A CHAT WITH INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN: TAN SRI DR. JEMILAH MAHMOOD
By Zarina Abu Bakar
It’s always intimidating to be in the presence of an internationally- accomplished and outstanding human being whose list of achievements would fill several chapters of a book, and then some. But Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, , founder of MERCY Malaysia, recipient of Bahrain’s prestigious Isa Award for Services to Humanity in 2013 and now head of the World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat at the United Nations in New York, exudes such warmth and charisma that you cannot help but relax in her company. This writer has had the opportunity to meet with Tan Sri Dr. Jemilah – or Dr. Jim, as she insists – several times before this interview and at each meeting, was captivated by her candour and willingness to share ideas and experience.
This interview was conducted via Skype. In this interview, she talks about her family background, MERCY Malaysia, and her thoughts on leadership.
Tell us about your parents, Dr. Jim. Were either or both of them strong influencers in your life when you were growing up?
I come from a mixed parentage. My father was a civil servant in the Johor State Service. My mother was a Chinese woman, a housewife turned entrepreneur. We grew up in diversity; there were a lot of inter-marriages in the family. My parents had both been married before so we have half-sisters. I have a half-sister who is Christian. My father respected diversity – we grew up in a home that had so much respect for culture. Those days, he must have broken boundaries to marry my Mother because inter- marriages were not common. We celebrated everything –Hari Raya, Chinese New Year – it was no big deal.
I am the youngest of seven siblings. My father was the typical civil servant of those days. He went to an English college and served the Johor State Service. He was quiet, an avid reader as well as a thoughtful person. I spent a lot of time with him because when I was born, he had already retired. He was a key influencer in the early part of my years.
His influence on me was that – kindness. That’s one of the most important things. He loved my mother so much. She was much younger and once my father was diagnosed with cancer, he supported her decision to have a career. She became an entrepreneur – a fairly successful one – with very little education.
My father died when I was eleven – not of old age but of cancer. His death had a huge impact on my life – huge. I remember the day my Father died – some not very kind relative pulled me aside and said “You are on your own now. Your father was the one who loved you so much. Everyone is busy now so you have to grow up.” That was very traumatic for an eleven year old, being told she was on her own and all alone.
Were there patterns in your childhood that could have planted the seed of the humanitarian in you?
I suppose I was exposed to a certain value system from young. One thing about my parents was that they were very generous. We used to live in a house that had families living with us, including people who came from rich families but who were themselves not rich. My parents had no hesitation helping people, feeding them and finding them jobs, so we used to have lots of people sleeping in our house. Rice was bought by the sacks. My parents were not rich but whatever they had, they shared. My earliest memory of my father was that he would do the marketing. I would follow him. Everyone knew him at the market.
My parents were very proud; they always told us that if we did well in exams, we could not take scholarships because they could work and put us through school and college. So we grew up in that environment, it was always about independence and self-sacrifice.
When May 13th happened and there was a curfew, the vegetable sellers and chicken owners from the market would come during the few hours where there was no curfew and send food to our home. My father would then start slaughtering chickens and my house would become like a central storage space. My father would pack chicken and other food. My brother and I were small and we would walk through the monsoon drains because nobody would be able to see us and send the food to neighbours. My Mother shared some of her time and certainly resources with the hospital.
But both my parents didn’t talk about their philanthropy. When my mother died, people contacted us from all over Malaysia asking why the cheques stopped coming. She had been quietly sending donations to mosques and such. We did not know.
School, too, influenced me. Assunta1 is a very special school. Our headmistrees, Sister Enda Ryan, would always say school was about growing hearts and minds, and not just about passing exams. Every weekend was occupied with community work. I was active in Girl Guides and then was President of the Leo Club, so that also exposed me a lot to volunteerism.
The philanthropic spirit was strong in your childhood, then.
