As one of the leading ophthalmologists in Singapore, Dr Claudine Pang has made a name for herself in the medical community. Her list of professional accolades is long and ever-growing—she is one of the few doctors with multiple international fellowships in the fields of both medical retina and vitreoretinal surgery. She is also the first female recipient in the world of the prestigious William H Ross Surgical Vitreoretinal Fellowship.
But that’s not all Pang is known for. Among other initiatives, the 40-year-old ophthalmologist started non-profit Eye Care Without Borders to provide free eye checkups to people in Southeast Asia’s most rural regions. She also runs the first mobile eye health app in Singapore, aimed towards giving adults an accessible way to monitor their own optical wellness.
As a mother of two, Pang’s main priority lies in ensuring that her children grow up with as big a passion for volunteerism as she has. Here, she opens up to Vogue Singapore about motherhood, her mission to make eye care accessible for all, and what good optical care can truly achieve.
Did you always know that the medical profession was going to be the route for you?
By the time junior college ended and it was time to head off to university, I was still undecided about what I wanted to do with my life. I decided I would try out something non-medical to see if I would like it, and I thought I’d be interested in policymaking. So I got a role as an intern in the Prime Minister’s Office. It was quite a great experience, but there is a lot of red tape in the government. By the nature of the job, things moved slowly. Because of that, I felt that I couldn’t probably sit behind a desk and do work like that for the rest of my life.
So what ultimately led you to medicine?
From a young age, I very much wanted to do a profession where I could help other people. I would be volunteering at nursing homes and giving tuition to underprivileged children. I thought that doing medicine would allow me to help other people on a daily basis. It also allowed me to see the immediate differences I could make, as my patients improved in health.
Within the medical field, how did you decide on ophthalmology?
There was a special moment for me—the first time I had a look into the eye. I saw the retina up close, which of course, was very different from seeing it on a piece of paper or as a picture. It was very beautiful and fascinating to me—like a piece of art. I also realised the impact that eye surgeons can have, how we can actually restore people’s visions. At that point, I was convinced that ophthalmology was going to be my path.
“Short-sightedness could actually lead to issues like retinal tears, maybe degeneration, or even cataracts and glaucoma”
What has your journey as an ophthalmologist been like?
It’s a very big responsibility that I am constantly aware of. Being someone’s eye surgeon is a big job. Everything I do affects my patient. I’m such a perfectionist, and I try very hard not to fail. And in this case, there is literally no margin for error. I always try to do my best, and the rest I leave to God.
But there are moments of joy too. I think back to my first cataract case, in particular. With cataract cases, the patient is unable to see before the surgery, because their vision is totally blocked. After the surgery, they have near perfect vision. I can see instantly the joy on their faces—it makes my day every time.
When it comes to eye care, what do you wish more Singaporeans knew?
For one, I think people have a misconception about myopia. Everybody thinks it just means you are short-sighted, you wear glasses, and that’s it. But actually, if you’re very short-sighted and your degree is higher than 500 or 600, it means you actually have risk for diseases later in life. Short-sightedness could actually lead to issues like retinal tears, maybe degeneration, or even cataracts and glaucoma. These come on earlier in people with myopia.
That’s why it’s important to get your eyes checked about once a year so that we can detect these problems earlier, and take preventative steps or treat it early instead of when it’s too late. Another misconception I’ve seen is that a lot of people think that they should wait for their cataracts to be very ripe before they do surgery. But these days, we actually like to remove cataracts earlier so that people can enjoy the clear vision earlier in life. And when we remove cataracts, we can actually insert an implant to correct their degree. Then, they are able to enjoy the rest of their life without the need of glasses.
You spend a big part of your life on humanitarian efforts. Why is that important to you?
It’s definitely something I’ve always been passionate about. In my younger years, I would visit rural countries and do cataract surgeries—I realised that there are a lot of people there who need the surgery. They are walking around almost blind, and they just have no access to what they need. So my goal is to make eye healthcare more accessible for those who cannot afford it. That’s the cause I want to work towards.
Tell us about Eye Care Without Borders. What made you want to start the charity?
Initially, my clinic started off doing eye screenings in Singapore and rural countries in Southeast Asia. We were also giving out free spectacles. Eventually, there were other people who wanted to donate spectacles to us so that we could give to our beneficiaries. At that point, we felt things would be more transparent if we just created a non-profit. So that’s why we decided to do Eye Care Without Borders. It also allowed us to branch out and do other related charity work. Which was especially during the pandemic, when we haven’t been able to do as many eye screenings anymore. Eye screenings are like event, we have about 100 people in attendance and our team will do screenings for everyone. So of course, because of COVID-19 restrictions, we had to stop.
But we still wanted to help our beneficiaries, which are lower income families in Singapore. So I thought we could raise some money, get some donations, and then provide them with food packs. Having a non-profit which we could extend beyond just medical services was very helpful there.
When we do eye screenings overseas, the children are always so excited to get new glasses. There are so many kids walking around with vision in only one eye, because you know, they have a lazy eye. But if they just had a pair of glasses, it could easily be corrected. There’s always a very special moment when they get their first pair of glasses and they’re so completely full of joy.
How involved are your own children in your humanitarian work?
I have two children—the older one is nine and the younger one is six. They really enjoy being involved in Eye Care Without Borders, especially when they get to meet other kids in other countries. Volunteerism is definitely something I wanted to get them involved from an early age.
Friends started messaging me to ask if I could get their kids involved too. I have been thinking of creating a Little Ambassadors programme for the kids so they can learn the importance of volunteerism. And they can do it together, they can have fun. They can even do a little project work, you know, like maybe think of how they can raise funds, and then use those funds to provide charity to certain beneficiaries. Yeah, I thought that would be meaningful for such kids.
“The most important thing for me has been reinforcing to them that even if they make mistakes, or are imperfect, I still love them all the same”
What has motherhood been like for you, especially given how busy your schedule is?
I try to be very involved in their lives—my kids are still pretty young, so I find the moments I can, like sending them to school and extra-curriculars. It’s a bit of a juggle, and I’ve been asked—why don’t you let them take the school bus? That definitely works for some people but I find that to be a good time to touch base and ask them how their day was. They tell me so many things too, so it helps us keep that connection.
My favourite time with them is at night. Here’s a special tip—kids reveal all their secrets to you before they sleep. So they could be silent all day, but right before they sleep, when they’re rolling around, they will open up about anything they are thinking about or anything troubling them. They might tell you about a friend in school who maybe was bullying them, or how they were scolded in school by the teacher. I get to know their secrets in those moments, when they are vulnerable. So I really like spending that time with them.
That’s a great tip. Do you ever experience mum guilt?
Absolutely. My mum guilt comes when I wonder if I’m too hard on them. I don’t force anything on them—they do their extra-curriculars by choice—but I do place a lot of emphasis on how well they’re doing in school. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting very high standards on them and expecting them to behave almost in an adult-like fashion.
I do want to prepare them for the real world and I feel like the reality is that Singapore is really quite competitive. So if they want to excel, then they will have to work hard. But I know that by nature, I’m just a perfectionist. And I’m realising that it’s hard for me to see imperfection. The most important thing for me has been reinforcing to them that even if they make mistakes, or are imperfect, I still love them all the same.