Malaysia to Derbyshire - my NHS journey

Prem Singh

19 / 1 / 2016 8.30am

Prem Singh, Chairman at Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Trust shares with us his bold decision to leave his home country at 18 to pursue a career in the NHS.

I arrived in England from Malaysia on 10 August 1975, a date imprinted on my brain to begin my general nurse training.  I was 18 years old and had answered an ad in a Malaysian newspaper for nurse training recruits. I saw it as my chance to travel to England and stand on my own two feet. I was always fiercely independent.

Arriving in Chesterfield to start my training at the town’s (old) Royal Hospital was the biggest culture shock of my life. I was wearing a turban and stood out like a sore thumb. Coming from a 30 degree climate, I’d never owned a jumper or a coat and had only ever been on a train once before in my life.

It was not a good start. After a 30-plus hour journey I was tired, nodded off and missed my train stop, finding myself in Sheffield. When I finally arrived in Chesterfield matron greeted me with a frosty face and her first words were, “you’re late.”

But I was eager, keen and excited. I also spoke the Queen’s English, so I was unprepared on my first day when people around me were saying “Ay up m’duck”!  It was quite a lonely time and my only contact with my family was via letters, as phone calls were difficult and expensive. But I was determined and the people I worked with, and the patients, were lovely.  It was five years before I heard my father’s voice again.

That was 40 years ago. I always intended to go back to Malaysia but I fell in love with nursing, with the place, the people and I’m still here! The NHS has been good to me, I’ve had a very worthwhile career and a good quality of life.

Most of my career has been in the NHS, apart from seven years in social services in Sheffield. I spent about eight years as a general and psychiatric nurse, which I loved doing, before moving into health and social care leadership roles. For 25 years now I’ve been working at board level, including in national and regional roles.

Pivotal points have been coming back to Chesterfield as chief executive to establish  the town’s primary care trust in 2001 and then taking up my current role as chairman of Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust in 2013.  It is fantastic to meet up again with people I trained with, and to chair meetings in a converted ward at the town’s Walton Hospital where I began my nursing placement all those years ago.

Perhaps the most difficult pivotal moment was deciding to get rid of my turban a few years after arriving in England.  I look back now and it was a difficult time, but I saw it as adapting to my environment and integrating. It was my launch pad in terms of helping my confidence. It also makes me very determined to ensure that the NHS today is reflective of the diverse nation we are.

We need to persuade young people that working in the NHS is hugely rewarding, despite some of the things they see in the media. We need to encourage and attract people from different perspectives and backgrounds, to foster creativity and innovation in the health service. Unless those of us working in the NHS can relate to the communities we serve we aren’t going to understand or meet their needs appropriately. Young people are the future of the NHS.

Keep watching this week for more #NHSwhereIstarted blogs. If you would like to share your story of when and where you started in the NHS tweet @ThinkFutureNHS using the hashtag #NHSwhereIstarted or email the ThinkFuture team at 

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