctor's advice to stay away from crowds a little longer, was quick to add: "I'm not being reckless and I take the necessary precautions, but I believe the faster you get back to a normal routine, the swifter your recovery."

He was inspired by some patients at the National University Hospital, where he stayed for two weeks. They were determined to walk again after having major operations.

"They left the hospital much earlier than those who stayed in bed, even though they got into trouble with the nurses occasionally for trying to walk in the dark at night," Mr Chong said.

A higher risk of infection and a daily dose of immunosuppressants are among the vexing changes Mr Chong has to grapple with as he returns to his old routine.

His younger son Glenn, 30, a regional programme manager at think-tank Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung, had donated part of his liver to him.

Mr Chong, who is also Deputy Speaker of Parliament, found he had non-alcoholic steatohepatitis three years ago. This inflammation of the liver is caused by a build-up of fat. Left untreated, it can lead to liver cirrhosis, which damages the liver permanently.

He was given two months of medical leave after the operation.

But after just a month, the consultant at SIA Engineering Company was back at work and even went on a few short business trips in the region last month.

This week, he is in Manila representing House Speaker Halimah Yacob at the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, a meeting between Asean and parliamentary leaders.

Said Glenn, who played down his role in his father's successful surgery: "The true unsung heroes are my mother, Janet, and my partner, Elle.

"Till today, they give us constant reminders to stay away from excessively oily and fried food, to sleep more and not to exert ourselves. Due to our busy schedules, dad and I usually survive on four to five hours of sleep a night."

Lauded for wresting single-seat Punggol East from the Workers' Party in the 2015 General Election, Mr Chong, formerly the MP for Joo Chiat, is sparing no effort to complete various projects in his new domain.

Top of his list is the new Rivervale Community Club that he hopes to unveil to Punggol East residents by 2019. Grassroots leaders have raised about $1 million for it, with about $250,000 more to go.

Mr Chong's even-tempered, often jocular manner belies a tough streak seen in the robust speeches he has made on several controversial issues , including calling for a repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises sex between men.

A lot more, however, is expected of politicians in the days ahead, he said. This, in turn, could affect leadership renewal.

Mr Chong, one of the longest-serving MPs in the People's Action Party with 29 years as an MP under his belt, makes light of his wins in tough electoral battles: Joo Chiat in 2011 and Punggol East in 2015.

Each time, the victory margin was slim: 388 votes in Joo Chiat, and 379 in Punggol East.

The battle-hardened politician, who is admired especially by many of his younger parliamentary colleagues, quipped: "I think it just means you're expendable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline 'Charles Chong dives back into work after liver operation'. Print Edition | Subscribe