When I was about thirteen and a half, my mother used to pack me up and send me to Singapore during the long school holidays at the end of the year. We had less fortunate relatives in Singapore. My mother would hand me RM1,000 which at that time was substantial. I would help these relatives buy school books and school shoes. The trips were quite difficult – it made me rebellious as I felt my mother didn’t have time for me. But it did teach me to be independent.
On her deathbed, my mother said to me, “I always knew you were different. Do what your heart tells you and you will be okay.” She thanked me for being a good daughter to her. So I always feel that I have the blessings of my family. In many ways, I am doing this for my parents.
Was it your parents who motivated you to become a doctor?
Something happened in school. I was one of the few Malays at Assunta. You had to fill up a life card every year – one of the things in it was your ambition. And my ambitions were always author, writer, actress; an artist. I am an Arts person by nature!
Then, when I was in Form Four, I asked one of my classmates, a non Malay, why she had “Doctor” as her ambition every single year. I asked her why she didn’t want to do anything else. She laughed and said, “You know, my people normally become engineers and doctors. Your people usually become clerks and teachers.” That was my first exposure to racial stereotyping. I think it must have affected me very badly. I had to think about it. How can professions be race-determined?
I changed completely. I put “Doctor” as my first ambition. Second was still “Journalist”. I wanted to prove that I could be a doctor. I could do this! I worked quite hard and I became a doctor and that friend never became a doctor. We are still friends, though. I became an Obstetrician and Gynecologist because I love working around women. I sailed through medical school and became a lecturer at UKM.
I suppose one of my qualities is that I love challenges. I thrive on challenge and my love for challenge; I think, in retrospect, has allowed me to do what I do now.
When was it that you decided that you wanted to do more and help in humanitarian causes?
After four years of a very successful private practice in Ampang Putri Hospital, I woke up one day and thought, “I love my patients, I love what I do, but I am not being true to what I really want to do.” At that time, there was a war going on in Kosovo and other parts of the world. I wrote to a lot of organisations in Malaysia volunteering my services as a doctor but nobody responded. I think at the time humanitarian work just wasn’t something that Malaysians do.
I then applied to Doctors without Borders and immediately, they wrote back and wanted to set me up for an interview. That’s when I said to my husband, “Why is it that Malaysians don’t care? We emphasise the development of buildings and the economy but we don’t consider human development in the equation. If we don’t develop compassion, if we don’t develop global solidarity, then it’s going to be a dark place in the future.”
And my husband’s reply was, “If you feel strongly about it, then start an organisation.” That was 1999.
I started investigating about setting up an organisation. At the time, I was the Vice President of the Malaysian Menopause Society. So I had the constitution in front of me, and I thought, ‘Okay, I will take this constitution and adapt it for a humanitarian organisation. It’s quite funny, really. We withdrew our Tabung Haji savings as seed capital for MERCY Malaysia.
It usually takes six months but we got the organisation registered in two months. There was a man on the other side of the phone, Mr Jeya. I asked him “Mr. Jeya, are you a Hindu? Don’t you think that it is unkind that people are killing each other? Don’t you think we should help?” He agreed and I said that if he helped me, he would be helping me help other people. I must have been persuasive because he took my forms and, I kid you not, returned the forms with corrections marked in red ink. The organisation was registered two months later”.
What was the vision for mercy Malaysia?
It was to build a platform and bring Malaysians to get her to do good. It was for me to live my idea is that race is not the issue. Whatever belief system we have, we should have a common vision and common purpose which is about global solidarity – about growing people and growing yourself in the process
MERCY Malaysia has grown to be an internationally respected organisation. What was the tipping point for the growth of MERCY Malaysia?
The first tipping point was Iraq. When we were hurt in Iraq2, people realised we were serious about our work. Some people thought we were stupid, foolish, and idiotic for going there. They thought we took risks but we actually had calculated them and established a lot of risk management measures – we had a system in place to assess risk, we had a security advisor from the military with us and took other risk mitigating steps. But these things happen and in fact, security of humanitarian workers is a major problem nowadays.
