Mrs Jennifer Yeo "prayed, fasted and cried to Heaven” as her son underwent treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia as a young child, recounted George Yeo in his book. Today, their son Frederick is a doctor in the UK. Photo courtesy of Mrs Jennifer Yeo.

Prayer played an instrumental role in the recovery of young Frederick Yeo from cancer, according to his parents, former Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo and his wife Jennifer Yeo.

In George Yeo’s recently released book, Series Two, George Yeo: Musings, he recounted how Fred was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia around 2004, when he was three-and-a-half years old.

At the time, Fred’s grandmother, Mary, the mother of Jennifer Yeo, noticed that Fred was hobbling from a sharp pain in his right ankle.

“We felt as if the roof had collapsed on us.”

Mary contacted George Yeo, then a Member of Parliament of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), one night after he returned from a Meet-the-People Session to express her worry for Fred.

Shortly afterwards, George Yeo and his family were informed of the diagnosis of cancer for Fred and the prescribed treatment, which was to last two-and-a-half years.

“We felt as if the roof had collapsed on us,” George Yeo recalled in his book.

Frederick was soon unable to walk and went back to crawling. He underwent chemotherapy, after which he was able to walk again.

Fred was in remission for two years after his chemotherapy, but the leukaemia returned and he was put on another two years of chemotherapy, according to George Yeo’s book.

Mr George Yeo at World Scientific Publishing’s book launch of “Series Two: George Yeo: Musings” in February this year. Photos from www.worldscientific.com.

Two months after the second round of chemotherapy, the cancer returned. This time, in addition to the original cancer, there was a second cancer.

The only treatment was a bone marrow transplant.

Treatment in the US

The book recounted how, in August 2004, Dr Pui Ching-hon, the head of leukaemia treatment at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in the US, spoke to George Yeo and his wife on the phone one evening to make clear the danger Fred was in.

Even with a bone marrow transplant, his chances of survival were low, estimated at less than 10%. Dr Pui strongly advised the Yeos to send Fred to St Jude as soon as possible.

At that time, Mr Yeo had just been appointed Singapore Foreign Minister under Mr Lee Hsien Loong, who had newly become Prime Minister.

“I was happy Xiuqi prayed for my son. I was touched by her loving gesture.”

At a National Day Reception at the Istana in August 2004, Li Xiuqi came up to George Yeo and asked if she could pray with him, George Yeo disclosed in his book.

Xiuqi, a daughter of Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s late first wife, Wong Ming Yang, was a Protestant. George Yeo and his wife are Catholics.

Xiuqi had heard of Frederick’s condition from her father, recalled Mr Yeo.

“I agreed of course and we prayed on the spot where we were standing as there were few people around us,” he said.

Mrs Jennifer Yeo told Salt&Light: “I was happy Xiuqi prayed for my son. I was touched by her loving gesture.”

Subsequently, Fred moved to St Jude in the US for a bone marrow transplant.

St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, USA, was founded by the Lebanese American comedian Danny Thomas in 1962. Thomas, a Maronite Catholic, was popular on American television during the 1950s and 1960s.

“Jennifer was by Fred’s side for many weeks in his room from September till the end of the year in 2004,” recounted Mr Yeo in his book. “The child could not be treated without the mother, who provided not only emotional but also nursing support at critical moments.”

“When we pray, we connect with God who is Love.”

Fred needed a matching bone marrow donation, but his two brothers and sister did not have bone marrow that was suitable and there was no matching donor in the registries of Singapore and Hong Kong, according to Mr Yeo.

“Finally to our great relief, one was found in Taiwan.”

The donated marrow was flown from Taiwan to Memphis, and on Thanksgiving Day on November 25, 2004, the donated marrow was transfused into Frederick’s body, the book added.

The Taiwan government facilitated the transport of the marrow from Taiwan to Memphis, for which the Yeos remain grateful, they said.

Shortly after the bone marrow transplant, the signs indicated Fred had not fully recovered, the book recalled.

Prime Minister Lee heard about Fred’s condition and thinking Fred had another relapse, called Mr Yeo on the phone and asked him to drop his work and see to his son, Mr Yeo wrote.

