It was a celebration. A black-tie event attended by guests from around the world receiving various awards. Among them, Prof Toh Chooi Gait was seated. She was feeling proud and grateful for the recognition that she had been given the Faculty of Dental Surgery International Medal 2022 by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (RCSEd). It was an acknowledgement of her, an overseas dental Fellow’s – significant contributions to the Dental Faculty, College and dentistry as a whole.
True to her spirit of generosity and graciousness, as she delivered her acceptance speech, Prof Toh invited everyone to stand and turn their applause to the livestream cameras instead: “For this achievement, we are thankful to all who have contributed to our personal and professional development and to our family members for their love and support.” The applause rang long and loud as the entire hall joined her in her sentiment.
It was a moment she will never forget; and a far cry from where her journey had started.
As a young student, Prof Toh had always excelled in her studies. Her aim was to be a doctor. However, in the year that she was taking the examinations that would determine her entry into university, personal circumstance saw her performance dip. Still she applied for a place at the University of Singapore (subsequently re-named as National University of Singapore) in medicine, with dentistry, engineering and accountancy as her second, third and fourth choices respectively.
When her first offer came, it was for accountancy, which she rejected. She was then offered a place in engineering in Singapore. “I wanted to reject that too!” she says laughing, but her brother (who was also sponsoring her studies) talked her out of it. So, she accepted her lot and duly turned up to start her engineering course at the University of Singapore.
That was the turning point in her life. By a stroke of luck, someone dropped out of the dentistry course at the last minute, opening up a space for her. It was still not her top choice of medicine, but it was a much closer call than engineering.
She did not take to dentistry like duck to water, but the more she studied it, the more enchanted she became with it. She scored well every single year and graduated with honours, one of less than 10 to do so at the NUS. The dean of the school had even asked her to join the university as a faculty member but she declined. “I seem to be good at rejecting offers,” she jokes.
In fact, she was a woman who knew what she wanted. Firstly, she had set her sights to work in Kuala Lumpur because her significant other (who later became her husband) was going to be there. Secondly, she knew academia was her next step because she had always wanted to be a specialist and would need postgraduate training. “I did not have the money to continue studying after my degree but I knew that in academia, you will be sent to do specialist training,” she says candidly.
With this in mind, she joined the University of Malaya’s (UM) Faculty of Dentistry, the first dental school in the country. It was 1974 and it was the first time the government had lifted the compulsory government service for fresh dental graduates. And so, she made history as the youngest to be admitted into the University of Malaya as an assistant lecturer.
Not long after, Prof Toh came across an announcement of a Commonwealth scholarship. She applied and managed to acquire it for her postgraduate study at the Eastman Dental Institute at the University College London. “All through my life, my journey has just happened. I have had all these wonderful, memorable experiences. I must have been born under a real lucky star, or a Fairy Godmother is looking after me,” she says.
Nothing to lose, gaining a lot
Eastman was a referral centre for complicated and difficult cases and this gave Prof Toh invaluable exposure. “Postgraduate training is very important. It expands your mind. It teaches you to think laterally and find solutions,” she says After completion of her masters’ programme and having achieved her fellowship qualification from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (in record time of nine months), she still had some time to spare under her scholarship. She had thought of taking the fellowship examination from the Royal College of Surgeons of England but a colleague recommended her to take the Diploma in Restorative Dentistry examination that was recently launched by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
She learned that in the first cohort of 11, only one had passed the examination and even her head of department was skeptical of her success. But she forged on. “It was an extra qualification. I had nothing to lose,” she thought at that time. It turned out to be the toughest exam she had ever encountered. But along with the other five candidates in her batch, she passed! “Some of the others were senior lecturers from other universities. One of them had even brought his own toolkit with all the latest equipment to use during the exams. I had to rent my instruments!” she laughs.
After her year in the UK, she returned to UM where she then spent the next 30 years or so expanding the department’s strengths while continuing to be a proactive figure in developing the field of dentistry in Malaysia. In these years, she never stood still, always instigating the way forward. Some of her accolades include being the founding President of the Malaysian Section of the International Association for Dental Research (IADR); President of the South East Asian Association for Dental Education (SEAADE); Founding Council Member of the Malaysian Academy of Aesthetic Dentistry; Chairman of the Professional Qualifying Examination Committee of the Malaysian Dental Council (MDC); as well as being a reviewer of international and local journals.
Beyond nuts and bolts
She has been driven by her belief that education is not just learning the nuts and bolts, but about creating an environment that develops the mind for creativity. “This ensures that you are set for a future career that can contribute to society,” she says. For that to happen, she also believed that education and research must go hand in hand.
She acted to ensure that local researchers worked on local research projects rather than on “imported” ones. “Each country has different problems so research needs to be local in order for it to move forward in a way that’s relevant to the country,” she says.