It would have been easy to say “I have made a huge mistake. This has cost lives. Let’s pack up and go home. I’m a failure.” But I felt that if I did that, the lives of those who were killed would have been meaningless. In the memory of all colleagues who were killed and injured, I had to grow the organisation to be stronger. So we tightened up our security measures; we got the Malaysian police to train us in hostage situations and invested in tightening up our security. So much so that MERCY Malaysia now trains other organisations and journalists going to hostile environments. That was the tipping point for the organisation to look at our systems.
The second tipping point was the Indian Ocean tsunami3. With the small amount of money that we had, we had ran numerous programmes in Acheh that people actually appreciated because we lived with, and consulted the people in the design of the programmes.
Was this usual practice amongst humanitarian organisations?
This practice – Accountability to Affected People – was unusual then and is not that much better now. The tsunami evaluation showed that this was a problem particularly with international actors.. It was more common among local actors but they were overshadowed by the international actors. I think it has to improve because people have mobile phones and if you don’t give them the assistance they need, they can complain.
So MERCY is unique– it’s a cross between a local organisation and an international organisation. We called ourselves SNGOs (Southern NGOs) – we are not Western but we are as professional as Western organisations; we are very much local in terms of us being able to assimilate, and we don’t have the big funds that Western organisations have.
How much bigger are the funds of the international bodies?
You are talking about e.g. Save the Children having a budget of $1 billion as compared to Mercy Malaysia at our peak having RM30 million. That’s US$10 milion (RM30 million) vs $1 billion. But still we have built programmes that were appreciated and we were even commended by the Indonesian President. We rebuilt health and infrastructure in Nias Island, now recognized as the best health facility in north Sumatra.
Was this practice of involving locals something that MERCY had to learn along the way?
Not at all. It was already the Malaysian culture of talking to people, getting to know them, and respecting them. This is where the young generation needs a big smack on their heads. They don’t talk to people; it’s all self-centered with mobile devices and chats. The spirit is that you need to consult, listen to others, talk to people to find out what they want, like, don’t like, need. You think it’s common sense but it’s not common.
It was unusual to many but not difficult for us. Our personnel were practically living with the people; I had to force them to go back to the base for security reasons. The volunteers and staff were so much a part of the community that babies were named after them. Until today, I can go back to Aceh and know all the villagers.
Let me share a story that’s ultimately one of the most heartwarming: An estimated one thousand nurses were killed in the tsunami and I was asked to bring a thousand nurses from Malaysia. This was in 2004 when we also had a shortage of nurses. Aceh did not have a nursing degree programme then.
We persuaded Petronas to give us some money to build a nursing college in Aceh with a university degree programme. We requested UKM and USM to share the curriculum. This was 2006-2007 – I still remember the opening ceremony. The head of the nursing school was a man who had persuaded us to build the college, and he was weeping his eyes out because he found it unbelievable that we managed to do it. It was also unbelievable that Petronas agreed to support us – Tan Sri Hassan Merican was such a huge supporter and he believed in us.
I went back to Aceh in 2012 and after five years, around six hundred nurses had graduated from the college. They are able to work outside Aceh to remit income back to their families. The college we helped build is now the first university in Indonesia that offers a Master’s programme in Community Nursing that incorporates Disaster Management. It was the first and only one at that time.
By now, probably a thousand nurses have been produced by the university. I never would have imagined this was possible. The moral of the story is that you have to address the root cause of the problem and never give up because when intentions are good, I am confident good people will emerge to assist. The university and hospitals we helped build have become sources of economy for Aceh and Nias.
That is a wonderful achievement. so, MERCY grew after that time in Acheh?
MERCY Malaysia was one of the first organisations to gain access to Aceh, post-tsunami. We got noticed after that. A lot of people wanted to help and be involved with Mercy. Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar of Khazanah, to whom I owe a lot, sent a team to ask what we needed in support of the tsunami. I wanted the organisation to be strong, to outlive me and to have good corporate governance.
