In his lifetime, Dr NK Yong wore many hats. He was a highly accomplished surgeon, having performed Singapore’s, and Malaysia’s first-ever open heart surgery. He was also the longest-serving president of the Singapore Medical Association, having served three separate terms totalling six years.
Dr Yong was also well-known for his other passion: wine. He was a pillar of Singapore’s wine community, having mentored many in the industry while writing a weekly wine column for The Business Times for 30 years. He counted many of the world’s top winemakers among his friends, and was famous for the many wine dinners that he and his wife, Melina, would host at their home.
For all his accomplishments though, Dr Yong is best remembered for his generosity and wisdom. Here, his family, friends, and colleagues share their stories, thoughts, and tributes.
From his children: Kwee Lan, Li Lan, Mei Lan, Tet Shin
“Our father gave us our sense of what it means to live and act with conviction, compassion, principles and courage, and his love for us gave us the strength to try. He taught us always to do our very best, never to settle for second best. To do our best meant to exceed our current limitations. Among the many gifts that we treasure from our father are three key lessons.
First, if you believe that something is truly important, don’t let anyone tell you that it can’t be done. There must be a way. Second, focus on what you can give, as opposed to what you achieve. His words were ‘it is time to give back, always encouraging us to mentor and nurture. Third, never settle for the status quo, you can always make things better, make the world a better place. He did not define “a better place”, nor what to contribute—he taught us how to discriminate for ourselves what “better” would be and the contribution we could make.
Above all, we honour his humanity. We will miss his warm and enormous heart. In the words of his favourite Shakespeare play, Hamlet: He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
From his son, T S Yong
“The aftermath reveals greater depths of meaning to us all, we who are left behind, we who continue to bear testament to what the Americans would call “one of the true greats”. My father told me many things over the years, and as my career began to gain traction in the US, in Miami and New York, one that has never left the forefront of my mind is this – “If you measure yourself against your own standard, no one can touch you.
Set your own bar, and when you are just about to reach it, stop, and raise the bar. Follow your own path, what you know to be right, and though it may gain you enemies and enmity, you will prevail”. My father set the bar in everything he did, and in doing so, inspired everyone, his son included.
His humanity remains a clear beacon to us all, and we will never forget, as he lives on in us. In his children, in his wife, Mrs. Melina Yong, and in all whose lives he touched, be they ones he saved with his own hands, or those to whom he brought his joy of wine and food to.”
From his goddaughter, Shirley Crystal Chua and husband Jeremy Ong
“Dr NK Yong was a mentor, a role model and an inspiration. He was family to me and my wife. He was a man of few words, and very often his actions spoke for him. Love was his language, patience and humility were his virtue. He was a loving husband, generous and loyal friend, and a compassionate doctor.
As an accomplished leader, he taught us the importance of dedication, commitment, hard work, and what it means to be driven by passion and sense of purpose. We looked up to Dr NK, who was a man of integrity with high moral standards, humility and a heart of gold. The mark of a true gentleman.
Our fondest memories of Dr NK would be shared during our travels together, most memorably a wine tour in Spain, and all the intimate dinner sessions hosted by both him and his wife Melina.”
From his goddaughter Lynn Yeow
“To the world; he is a titan. A legendary renowned surgeon who pioneered the first open-heart surgery in Singapore and Malaysia , a world-respected wine authority, an indefatigable supporter of charities and a compassionate philanthropist.
To me, he is more. A gracious mentor with the most generous heart. His magnanimous love and wisdom has left an indelible mark on me and my family. He is a godfather to me.
A quote taken from William Shakespeare that best represented his most recent recollection to me about his beloved wife Mrs Melina Yong: “When I saw you I fell in love, and you smiled because you knew”. He loved her so much and it was the beginning of everything.
Our weekly Tuesday dinners will be greatly missed with memories I dearly hold on to.
He loved wine, not in and of itself, but for what it stood for. “Wine is about people,” Let us raise our glasses and toast to his life… well-lived, well-loved.
I have so much to talk about our trips together, all the charity galas I have organised for his bdays and significant dates and occasions celebrated and spent together my amazing godpa has lived a full and blessed life. I can only bottle the memories and live on them moving ahead. Let’s all look back at the silver linings and be Thankful. Family, health, and simple pleasures.”