“I am grateful for his concern and bravely replied that it was not yet a relapse.”

The prayers of a mother

In June 2005, the Yeos returned to Singapore from Memphis with Fred’s medical diagnosis indicating he had not fully recovered. Fred went through a series of difficulties, including roughened skin on his hands, prolonged cough and dengue infection.

“Jennifer prayed, fasted and cried to Heaven.”

“Jennifer prayed, fasted and cried to Heaven,” George Yeo recounted in the book.

Mrs Jennifer Yeo told Salt&Light: “Many people, including those whom we did not know personally, also prayed for Freddy. All these prayers changed the outcome for Freddy who was given less than 10% chance of survival initially, even with the bone marrow transplant. I am grateful to Xiuqi and to all those who prayed for Freddy.

“God worked a great miracle for Freddy. Today he is a doctor in the UK.

“When we pray, we connect with God who is Love and it is this amazing love that heals us and brings about miracles for us.

“Jesus himself prayed intensely and often with tears, cries, sighs and even sweated blood,” Mrs Yeo pointed out.

Hebrews 5:7-8 says: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission.”

An act of thanksgiving

Frederick has been well since, said the book.

“The local Taiwanese Christian community also rallied and invited my family for meals and prayer sessions.”

In 2021, he graduated with a medical degree from University College London and is now a junior doctor in East Anglia, UK.

During the nine months when Frederick was at St Jude, “the kindness my family received was heart-warming”, George Yeo wrote.

“Stealing time in between overseas commitments, I made six visits to St Jude during the nine months my son was there. Jennifer told me how the local Catholic church my family went to for Sunday mass in Memphis passed the hat around to collect money for them.

“We were touched even though we did not need the money. Their support meant a lot to us. The local Taiwanese Christian community also rallied and invited my family for meals and prayer sessions,” he added.

After returning to Singapore, Mrs Yeo established the VIVA Foundation for Children with Cancer to help raise cure rates in Singapore and the region.

“VIVA Foundation for Cancer became our act of thanksgiving,”

“VIVA became our act of thanksgiving,” Mr Yeo wrote.

In 2012, George Yeo moved to Hong Kong to take up the post of chairman of Kerry Logistics, a Hong Kong-listed firm controlled by Robert Kuok. Subsequently, Mrs Yeo established in Hong Kong a China VIVA Foundation to help raise cure rates in China and Hong Kong, working with Dr Pui and others doctors from St Jude.

Over 20 hospitals are included in the programme and many thousands of children are covered by it, said the book.

Within a few years, the published five-year survival rate for children with cancer in all these hospitals improved from 70% to over 90%, the book added.

In 2018, former US Senator Bill Bradley invited George Yeo to join him for a session to discuss China at a forum at Sun Valley in the US state of Idaho, which was organised by Allen & Company, a US financial advisory.

Dr Pui Ching-hon and other doctors from St Jude Children’s Research Hospital are working with VIVA Foundation to help raise cancer cure rates. Photo from www.viva.sg.

“He warned me that anti-China feelings were gathering force in the US. In fact, it was for that precise reason that he wanted me to speak. Encouraged by Bill, I ended my presentation by talking about how St Jude saved my son and is now saving many children in Asia including China,” Mr Yeo recalled in his book.

“I remind myself sometimes to see the world as a mother would of all her children, especially the sick ones.”

The China programme, which VIVA supports, is the world’s largest study group in this field. The knowledge gained from it will one day help American children, if not already, Mr Yeo’s book pointed out.

“The received wisdom today is that conflict between the US and China is inevitable, directly or indirectly,” he wrote.

“However, when we view international relations through the eyes of suffering children, we must ask where true wisdom really lies. Jesus taught us: Blessed are the peacemakers; the meek will inherit the world; unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

“While I am a realist in political matters, I remind myself sometimes to see the world as a mother would of all her children, especially the sick ones,” he added.


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About the author

Toh Han Shih

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean living in Hong Kong. He is currently chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consulting firm. In his previous career, he was a full-time business journalist for more than 15 years for various media, including the South China Morning Post and the Business Times of Singapore.