He used his contacts and influences to bring a team together. I got to know PWC’s Dato’ Johan Raslan, the Boston Consulting Group, and other corporates that came forward to so we grew an organisation that became stronger.
I started an organisation from just all volunteers,but we eventually had a strong team of staff to help run it. . This way, the corporations used their skills to help MERCY Malaysia grow instead of just giving food or blankets.
Why did you leave MERCY Malaysia, Dr Jim?
It has never been about me. I wanted to put MERCY Malaysia on the world map, and once it was on the world map, I thought it was time for me to leave so that I can prove that it is not just about one leader. It is about the sense of common purpose. It wasn’t without its own challenges. I left five years ago. I am not involved anymore in MERCY Malaysia. I felt if I remained in some important form, it would never be able to shake off my image.. Five years on, it is still thriving, so this is fine. It is about doing good that continues. MERCY has to remain true to its founding platform of excellence, vision and professionalism in the humanitarian sector without losing sight of being humble to the people affected by crises.
Is leadership in the humanitarian sector any different than in the corporate sector?
Absolutely not. I think, honestly, that if you get a top humanitarian leader and you place him or her in a business organisation, they would be just as good. The only difference is the profit motive in business – and you can get guidance from your CFO on this. Good leadership is about leading people towards a shared ambition and vision, and getting results through people. A leader is never a leader unless he or she has followers and grows leaders in the process.
The only difference is outcome. So if your outcome is about people’s lives, you lead your team to saving lives. If your outcome is tripling your profit, you lead people to higher profits.
When I talk to CEOs in Malaysia, I feel like they regard me as “the soft- hearted humanitarian”. They don’t realise that I can probably do their job but they may not be able to do my job. Because it’s just the same as running a corporation; you need to be thinking constantly about life and death. And you need to be able to face life and death situations on a regular basis and still go on. You need to be a tough person to be a humanitarian.
Humanitarian work is not charity. Charity doesn’t work. Humanitarian work is about principled action – it is about humanity, independence, impartiality, neutrality which is irrespective of faith, religion, and ethnicity. This is why when MERCY started, our tagline was “Healing across borders” – we are a humanitarian organisation that goes beyond race, religion, culture and boundary.
What do you believe is the most important contributing factor to leadership development?
The most important is the home which must encourage leadership. I am married to a man who takes pride in my achievements and encourages it. I have a very open relationship with my sons but I always teach them that every time they receive duit Raya, they must contribute 10% to charity.
I ask them to choose an organisation they can volunteer for – my eldest son volunteered at Zoo Negara, for example. So this value system of volunteerism should be encouraged from young. We must take young Malaysians away from wanting brands and material goods, which is difficult because the peer pressure is strong. And of course you must lead by example for your family.
Our education system, too, should develop minds and leaders and hearts. People are so proud when their children get 10As but they are not proud when their child rescues an animal or contributes to the welfare of the disabled. So parents have to play a role and the school system has to play a role. And if it’s one thing we need to kill in our schools it is racism and segregation.
Dr. Jim, in your line of work as a humanitarian, you have to deal with pain and death on a frequent basis. How do you recover from the pain and keep your spirits strong?
I think the most important thing is that I have to accept what I can change and what I can’t. There are limits to what I can actually do – on a personal level you need to understand your own limits. When things get tough, you need to walk away, give yourself a good cry, find good people towhom you can ventilate, people who can give you psychological first aid.
In the bigger picture, everything has a reason and you are one part of the puzzle to make things better. You have to keep the faith and if everyone has the same attitude, we can achieve much. In every terrible situation I have been, I’ve seen the nicest, kindest things and this gives me hope.
When I was in Pakistan after the earthquake, I remember sitting on rubble and feeling quite hungry and very sad. It was Hari Raya and I was alone, and there was no family with me.. Then this little girl with grubby hands came to me and put her fingers into some sweet rice and put the rice to my lips and with the biggest smile, said, “Eid Mubarak ”. When I got back to my camp, Norwegian colleagues had baked me a cake as a gift.
