Top plastic surgeon Martin Huang is happiest when the result of his work goes unnoticed
Published : The Straits Times, Singapore, Monday, 21-December-2009
The teenage Martin Huang was miserable. Basic Military Training was tough going.
'I was absolutely miserable, depressed,' he says. He is just not very good with physical hardship, he admits, and the lad looked for a way out.
The son of a chemistry professor had already secured a spot to study chemistry at London's Imperial College. But he took up an option he had been thinking of - medicine.
Being accepted into the National University of Singapore's (NUS) medical school meant he could disrupt his officer cadet course and after his studies, come back as a medical officer, a vocation with considerably less sweat involved.
'Luckily, it turned out to be the right decision,' says Dr Huang, now 48.
The man, whose mother describes as being both determined and a perfectionist from a young age, has more than made up for that uninspired start to his career.
Those around the patient might notice something - a new hairdo or looking well-rested from a holiday - but if everything has gone well, they should be none the wiser about the work done, he says.
And luckily for doctors like him, more of them are willing to open up. Word-of- mouth recommendation is how he prefers to make his name, despite his many interviews.
'Cosmetic surgery has come out of the closet,' he says. 'Not totally, but to a greater degree than in the past. It's no longer seen as just an exercise in vanity. People are not ashamed to talk about it.'
He is speaking to Life! from his practice, The Cosmetic Surgery Clinic, at the Paragon mall. Dressed in minimalist chic, in a black T-shirt and grey trousers, and surrounded by the office's shiny, futuristic furnishings, he and his practice exude taste and polish. The consultation room we use for the chat is spotless.
The prize-winning debater is forthright, as only someone who is confident enough to argue his position can be. He does not, for example, talk about getting into medicine to help sick people, as physicians tend to do. His candour is refreshing.
How he came to be one of Singapore's top plastic surgeons is in part due to his own qualities, but it also reflects society's changing values.
Not only are people more deeply interested in cosmetic surgery than ever, that interest is matched by changes in technology that stoke it.
The boom in 'facelift-in-a-needle' procedures that began in the 1990s means that a large chunk of his patients now come for Botox and filler jabs.
For example, on days when he has people for non-surgical procedures, he can see 30 to 40 patients, who are both Singaporeans and visitors from neighbouring countries. When he has to go into the operating theatre, it can be just one a day.
It is perhaps not surprising that he appears uneasy about being called a medical pioneer.
'I don't do it on purpose,' he says of the perception that he is on the cutting edge. He is simply trying to deliver the best to his patients and sometimes that means bringing a new technique to Singapore, he explains.
Take breast augmentation, he says. He holds two silicone implants, one in each hand.
One, the type most widely used, has the perfect dome shape that, when seen on a woman, has the unnatural look typical of implants.
The other type, called an anatomical implant, has a slight teardrop shape, the same shape as a real breast. The perfectly round model is still used because no matter how it is inserted, it is the right way up, making the operation much less demanding.
But for the last two years, Dr Huang has offered the more complex operation to insert the natural-looking implant.
He also believes he was among the first in Singapore to offer procedures such as IPL (intense pulsed light, a form of skin rejuvenation) and Botox and filler injections.
'It's tempting to fall into the mindset that to be successful, you have to be the first. I don't believe that is true,' he says.
For doctors, there is a downside to being too aggressively novel.
In October this year, Dr Huang was fined $5,000 and censured by the Singapore Medical Council for injecting patients with foetal stem cells from sheep to prevent the effects of ageing. Such treatments are not accepted by the medical establishment outside of an approved trial.
Asked about this, he repeats an earlier statement he made about how he 'totally respects and accepts the SMC and Ministry of Health's position on the matter' and will say no more.
He says his style is to be a 'fast follower'. He prefers to go in after a treatment has been proven to be safe and effective by other doctors, as in the case of the teardrop-shaped breast implants.
He agrees that more than other medical specialities, cosmetic surgery techniques and treatments evolve and innovate at a faster rate. Part of this is driven by the demands of patients.
'It's a reflection of modern society. We live in a visual world,' he says. While he is in the public eye for his cosmetic surgery work, he is still active in reconstructive surgery. His specialisation is the repair of cleft palates.
It is rare for him to turn down any cosmetic surgery request because he thinks most patients are sensible people who know where to draw the line.
But he has said no in the past to one woman who wanted fuller-looking legs. At the time, he had no answer for her, but thinks that today, with newer types of fillers, he could do the job.
He has said he used the treatment on himself as well. In fact, he and his wife Patricia, who declined to give her age, both use non-surgical treatments such as Botox and medical-grade creams for skin rejuvenation.
'I like looking presentable and I am in this business, so we try to walk the talk.'
As a medical trainee, the former student of Anglo-Chinese School, Catholic High and NUS was well into training as a general surgeon, a doctor dealing with diseases of the organs in the abdominal area, such as the appendix, gall bladder and liver.