It was not only in Malaysia that she pushed for this, but also in other countries in the region such as Myanmar and Vietnam. There, she saw the great potential of the people, who could carry out complicated facial reconstruction and other procedures with very basic tools. “They have such potential but they lacked the opportunity,” she recalls. Using funding from IADR, she set up computer facilities for them and supported them to start their own research.
Under the SEAADE, she also managed to introduce the peer review system in the region. “Institutes in some of our neighbouring countries could not afford to get external reviewers to give them feedback. But if you only rely on internal reviews, you don’t know if you are really doing the right thing. So, I said we will offer free reviews for others,” she says explaining that reviewers from Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia together with experienced academics from other countries in the region would travel to do these reviews as long as travel, accommodation and board were covered.
These are things that have made her life’s work fulfilling, she says: “It’s satisfying, when you feel you can help people locally and internationally; to see how people can just blossom and grow when given opportunity.”
Staying on course
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. There were many times when she felt stuck in a rut and that she should leave academia to head out and set up the lucrative specialist private practice that she always dreamed about (yes, she did dream about having a fancy office, with choice clients and flexible hours). “I felt that if I cannot move forward that means I’m no longer effective. I’d rather leave than be a dinosaur,” she shares.
But she always came back to academia because it gave her the opportunity to speak and interact with some of the best minds around the world. “You meet different people and can exchange ideas. It is about enriching your mind, and your mind is the only possession you have that people cannot steal,” she says. She also enjoyed meeting with young people with their bright ideas who continuously kept her on her toes.
In 2007, when others might have chosen retirement or at least to stay in their comfort zone, she received a call from IMU inviting her to set up its dental school. She thought, “Well, this is exciting. I can do all the things I have wanted to do but were too unconventional for a public university!”
Still, it was challenging. She had to convince senior members and partner schools to back her on a bunch of innovative, but untested and untried, ideas. “Even when I drew up the curriculum, the partner schools were skeptical about it,” she says. They felt there was too much in it for learning to happen. But she told them “It’s not too much. It is the way you make them learn.”
“I was very lucky that the staff appreciated the direction I was going. I took them out of their comfort zones with new ideas, new concepts, new ways of doing things,” she says. Her methods saw lecture rooms turn into more interactive platforms with students leaving behind poster assignments and presenting information as TV talk shows and documentaries, taking into consideration audience, media platforms and messages.
“You need to inspire people to want to learn and retain that knowledge. If you make the information relevant and interesting, they will remember it for life. It is about changing your learning experience,” she says.
Change is something close to her heart and for her, it is the key to progress. “But it has to be for the right reasons, not just because it is trendy. Change has to bring progress and increase the quality of education, or of life or of health care,” she adds.
A woman to be reckoned with
Prof Toh herself has been a catalyst of change and a role model as a woman who has broken all sorts of ceilings. This year’s International Women’s Day theme, “Embrace Equity”, is very much in line with her own journey and personal philosophy.
She remembers a time in the 90s when she was invited to speak in Korea as the President-elect of the IADR Southeast Asian Division. “They did not expect me to be a woman!” she says. According to her, the predominantly male group of professors did not know how to deal with her and had to send a younger staff to see to her. “But the younger ones came up to me and said you are an inspiration that a woman can hold such a high post,” she recalls.
It’s been many years since then, but Prof Toh says that there is still a lack of women in leadership positions. “Many, even women, still prefer to have male bosses because they think that a male boss will be easier to work with and are less fussy. How will women ever rise up if women themselves don’t appreciate each other and help each other?” she asks.
She feels that it is about changing the mindset of women and putting a stop to stigmatising and stereotyping the roles of female and male. “We need to liberalise the mind. I always like to encourage women and give them confidence. They know they can work very hard, but they want to work behind the scenes rather than step forward.”
Jewel in the crown
Prof Toh, for one, is not afraid to step forward. Even with an illustrious list of achievements behind her, she is already looking at how she can contribute to the future of dentistry.
Today, besides her role at IMU, she is working with an external company to develop a fully computerised clinical decision support system. The system will be able to prompt dentists with questions and generate a diagnosis with evidence-based treatment options and a sequenced treatment plan. It will also give information on how to communicate with the patient so that the patient can make informed decisions. “I think it would especially be very useful for young dentists or those with less experience,” she says.
She is also still introducing, along with other colleagues, new learning philosophies to the university such as challenge-based learning where students work to solve real life situations in the community. It is her hope that the IMU will one day become the community’s university, where the community sees the institute as part of its whole ecosystem. In her words – “Where the community contributes to the university and the university contributes to them. Where we are real partners.”
One cannot help but feel infected by her optimism and proactiveness as you listen to her stories. There is no telling what else she will venture into but if you ask her what her secret is to such a fulfilling and productive career, she won’t tell you that it’s about her tenacity, and her positive outlook. She won’t attribute it to her smarts and skills but instead she’ll tell you – “Marry the right partner. It is the support you have around you that will carry you far.”