So it’s all these acts of kindness from people especially those who have very little that keep me going. They still have hope so how can we – who can leave and return to normal lives – have no hope? So you get a reality check. It’s easier to give up and go home. But – and maybe we are insane – it’s just as easy to continue.
For me, it is a privilege to do humanitarian work. My faith is an important driver for me to do this. But beyond faith, I believe in human rights. I believe that every human being has the right to live in dignity. Everyone has the right to clean water, health, everything. No matter if their belief systems and values are different to mine, , it is a right and therefore I will fight for people’s rights to get these things.
Has your gender has been an issue in your line of work, given that you go
to some parts of the world that are not as friendly to women leaders?
I’ve never felt my gender to be an obstacle. Even in places that are difficult for women, I’ve never found it to be an issue. I know there is an apprehension in some places but you can also convince men through their women. I am a feminist, but I am a feminist who believes there is more than one way to do things. If you can’t get it done through a man, you work through the women and and the community to apply pressure. I don’t have to prove a point just because I am a woman.
I do believe that for women to get to the top, in the corporate world or even in an international organisation like the United Nations, women need sponsors to believe in them and push them up. I think in Malaysia there are not enough sponsors so it is not easy to be in key positions of influence unless you really work very hard and excel.
In all your travels abroad, how have the reactions of people been to the fact that you are a Malaysian?
Very positive! I think people don’t realize this, that being Malaysian is special. We are such a respected country – outside our country. People in places like any part of Africa, the Middle East or Asia look at Malaysia and Tun Dr. Mahathir as a role model. The first question they ask when they know I am from Malaysia is, “How is Dr Mahathir?”. A lot of people from these countries studied in Malaysia and are now civil servants in their respective countries. It’s been such a blessing to be a Malaysian in the humanitarian sector.
MERCY Malaysia is a professional organisation that complies with international standards. It became the third organisation in the world to be certified for humanitarian accountability. And the fact that we are this international organisation with a very national and local f lavour gives us access to a lot of places that others can’t get access.
It’s a good feeling. Now when I am in the UN, I am leading the Secretariat for the World Humanitarian Summit, which is kind of a big deal. I lead a team of diverse and highly talented people and I always cite the Malaysian experience: FELDA, our entrepreneur funds, MTCP, MDeC. They always ask me why Malaysia is not sharing its stories with the rest of the world.
You know, “Malaysia Boleh ” is only a phrase unless we translate it into real global achievements. Malaysia has to believe that it is a leader and Malaysians have to believe we can lead globally.
What are your hopes for Malaysia, Dr Jim?
My hope for Malaysia is for ourpeople to stop navel-gazing and stop looking only at the negative things. We may be a tiny country but we are a tiny country with amazing diversity and a lot of talent. We need to encourage Malaysians to start building a positive image of themselves inside and outside the country. Start being more ambitious about what Malaysia can bring to the world. My hope for Malaysians is for them to love their country, warts and all, and help her to become a global leader.
Dr Jemilah’s Work Continues
As head of the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit Secretariat, Dr. Jemilah leads a team that will be organising the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. WHS will bring broader stakeholders and global humanitarian actors together to commit to a new humanitarian agenda beyond 2016. Dr. Jim says, “This is one golden opportunity to push for a better way to work, to push for a world that focuses on people affected by crises and the need for collaboration across all sectors. The challenges are insurmountable but not trying would be unforgivable.”
Dr. Jemilah’s strongest supporter
The main motivator for Dr. Jim has been and still is her husband, Dato’ Dr. Ashar Abdullah. She says this of Dr. Ashar: “I married young, and I married the most loving and supportive man I could ever find. He knew even before he married me that I was this free soul who had her own ideas about the world and he knew my family was absolutely different from his. I warned him what he was getting into when he married me, and he accepted that. Not only accepted it but he’s been the main person pushing me not to give up on my dreams. So I am very blessed.” They have two sons.