'I wanted to be a general surgeon because it was exciting,' he says. 'General surgery dealt with conditions that were life and death.'
Then, mid-way through training, the repetitive nature of the scenarios began to bore him. There was only ever going to be one standard way to remove an appendix, he says. He also noted that the part of surgery he enjoyed most was the final sewing shut of the wound. He wanted the skin to look as good as it could, so he took extra care and pride in making the scar as small as possible.
'I wanted the skin to look beautiful. It felt so good when it was beautiful,' he says.
His mother, Mrs Huang Chai Lean, 73, a retired school principal, admits to her son's nagging need to excel.
'He is a perfectionist,' she says. He got that from her, she adds. From Primary 1, he never had to be nagged to do his homework. He would make sure it was done before he went out to play. He was just that self-motivated, she says.
He is the eldest and has two siblings, a sister, 46, who is an innkeeper in the United States, and a brother, 38, who is an imaging specialist.
His father, Professor Huang Hsing Hua, 77, is a retired emeritus professor of chemistry and the former deputy vice-chancellor of NUS.
Mrs Huang discovered her own public speaking skills after becoming principal of Tanjong Katong Girls' School and encouraged him to take part in speech competitions as a child. It would lead to his love of debating.
In 1978, he was a member of the National Junior College debating team. It reached the final of the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation's National Debating Competition. He won the best speaker award for every round except the final.
He went on to join the NUS debating team, and four years later, it won the broadcasting corporation's debating competition.
His quest for perfection in tennis - his favourite player is Roger Federer because of the perfection of the player's stroke - emerged in his teens when he trained for competition. In his youth, he was placed among the top 20 players in Singapore, outside of the national team.
Today, he still plays tennis every Sunday with a coach. It is just more efficient to play with a professional when you have little time and also because in tennis, as in everything else, Dr Huang is striving to do better. He also coaches his son, Alex, who is almost seven, in the sport.
Besides tennis, his other passion is football. He is an ardent Arsenal fan. 'My daily mood depends on how they are doing.'
He also loves performance cars and owns a red Ferrari F430 Spider, a car he loves as much for the way it sounds as the way it performs.
'It makes a low-pitched growl at lower revs but at higher revs, it makes that classic, high-pitched scream, like a Formula One car,' he says. He has also owned another make of Ferrari as well as a Porsche.
He is a co-founder and an executive director of Pacific Healthcare. The publicly listed company, the largest non-hospital-based health-care group in Singapore, had revenues of $81 million last year.
The company suffered a loss of $11.8 million in the same year, the first since its founding in 2001, because of the cost of a new heart and cancer centre and a shareholder dispute.
His single-doctor practice is a subsidiary of Pacific. In Singapore, there are about 30 doctors with various medical specialities in the group, operating out of Paragon and Wisma Atria. It also has centres in China, Hong Kong and India.
He had no specific urge to be part-owner of a large corporation, he says. It was incidental. He and some like-minded doctors and dental surgeons saw the value of being part of a larger group and decided to form the company in 2001, he says.
Dental surgeon William Chong, 47, chief executive of Pacific Healthcare, first met Dr Huang in 1999 at a medical conference in Singapore and found him to be 'intelligent and perceptive'.
'I shared my frustrations that medicine was too piecemeal. Everyone was looking at the patient from his own perspective,' he says. The seeds for Pacific Healthcare were thus planted.
'He is an extremely meticulous person. He demands a lot of himself and his team. During surgery, he will put something in position and if he finds that it does not look good, he will redo it to make sure that everything looks perfect,' says Dr Chong of his colleague.
Cocktail parties and gala openings are where one imagines a doctor might want to be seen in, especially a plastic surgeon, but these events are not on his to-do list.
He gets many invitations but says he has no time to attend. Work starts at 8.30am and goes on for a few hours after the official closing time of 9pm on Thursdays and 6pm on other days.
While some plastic surgeons see an uptick heading into the year-end party season, Dr Huang says it is usually chock-a-block all year round at his clinic.
After work, home is where he wants to be. His family bungalow in the Clementi area is designed by childhood friend and renowned architect Wong Chiu Man.
The home boasts long, sleek lines and a unique style of decorative concrete, called form-finished concrete. Wet concrete is held in timber moulds and when dry, takes on the texture of the wood, giving an interesting visual effect. It is these small details that catch the surgeon's attention.
His clinic, too, is designed by Wong's firm. Its stark white colour scheme and futuristic look give it the look of a spaceship.
He married Patricia, a former air stewardess, in 1993. They were introduced by a mutual friend. She is now a housewife and Alex is their only child. He says he is trying to cut back on work to spend more time with his wife and son.
Recently, the family took up skiing, which they enjoy doing in Japan.
But there is a sense that work will always be important. Today, two decades after he started practising, he still speaks with the tone of someone who feels lucky to be in such a fascinating field.
'Each person is different and you have to do things differently for each person. Everything you do has an aesthetic consequence. That is an incredible challenge.'