Donald Gunn Lecturer 2003


Prof. Bala was born in the railway quarters in Senthul Kuala Lumpur, on 26 October 1929 to orthodox Jaffna Hindu parents, but he lost his father in the Japanese bombing in 1942 while he was visiting Ceylon. In 1946 Bala passed the Senior School Certificate with an exemption from London matriculation. Seeing the son’s ability his mother was keen that he should continue his studies and do Medicine. 3 astrologers had studied Bala’s horoscope and all predicted that he would do well in studies and become a Pandit (professor) in his field but would be a “rolling stone” making a name for himself wherever he worked. The predictions were proved right as Bala is still on the move stamping his name as Pandit in orthopaedics.

He got through the university entrance examination in 1948 and entered medical school. His university career was smooth and he still boasts of having finished the medical student course spending less than Rs5000 (S$100/-). Bala graduated in 1955 and did his houseman posting in the general hospital in Galle, a provincial town. As a surgical houseman in Galle he met Ratnadevi Desilva, his future life partner who was then a nurse. She was a Singhalese Buddhist and Bala a Hindu Tamil. Intermarriage among different religions was unheard of in those days and there was objection from both sides. The couple had to wait seven years to get the blessings of their people and got married in 1962 in a Hindu temple in Jaffna.

In 1958 Bala was selected to be an orthopedic trainee in the general hospital in Colombo and he and his wife went to UK to do his Surgical Fellowship and obtained it in 1965. In June 1966 Bala joined as Lecturer in orthopedic surgery in the newly built University of Malaya under Prof. Francis Silva who was the first Professor and head of the department. With the backing and encouragement of his boss, Bala became the orthopedic man of the university and was promoted to Associate Professor in 1970. In the meantime he also widened his experience working with Dr. Coventry in the Mayo Clinic and with Prof. Hodgson in Hong Kong. Bala took over as Professor and Head from Sept 1978 to Sept 1981. Within these 3 years he developed the sub-specialties of hand, microvascular surgery, pediatrics, spine, trauma and adult reconstruction. Ratna was always with Bala in whatever he did and was an excellent host to all departmental staff and visitors Bala had regularly.

When things were just looking up for him in the university, Bala was struck with two tragedies. First he had bilateral radiation cataract and could not see at distance. The next was worse in that his wife Ratna was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She wanted Bala to have his surgery first and then move to Singapore so that the family could be together. Their eldest daughter was then studying in Singapore. Bala had the eye surgery, and joined the Singapore University Department of Orthopedic Surgery as Associate Professor in October 1981.

He was promoted as full professor in 1984 but this happiness was marred by the death of his wife. Bala was miserable for a short time taking care of the three teenaged children while coping with his academic work. With determination, he managed successfully both as a father and mother to the children and also as professor in the university. He refused to have any help in the house and did everything by himself - from cooking to washing - till the children came to terms with the loss of their mother. He is now a happy grandfather. The eldest is a Lecturer in Anatomy in UHKL, son a cardiologist and the last one a teacher, both in the US - all married with children.

He was Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Medicine from 1985–1994, Deputy Chairman of Medical Board and Director of Medical Affairs from 1991–94. He was awarded the Public Administration (Gold) medal in 1991. He retired as Professor in October 94 and was a professorial fellow in the department for 2 years followed by professorial fellow in the Dean’s Office. For a period of 18 months from June 2001, he occupied the Petronas Chair in Sports Medicine in the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. He is now back at the age of 74 years as professorial fellow in the NUS Dean’s Office. Talk about a “rolling stone”!

Bala is a popular and well-recognized teacher in the region and is the organizer of postgraduate orthopedic training in Indonesia since 1981 and still runs the biannual course and examination. In recognition of his contribution to the development of orthopedics in Indonesia, he was made an honorary member of the Indonesian Orthopedic Association. Bala is also a self-taught watercolour painter and has done about 300 paintings and we can look forward to an exhibition soon. After his recent heart attack he has also started writing poetry.

He has been an invaluable member of the Singapore Orthopedic Association since his arrival in 1981. He has been the Treasurer, President and Senior ASEAN travelling fellow of the association. He was the SOA lecturer in 1994 and was made an Honorary Member of the association in 1995 in recognition of his services and contributions. I am glad that he has been selected by the association to deliver the prestigious Donald Gunn lecture for 2003 and I am honoured and privileged to present his citation today. I wish Bala many more years of happy, healthy and active life contributing to the orthopedic fraternity.