From Nicola Lee, Consul General of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in Singapore
“I don’t think one can truly do justice to describing what NK has done for Singapore in relation to the wine world. He really put the red dot on the map. He was the first Asian World Chair of the International Wine & Food Society (1992 to 1996) and his Celebration 80, 85 and 90 charity dinners are legendary. I learnt so much (as did the others who attended) from the tasting sessions led by himself and Serene Sutcliffe.
I shall always remember NK for his warm and generous nature, and firm belief in the younger generation. He very kindly invited me to sit with him on a wine tasting panel of a local magazine when I was in my 20s. I was deeply honoured and took every opportunity to learn from, and observe him. Already a stalwart in the wine world here and abroad, he had an insatiable curiosity about wine and the people in wine; and was very generous in sharing his expertise. This one act of his led to many other wine opportunities for me for which I am truly grateful.
NK & Melina had a knack of bringing people together. Their home was always one of laughter, shared passions and fond memories. NK built relationships that lasted generations. Today, I count as some of my closest friends those I met at his table.”
From Tetsuya Wakuda, chef-owner of Waku ghin
“NK Yong was one of my earliest friends in Singapore. Our friendship spanned over 30 years and deepened over our common love for food. He was a generous soul, and never hesitated to share what he had and knew, whether it was a restaurant recommendation, a good bottle of wine, or his life learnings.
His dinner parties were legendary and his wine collection incomparable. But what I remember most fondly about NK was his humility and his passion for life. I will miss him dearly.”
From Gerald Lu, president of the Sommelier Association of Singapore
“Dr Yong was always very generous, and happy to share. He always wanted the sommeliers to have a chance to taste the wines – no matter how junior they were.
One of my most vivid memories of serving him was when I was a young sommelier at the now-defunct Brasserie Wolf. That was about 2008. He was doing a tasting of Bordeaux versus Super Tuscans and was telling me that to learn as a somm, I had to taste as much as I could – and asked me to taste all the wines that they were having.
After that, he asked me about my favourite, and I pointed at the Sassicaia. He then asked what my “vintage” (age) was, and I said 1985 – to which he replied was a very good year for Sassicaia. He then told me to buy it – a bottle of that was about $900 at that point of time – saying that even if I borrowed money for it, I could return double the amount and still make money. Now 1985 sassicaia is worth about $3000 – I should have listened to him then!”
From Daniel Chia, wine industry veteran
“My first encounter with Dr. N K Yong was in 1992, when i served at his Draycott Dining Club. I would work with him again later, when I was the Cellarmaster at Raffles Hotel in 2003, where he was the Fine Wine Consultant, and again in 2004, assisting him in managing a series of charity wine events in Shanghai.
My last project with him was as a member of the Organising Committee and the Principal Sommelier for Celebration 90 in 2017, a series of wine events that raised $1.25 million for Saint Andrew’s Autism Home. At work during these events, Dr Yong expected perfection, and would not suffer fools and silly mistakes.
After each series of events, he would organise dinner at his home for the teams that worked at these events, to thank them for their hard work and service. He was indeed a generous host in more ways than one would normally expect.”
From Dr Wong Chiang Yin, SMA council member and past President (2006 – 2009)
“Dr NK Yong’s formidable clinical skills were evident even when he was 81 years old when over dinner and to the alarm of the younger doctors that were with him, he self-diagnosed that he had an acute dissecting aortic aneurysm, which was then promptly stented.
Another aspect of him that many may not know is that he is also a dyed in the wool ACS boy. His father was a famous ACS teacher who was also for a time Principal of Kampar ACS in the 30s. In the mid-1980s, when I was a student in ACJC, my then principal, who was taught by the senior Mr Yong Ngim Djin, was still talking to me about his beloved teacher. NK cited his father as the most important influence in his life; for being a good Christian and a pillar of the Church. NK said it was from him that NK learnt to show compassion and charity towards his fellow human beings.
When he was asked what makes a good surgeon, his answer was telling. He said “Your heart must be in it. To live fully, you must have passion burning in you – and that applies particularly if you want to excel at anything you choose to do”. That was vintage NK. Passion and conviction were never things found in short measure in the man.”